Monthly Archives: February 2014

She was beautiful, that was all … Scared at how life turns out and with nothing left to do about it. The future wasted and only the past now, rolling up from behind.

I bought this book a few weeks ago thinking it was a young adult novel (someone must have slipped it onto the wrong shelf), but quickly discovered it to be a much more adult novella. Rain is told from the perspective of a woman remembering her girlhood. As a result the voice is both young and old; the reader is presented with youthful experience filtered by self-conscious adult reflection. Rain is a nostalgic book – reading it is like looking through an album of black and white photographs. But the feeling of nostalgia comes not only from the adult looking back. The twelve-year-old is also very aware of the passage of time, and laments (even as she is in the midst of it) the waning of her childhood.

Witten by New Zealand-born author Kirsty Gunn, Rain is a 95 page novella first published in 1994. The protagonist is Janey, a girl on the cusp of being a teenager. While at her family’s holiday house at the edge of a lake Janey is tasked with looking after her five-year-old brother, Jim. Janey’s parents are preoccupied with parties and alcohol, and their slowly dying marriage.

The first thing that struck me about this novella was the beauty of its language and its wonderful sense of place. Unsurprisingly, Gunn lists Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield as two of her influences. In this interview with The Scotsman, Gunn discusses her preference for sentence over plot, and the need for flexibility: “The idea that you break free of the tyranny of narrative to let a story emerge.” One criticism of Rain is that it is overwrought; that there is too much description and pondering, and not enough simplicity. I have to admit that on the first read I found myself getting a little bored with the numerous sketches of the lake, and wanted to skip over the bulkier descriptive paragraphs. However, this is how I once felt upon reading Woolf. Then I stopped looking for a plot and instead gave myself up to the beauty of the words themselves.

Rain’s overarching theme seems to be the inescapability of time. Almost all of the characters are trapped by their fear of “the future wasted and only the past now.” For everyone (except, perhaps, Little Jim) the present is lost in the past. Janey’s mother lives only for the evening parties, where she is at her most beautiful, her most youthful, and where seems to float some vain hope that life will suddenly become wonderful:

Night after night, the same people mesh and join in the wash; this is their version of time. They talk and dance, move in and out amongst each other, believing, with every fresh move, that there’s something in the evening that will change them.

And as Janey’s mother watches her daughter grows she sees the fading of herself:

Sitting at her dressing-table that night, somewhere under her smooth expression she knew it. That I would take her limbs, her hair. That some day I would become her…

Janey’s father, too, seems frozen in time, refusing to confront the reality of his wife’s alcoholism and his failing marriage, spending his afternoons drinking whiskey sours with his chair turned away from the view. And even Janey misses her childhood before it’s gone:

I’d love to have my body back … to feel it in the air a ribbon. But I’m nearly teenaged now and I must wear jeans.

I didn’t realise what a colourless novella Rain is (and I don’t mean this as a criticism – quite the opposite) until I read this sentence on page 30:

Beside him, where he sat in the half-broken wicker chair, was a big red plastic bowl full of lemons and a knife.

The red bowl and the yellow lemons are so vivid in contrast to the dreary, watery atmosphere of the rest of the novella (like the little girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List). This brief, bright image serves to enhance the faded feeling of the story as a whole.

In 2001 a film adaptation of Rain was released, directed by Christine Jeffs, with wonderful music composed by Neil Finn. The film is noticeably more colourful than the book, but retains the focus on landscape and details. Particularly memorable are shots of grass chopping through the mower, cracking eggs, and the yellow lemons. The film also does a wonderful job of presenting the weight of time. There is an especially eerie slow-motion sequence of Jim running on the beach in a batman costume, his black cape flailing out behind him, the music slow and jarringly sinister. A number of clips from the film can be seen here.

Overall, Rain is at once lovely and sad. A reminder of the dangers of becoming bogged down in the past, and of the futility of fighting change. Time, Janey realises, is like water:

Of course our mark upon it, our frail kicking … Of course it could have been no more than leaves scattered across the surface.

Kirsty Gunn’s other novels include The Boy and the Sea (winner of the 2007 Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award), The Keepsake, and Big Music (Book of the Year at the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards). Rain was awarded the London Arts Board Literature Award. Read more about Kirsty Gunn and her work at her website.


This review contains spoilers.

Captain Phillips: There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.

Muse: Maybe in America.

