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Ransom (2009) by David Malouf

9780701184155This is where I start from: David Malouf’s name was unknown to me before I received the review copy of Ransom, but I gather now that he is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. The novel (Malouf’s first in ten years) draws on Homer’s Iliad, which I’ve never read; and the Trojan War is one of the aspects of Greek mythology that I don’t know much about. In short, I came to Ransom largely from a position of ignorance, which means I’ve probably missed a lot of the book’s subtleties – but let’s see what I can take from it all the same.

As Ransom begins, Achilles’ friend and comrade-in-arms Petroclus has been killed by Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy. Achilles takes his revenge on Hector and, attempting to assuage his grief, parades the body repeatedly before the city of Troy. Seeing this display, Priam first interprets it as a sign that the gods are mocking him. But then a vision shows him another way that things could be, and Priam resolves to travel in disguise to Achilles, taking a cart full of treasure with which to ransom Hector’s body.

In his afterword, Malouf comments that ‘[Ransom]’s primary interest is in storytelling itself – why stories are told and why we need to hear them, how stories get changed in the telling’. I’m generally wary of author statements like this, because I prefer the text to speak for itself, and allow me to draw my own conclusions. And I find that the theme of storytelling is not what stands out the most in Ransom; yes, it’s mentioned, but I don’t see that it is really being explored to such an extent (of course, it may well just be that I’m missing out on the interplay between novel and Iliad).

What I take away the most from Ransom is the portrait of a world which is not my own. I haven’t the knowledge to judge how authentic is Malouf’s depiction of ancient times (and it’s a legendary version, anyway), but it’s convincing enough for me. This is a society to which the idea of things happening by chance is an alien concept, where everyone is bound to the stations given them by the gods, even a king: he must be seen to be a king, becoming more ‘object’ than individual – which is why Priam’s plan to disguise himself causes such controversy. It takes some effort to connect with this world that thinks so differently, and so it should – but the reward is a fully immersive tale.

Although Ransom never comes across as pastiche, Malouf’s prose does give it a legendary quality; it feels at one and the same time as if the novel is taking place in the ancient world as it might have been (incidentally, Ransom is an excellent example of how to integrate historical detail without drowning the narrative), and in a timeless ‘land of fable’. It’s a singular reading experience, which is worth a look.

(This review was first published on BookRabbit.com)

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 2

Part 1 of this diary is available here.

Tuesday 13th

10.00 am: My first history talk of the festival — Frank McLynn on Marcus Aurelius. I don’t know much about Roman history, so I don’t think I got the most out of it that I could have; but McLynn was interesting and engaging nonetheless.

12.00: Today’s Guest Director is Alice Roberts, and spotting her for my game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ will be easy, as I’m attending two of her events. The first of these is called ‘Journey into Colour’, with a panel consisting of Roberts, the writer Victoria Finlay (who wrote a book on colour which I actually bought several years ago, but have never got around to reading) and Mark Midownik, a materials scientist. Finlay was enthusiastic, and her talk fascinating; but I felt that Midownik was not a good speaker, and his contribution on the science of colour was rather dry. I really should read that book of Finlay’s, though.

4.00 pm: My second of Alice Roberts’s events — geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer on the story of human migration. An interesting subject but, unfortunately, the talk was a little too technical for me.

6.00 pm: Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan on football — specifically, on Ancona’s attempts to wean McGowan off it. The readings from their book were excellent, and the whole hour was hilarious.

8.45 pm: My last event of the day, and this time it’s a ‘proper’ author — Sarah Waters. I’ve never read her work, but do have a copy of The Little  Stranger, which I’ve been meaning to read. Interesting stuff, though I stll haven’t got around to reading the book.

Wednesday 14th

10.00 am: Matthew Rice on ‘The Language of Architecture’. I took a chance on this event, and am so glad I did. Rice was hilarious, and gave a brilliant introduction to a subject I’m not well-versed in.

2.00 pm: Sara Wheeler on the Arctic. This was a combined history and travelogue; interesting enough, but perhaps too ‘bitty’.

4.00 pm: Another hsitory talk — Jenny Uglow on Charles II. Uglow illuminated a part of history I never really studied in detail, so I was pleased to go to this.

5.15 pm: Today’s Guest Director is Monica Ali, whom I was due to see now, alongside another novelist, Geoff Dyer. Unfortunately, however, Ali is unable to attend owing to illness, so this event is Dyer on his own. I’d never heard of him prior to this, but he was a highly entertaining interviewee, and reader and he joins my list of ‘writers I must investigate’.

8.45 pm: I was due to see Keith Floyd at this point, but of course he sadly passed away last month. I raise a glass in his honour.

Thursday 15th

10.00 am: Today starts with my best history talk of the Festival — David Horspool on English rebellions throughout history. He’s a great speaker and storyteller, and shows the value of taking a broad historical view of one topic.

4.00 pm: From history to historical fiction, with Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel. I’ve already seen the latter in my first event, of course, and she’s engaging once again. I’m very intrigued by the sound of Chevalier’s latest novel, about the early 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. The TBR pile grows ever larger…

7.0o pm: Travel writer Christopher Somerville on his new book of walks around Britain. Fascinating stuff, as Somerville covers areas that don’t necessarily come to mind as fruitful areas for walks, such as Canvey Island and the circular walking routes around London. He also relates tales of a walk across Crete in the winter for his 50th birthday, and walking to the very northernmost point of the British Isles for his 60th. Somerville becomes another writer I should read.

8.45 pm: A performance of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World by the Paper Cinema and Kieron Maguire. How to describe this? They film cut-out paper puppets and project the results on to a screen, while Maguire provides a live soundtrack. It was good, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I knew the story better.

