CategoryNorwegian

Book notes: Moran, Harstad, Brill

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History (2009)

I’ve long been interested in social and cultural history, and there will always be a place on my shelves for books that illuminate the more unusual corners of history. On Roads is just such a book.

The British road system in the post-war years may not sound a particularly interesting subject for a work of history, but this is part of Moran’s point – roads are so commonplace that we hardly ever stop to think about them. What Moran suggests, however, is that the road system was a far more pragmatic creation than we might assume, and that the Brits’ relationship with their roads has, from the earliest days of the motorway, been an ambivalent one.

The sheer range of topics that Moran covers is remarkable, from road signs to service stations, caravans to roadside ecology. But, more than this, he tells fascinating stories (I had no idea that the design of British road signs had been so controversial) and makes some astute observations (such as that the image of the straight road has traditionally represented ‘cold modernity’ in England, whereas in America it’s a symbol of freedom and escape). On Roads takes an ostensibly ordinary topic and turns it into a rich and worthwhile book.

Link: Joe Moran’s blog

Johan Harstad, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? (2005/11)

Stavanger, Norway, 1999: Mattias is a gardener, perfectly content with his lot. Born on the day of the first moon landing, Mattias’ hero is not first-man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong but runner-up Buzz Aldrin: willing to cede the glory, willing to be the second man. That’s what Mattias is happy to be – a cog in the machine, unconcerned whether others notice him.

But life won’t stand still and, when Mattias’ partner leaves him and his employer goes out of business, he accepts an invitation to go to the Faroe Islands with his friend Jørn’s band. However, instead of acting as the band’s soundman (or, as Jørn wanted, their singer), Mattias falls in with a psychiatrist named Havstein and the three inhabitants of his institution for those not quite ready to live independently – and now Mattias’ life is set to change.

Johan Harstad’s debut (translated by Deborah Dawkin) is a big, baggy novel which is unusually structured insofar as the narrative beats are not quite where one might expect them to be – but this gives the novel a distinctive flow. The story is told so thoroughly from Mattias’ vantage point that it distorts the very shape of what we learn; we gain only brief, distant glimpses of the other Mattias, the one who (for good or ill) is no quiet mediocrity.

There may be times when the prose drags, but some of the best moments are also the most densely written; overall, Harstad paints an interesting portrait of a man whose life is ordinary and remarkable all at once.

This review first appeared in We Love This Book.

Link: Video interview with Johan Harstad

Marius Brill, How to Forget (2011)

Magician Peter Ruchio was humiliated, and his career derailed, by a prank played by Titus Black at the latter’s eighth birthday party; fifteen years later, Black has grown up to be a famous illusionist (though he is not above committing murder to preserve his secrets), whilst Peter is performing tricks in restaurants and old people’s homes. A chance encounter with Kate Minola, a grifter on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, gives Peter the opportunity to take his revenge on Black; but his experiences ultimately lead  Peter to seek the help of Dr Chris Tavasligh, a neuroscientist working on a way to ‘reboot’ the human brain, thereby erasing all memories. That was three years ago, and Tavasligh subsequently disappeared; the book in our hands purports to be the scientist’s collected papers.

As befits a novel about a magician, How to Forget is full of misdirection; one is never quite sure which way the characters will turn, who can be trusted – and there’s a sense at the end that the real story is not the one we thought it was (the allusions to The Taming of the Shrew in the protagonists’ names serve, as far as I can tell, to highlight the idea of a story within a story). Not everything in the book works so well: the larger-than-life tone and occasional comic interludes tend to rub against the more serious episodes, rather than working with them; and it seems to me that Brill’s material on memory doesn’t quite integrate successfully with the plot. Better is the author’s comparison of Peter’s and Kate’s professions, which leads them to face up to some difficult questions; and the caper narrative has all the page-turning tension and momentum one could wish.

Link: Marius Brill’s website

Book notes: Gale, Nesbø, Wodehouse

Patrick Gale, Tree Surgery for Beginners (1999)

Okay, so it took eighteen months between my seeing Gale at Cheltenham Literature Festival and actually getting around to reading him, but I got there in the end. But the book I’ve chosen seems quite an oddity. Tree surgeon Lawrence Frost is under suspicion of murder when his wife Bonnie and daughter Lucy go missing, until Bonnie walks into a police station and identifies herself. But the Frosts had rowed with each other, and Lawrence did hit Bonnie in anger; these issues must be worked through before the family can return to normal. Lawrence goes on a personal odyssey of sorts, reluctantly joining his uncle Darius on a bridge cruise and then going even further afield, during which he learns how to relate to women,  transforming his life in the process.

I like some aspects of Tree Surgery for Beginners very much: Gale handles some major plot developments in a strikingly (and effectively) low-key fashion; and he also draws contrasts between characters very well (such as the differing ways in which Bonnie and Lawrence view the latter’s love of the outdoors). But the plot itself has one or two coincidences too many for my liking, and that’s where I think the novel falls down. I’d read Gale again, though, and have a copy of his Notes from an Exhibition on my shelves; I don’t think it’ll be another eighteen months before I get around to that.

Patrick Gale’s website

Jo Nesbø, The Redbreast (2000/6)

Nesbø is being trumpeted asthe latest Big Thing in Scandinavian crime fiction, so I thought I’d check his work out by going back to the first of his Harry Hole mysteries to be translated into English (though actually the third in the series overall; the translation, I should say, is some fine work by Don Bartlett). Detective (later Inspector) Harry Hole is on the trail of a Märklin rifle (‘the ultimate professional murder weapon’) which is reported to have been smuggled into Norway; unbeknownst to him (the reader is privy to some, though not all, of the villain’s story) an old Nazi sympathiser, dying of cancer, has some unfinished business.

The first half of this very long book kept me reading without truly taking off; the second half, however, had me gripped. Nesbø is great at creating tension, though the best part of the novel is very different in tone – a brilliantly affecting series of short chapters just after the halfway point. I’ll most certainly be reading more Harry Hole books, and I hope there are even better reads to come.

Jo Nesbø’s websiteNesbø’s UK website.

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954)

I’ve never watched the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, but even so, it was hard not to imagine the voices of Fry and Laurie whilst reading this. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit sees Berte Wooster having to contend with a threat from one G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright to break his spine in four places (because Cheesewright’s fiancée has left him for Bertie, even though Wooster wasn’t keen), and his Aunt Dahlia’s desperation to keep her husband from finding out that she pawned her pearl necklace to raise funds, and replaced it with a string of imitation pearls.

In the end, I find myself unsure about the novel. I liked the humour – the farcical situations, and especially the limitless patience of Jeeves, the unspoken thoughts behind every ‘Yes, sir’ – but somehow the prose didn’t really gel with me. I am now curious about seeing one of the TV adaptations, though, because I suspect I might appreciate the screen versions better.

P.G. Wodehouse website

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