I’m usually not big on Hollywood blockbuster films, but I’d read a couple of good reviews of this one, and was interested in learning more about the issue of Somali piracy. So I thought I’d give Captain Phillips a shot. While the film starts out well and has a few strong moments, ultimately Captain Phillips fails to deal with the complexity of the situation. Here we are presented with yet another portrait of America (the brave, the good) in contrast with the developing world (the poor, the misguided, the pitiable).

Captain Phillips tells the story of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship. The film is largely based on the account of the real Captain Richard Phillips, taken from his book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.

There are a number of things to like about Captain Phillips. The realistic filming style (shaky cameras, long shots, minimal music) creates a tense, suspenseful atmosphere, and successfully draws the viewer into the story. Tom Hanks is very good as Phillips – particularly at the very end of the film, in what is apparently a largely improvised scene where the Captain breaks down and is tended to by a doctor on board the U.S. Navy ship. Hanks’s performance in this scene is so raw and real it almost had me in tears. Barkhad Abdi is also excellent as the desperate pirate captain, Muse.

As an escapist action-thriller, Captain Phillips ticks all the boxes. However, a film that centres on an ongoing issue with social and political ramifications that are felt globally has a responsibility to explore the intricacy of its subject matter. Captain Phillips fails in this regard.

Captain Phillips starts out well (apart from the awkward dialogue between Phillips and his wife as they drive to the airport). There is a lengthy sequence early on that shows the pirates preparing to set sail from the Somali coast. This scene works well, and it gave me hope that the film would continue to present detailed insights into the lives of the pirates. However, this did not turn out to be the case. The film’s perspective quickly tips in the direction of Phillips, and America in general (as this review in The Guardian points out, the real hero of Captain Phillips turns out to be the U.S. Navy). Granted, the film does make a few stabs at understanding the pirates’ motivations – there is a very brief mention of the struggling fishing industry in Somalia, and Muse mentions once or twice his enslavement (for all intents and purposes) to a brutal warlord. Some effort is also made to present the pirates as sympathetic. One of the pirates is very young (no more than sixteen), and when he is wounded Phillips helps him. There are also a couple of shots of Muse towards the end of the film – just after he has been told by the Navy that his friends are all dead and he is going to face trial in America – that are quite heartbreaking, and are clearly meant to encourage the viewer to feel sorry for the pirate captain. That being said, these moments are too few and far between, and all of them are presented through the lens of American sympathy. The message the viewer gets goes something along the lines of: “These pirates have such hard lives. They are poor and misguided, and what they’re doing is kind of understandable. It’s so nice of us Americans to still feel sorry for them after all the bad things they’ve done. And we’ve also got really awesome military technology. There’s no need to think about the larger issues here, or America’s role in them. Go home now and feel good about yourselves.”

Captain Phillips is also far too flawless to be a likeable character. He is a Hollywood interpretation of a person that is not only boring to watch but also fails to reflect the truth. Numerous members of the real crew of the Maersk Alabama have condemned Phillips’s behaviour on the ship. Apparently Phillips had been warned to stay at least 600 miles off the Somali coast (he was no more than 300 miles off), and was aware of 16 separate attacks on container ships in the area in the three weeks prior to his own ship’s hijacking.

In the end, while Captain Phillips makes a few attempts at being balanced, it fails to recognise the bigger picture. As The Guardian review notes, there is no recognition that what this film ultimately amounts to is four desperate boys pitted against the Navy SEALS. Or perhaps America-The-Global-Superpower against the developing world.

But don’t despair. There are a number of alternative perspectives out there. The Smiling Pirate – a documentary currently in production – will strive to tell Muse’s story. The Vice short film Fishing Without Nets (director Cutter Hodierne) is also worth checking out. (The short film won the 2012 Sundance grand jury prize, and has since been made into a feature film that won the 2014 Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Film.) And then there is The Captain and His Pirate, a 2013 film about a German container ship that was also hijacked in 2009 for four months. This documentary interviews both German captain Krzysztof Kotiuk and pirate leader Ahado, in the time following their ordeal. (You can listen to an interview with Kotiuk on the Sunday Night Safran podcast). And finally, here is Southpark’s take on the relationship between Somali pirates and the U.S. Navy: . A little less serious, but perhaps sadly a little more realistic.

Captain Phillips was released in 2013, and was directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone, United 93). The real Muse is currently serving a 34 year sentence in the U.S. At the time of his trial there was some debate over his exact age, but he was probably no more than 18.

This review contains spoilers.