9.30 pm: I still haven’t spotted today’s Guest Director, Rageh Omaar. I know he is in the middle of a talk now, and I could hang around the signing tent for half an hour until he comes in — but I’m not really that bothered, am I? I decide that I’m not, and head off back to the hotel instead.

Part 3 of the diary coming soon…

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 1

For the past week-and-a-bit, I’ve been at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, my first time going to such an event. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and the rather tight separation between writers and audience (no real opportunities for interaction apart from Q&As at the end of each session, and signings afterwards) was a little disconcerting at first (I guess that’s the only practical way to run things with so many events and speakers). The Festival was quite celebrity-led (then again, isn’t contemporary publishing the same?); but, generally speaking, they were interesting celebrities, and there was plenty of other stuff going on. All in all, I had a good time, and went to a nicely varied programme of events.

I never had internet access while I was away, otherwise I’d have blogged about the Festival in more detail while I was there. Instead, I present the edited highlights, which are pretty long as it is…

Friday 9th

6.00 pm: My first event, listed in the festival brochure as ‘The Man Booker Winner’, who of course in the end was Hilary Mantel.

I haven’t traditionally had much luck with Booker titles (of all the nominees, and one winner, that I’ve read, I can only truly say that I liked Animal’s People by Indra Sinha), but I certainly became interested in reading Wolf Hall after hearing Mantel read from it, and speak so enthusiastically.

7.30 pm: Leaving the Town Hall, I realise that I’ve just passed a fellow Huddersfielder, the poet Simon Armitage. He is today’s Guest Director (there’s one for each day of the Festival, who has programmed three events for that particular day).

Saturday 10th

11.30 am: I have the morning free, so I’ve been to look around town. As I’m going into the Town Hall, I think back to seeing Simon Armitage last night, and wonder if I could play a little game of ‘Guest Director bingo’, just to see how many of them I could spot over the ten days. At the precise moment I think this (and I swear I’m not making this up), I reliase that today’s Guest Director, Richard Eyre, has just walked past me. That makes up my mind: the challenge is on!

1.30 pm: Off to the Centaur pavilion (what a great pun) at the racecourse to see Michael Palin. He talks about his career in the 1980s, the period covered by the new volume of his diaries. Much as I like Palin’s work (he’s one of the few writers I’ll be seeing who I’ve actually read), I’m more familiar with his travel programmes than this part of his career, so it’s interesting to hear his behind-the-scenes tales of (mostly) the films he made at that time.

4.00 pm: Marcus Chown, the New Scientist‘s cosmology consultant, talks about his latest book, which (says the brochure) ‘looks at what the everyday world tells us about the universe’. The discussion about science is interesting, but I don’t gain much sense of what the book is actually like.

6.30 pm: Readings and discussion from the novelists Diana Evans and Patrick Neate. The latter, I would say, is the better reader; but both books sound interesting, and so my ‘would like to read’ list grows a little longer.

8.45 pm: Quite interesting stuff from John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the creators of QI. They can’t talk about their new book, because it’s not finished yet; nevertheless, their enthusiasm is infectious.

Sunday 11th

10.00 am: Am I cheating in my game of Guest Director bingo if the only time I see them is when I know I’m going to? Well, it’s my game, with my rules, so I decide that the answer is no. So, here is today’s Guest Director, Sandi Toksvig, interviewing the novelist Kate Mosse. Actually, it’s less of an interview than a chat between friends — and less informative (to me, as someone who has never read Mosse but thought about it) as a result.

12.00 pm: The first of several occasons when I miss out on an event to which I wanted to go. There were no tickets left for Harry Hill; disappointing, but never mind.

4.00 pm: Back to the vast (and full) auditorium of the Centaur, where Mark Lawson is interviewing Mitchell and Webb. I’ve never really watched them, but find them quite funny here; and the talk of how they work as a double act is interesting.

7.30: Time for something different — two hours of dynamic storytelling by the excellent Ben Haggarty. He weaves a wonderful tale that begins with his visting a freak show at a carnival in America, and ends on the moon, where he discovers the truth about his profession. I don’t know how often Haggarty tours, but if he comes anywhere near you, go and see him.

Monday 12th

10.00: A talk by David Elder about an anthology he has put together of writing about Cheltenham. This was one of the events I was less sure about, didn’t know quite what to expect, and ultimately I found it a bit dry. To be fair, I would probably have got more out of it if I were a Cheltonian.

Lunchtime: I’ve been wandering around, trying to find somwhere nice to have lunch, and end up going from one side of town to the other. It’s good for my game of Guest Director bingo, because at one point I pass a group of people which includes today’s Guest Director, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

4.00 pm: A conversation between P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. As with the Toksvig/Mosse event yesterday, these two are good friends; and, though the talk is interesting enough, I once again feel that the writers’ fans will have got more out of it than I did.

8.45 pm: I did want to see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall now, but the event had sold out. Instead, I’m at the interview of another Channel 4 presenter, Kevin McCloud, who is talking about European architecture and the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’. He’s a marvellously entertaining speaker, even breaking into spontaneous impersonations of Brian Sewell and Prince Charles. I’m not particularly into architecture, but McCloud makes the subject interesting; and he’s not the only person who will do so this week — but that can wait for another instalment…

Late September books received

These actually are ‘books received’ (apart from one that I bought from the splendid Book Depository) — several competition prizes, a review copy, and the magazine was a complimentary copy.

LateSep books 1a

LateSep books 2a

Some interesting stuff there, I think.

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