The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.

– from The God of Small Things

Having finally exhausted the bookshelf (and lacking the funds to purchase new books) I was forced to do some re-reading. I first picked up an old Stephen King paperback, a novel I devoured on the first read and figured would be fun to revisit. A few chapters in, however, I found I was dragging myself through paragraphs, bored with the prose and the characters. I put it back on the shelf and reached instead for The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I had read The God of Small Things twice already, and loved it just as much on the third read as I did the first two. Roy’s first and (as of 2014) only novel is not traditionally plot driven. There are no suspenseful twists, no surprising revelations; the book’s ending, in fact, is given away in the first chapter. And yet it is a novel I keep wanting to return to. It is a Great Story – a story that creates a world and characters with such depth that they seem to really live. You miss them when the book is finished, and you want to come back to them again.

The God of Small Things is set in Ayemenem, a small village in the southern Indian province of Kerala. Arundhati Roy was born in Kerala in 1961, and much of her novel seems to be drawn from her own experiences. Like the children in The God of Small Things, Roy and her brother were raised by their divorced mother, and their Grandmother really did own a pickle factory. Roy herself admits – speaking to the BBC book club in 2011 – that it is difficult to say where reality ends and fiction begins. We are made of our past, she says.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Rahel, one half of a set of fraternal (“two-egg”) twins, although the narrator is omniscient and inhabits the consciousnesses of numerous characters. In the present Rahel is 30 years old (“Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age”) and has returned to the Ayemenem house of her childhood, where she finds her brother, Estha. Most of the story, however, takes place in 1969, when the twins are 7 years old and very close (“He was” – Rahel remembers of Estha – “the one that she had known before Life began”). Estha and Rahel’s mother is Ammu, a Syrian Christian who married a Hindu (against her family’s wishes). When the marriage turned sour Ammu divorced and moved back (with her two children) into her parents’ home:

She was twenty-seven that year, and in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had had one chance. She had made a mistake. She had married the wrong man.

1969 brings with it the much anticipated arrival of the twins’ English cousin (Sophie Mol) to Kerala. At the same time Ammu becomes romantically involved with Velutha, a carpenter of the Untouchable caste. These two events inevitably intertwine, with tragic consequences.

Reviewing The God of Small Things is difficult. It is such a rich and complex novel that it is hard to know where to start. And having loved it so much I feel a responsibility to do it justice. (If you’d like to balance my opinions with a few from the opposite camp, you may want to check out this review by John Crace in The Guardian, who seems to hate The God of Small Things as much as I love it.)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m a sucker for beautiful language, and The God of Small Things is brimming with gorgeous sentences. Arundhati Roy’s love for her childhood home shows itself in the vivid descriptions in this novel – the details and sensory language she uses create a world that really lives and breathes.

In her interview with the BBC Roy describes Indian society as being very alive. India, she says, is a place where the worst thing that can happen to a book is not a bad review (after The God of Small Things was published a case was filed against Roy in India for corrupting public morality) and the best thing is not a prize. The style of The God of Small Things reflects not only its content but the context into which it was released; ever-shifting, growing, heart-beating.

Roy also told the BBC that she was not conscious of crafting the language in the book, that it came subconsciously, as – I think – all honest, really felt writing does. My only (very teeny tiny) criticism of this novel is that at times there are so many details that it is difficult to draw back and see the big picture. The God of Small Things is a true jungle of a story, which is at once wonderful and overwhelming.

The other element of Roy’s writing that I loved was the ‘kid-voice’ she has created. The children in the book are distinguished from the adults through their use of rhyme, the capitalisation of important words and phrases, by talking backwards, and running words together. Through Rahel and Estha (and sometimes Sophie Mol) we are granted access to the world of children; a perspective that is funny, unique, honest, and – at times – cruel in the way only children can get away with:

Rahel found a whole column of juicy ants. They were on their way to church. All dressed in red. They had to be killed before they got there. Squished and squashed with a stone.

“Let’s leave one alive so that it can be lonely,” Sophie Mol suggested.

Unlike the novel’s effortless language, Roy admits that when dealing with structure she needed to draw a physical image of the events to see how they fit together. The God of Small Things is anything but linear in terms of narrative. Roy wanted to create something circling; something a reader could enter anywhere and still want to read. Events in the novel are organised by memory and character, rather than time.

In many ways the structure reflects the theme of the novel. The God of Small Things deals with very tragic circumstances, yet because of the circling nature of its structure it does not end on a tragic note. Instead, the ending is full of love and beauty. In this way, the detailed style of the novel and the broader narrative interact perfectly. This is not just a novel about small things (spiders, fish, a man and a woman by a river at night), but about the way small things are connected to big things (a theme also deeply important to Virginia Woolf). The God of Small Things is packed with thousands of little details, but behind all of them is an overwhelming sense of history. Little Rahel feels her Grandfather’s disappointment resting on her own heart like a moth; the influence of India’s caste system as well as religious and societal expectations are strong; and The Love Laws (“the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much”) affect all of the characters. The God of Small Things is a novel about the inescapability of big things – of politics, history, and death. But it is also a novel about finding joy – and love – in the face of this. And this, for me, is what makes The God of Small Things a really Great Story. Its ability to remind the reader at once of the essential tragedy of life, and the beauty. It is a book that reminds us that “although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.”

Arundhati Roy was trained as an architect and has also written screenplays. The God of Small Things – her first and only novel – won The Booker Prize in 1997. It has sold 6 million copies, and been translated into 40 languages. You can listen to Roy talk about The God of Small Things in two separate interviews with the BBC here and here.

I enjoy a good murder-mystery every now and then, and the BBC series Sherlock is a very good murder-mystery. I started watching in 2012, and loved the first and second series. The third series, however (which premiered in January, 2014) left me a little disappointed.

Sherlock was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both of whom have also written for the modern television version of Doctor Who. Sherlock is loosely based on the original Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – reviving many of the original characters and plotlines in a modern setting. Doctor Watson (played by Martin Freeman, fantastic as the lovelorn Tim in the original BBC series The Office, more recently seen as Bilbo in the blockbuster trilogy The Hobbit) has returned from the 2001-to-present conflict in Afghanistan. And Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, wonderful – and wonderfully different – in the miniseries Parade’s End) makes use of numerous forms of twenty-first century technology.

Sherlock Holmes – a self-described “high functioning sociopath” – works (for free) as a consulting detective for the London Metropolitan Police. John Watson, a doctor and war vet in want of a flatmate, finds himself sharing 221B Baker Street with Holmes. Together they make an extremely effective sleuthing duo, Holmes providing the somewhat cold and calculating intellect, and Watson the moral compass. It is something of a Mulder/Scully relationship: without the aliens but with the right amount of conflict (not to mention a drop or two of the sexual tension).

Sherlock episodes (generally) focus on a mystery to be solved, with a few connecting strands of a larger story weaving through each. These strands include Sherlock’s relationship with his brother Mycroft (played by Gatiss), and his arch-nemesis Moriarty (a genuinely chilling villain played by Andrew Scott).

Sherlock is a high quality detective drama – dark, funny, and very clever. The mysteries are compelling, and the characters unique and well drawn. Sherlock Holmes is like no other detective; his intelligence and eye for detail are almost supernatural. Sherlock notices details about people the way a writer creates them. While a writer does so to concoct a story, Sherlock does so to solve a murder.

Sherlock has, for the most part, been received very positively by critics. Season three in particular has gotten some rave reviews. And while the third series is still immensely clever and entertaining (certainly much better than most of what’s on TV), I didn’t enjoy it as much as series one and two. I found the latest three episodes sadly lacking in sleuthing and mystery-solving, and a bit too heavy on personal dramas unfolding between the characters. To be honest it felt at times – especially the second episode of the series, when Sherlock rather obviously informs John Watson’s new wife that she’s pregnant – a little on the soap opera side. In all three episodes I missed that wonderful ‘Aha!’ moment that usually comes at the end of a Sherlock story, which – let’s be honest – is what we really want from a murder-mystery. Series three also felt a little show-off-y in terms of its aesthetics. Fancy camera angles, speedy close-ups, lots of slow motion shots. Too much style, I felt, and not quite enough substance. There was a kind of arrogance to the filming, in this series, which I suppose reflects Sherlock’s demeanour as a character, but I still found it annoying. Too flashy, too slick, too self-aware.

That being said, I enjoyed series three (if not as much as series one and two) and I will watch series four. Hopefully by then the flash will have been toned down a notch and Sherlock will go back to being a really, really good detective show.

The first series of Sherlock aired in July 2010, series two in January 2014, and series three in January 2014. Each series is made up of three 90 minute episodes. Read more at Sherlock Holmes’s blog The Science of Deduction, and The Personal Blog of John H. Watson.