Osama – Lavie Tidhar

Osama - Lavie Tidhar (cover)I had been looking forward to this one for a while, but the pleasures of an insanely huge TBR pile have meant that I’ve only got around to reading it this month. Which, now that I have got around to reading it, is a shame. I’ve enjoyed some of Lavie Tidhar’s other fiction, both long and short, but for me, anyway, this is his best so far.

Given some of the events of last year, this might have (from the title alone) appeared to be a bit of an opportunistic piece of publishing. I understand, though, that this was not the case and that the manuscript has been around a bit longer than that.

Osama is several things; a hard-boiled detective novel, an alt-history and, in places, it feels like a document of the last decade or so. Also, impressively, Tidhar has created an intensely personal work, yet one which manages to keep some critical distance from what is an emotive subject. I wonder if it is this that makes Osama the most assured piece of work I’ve read by him.

In the alternate world of the novel, Joe, a private detective, is tasked with locating the writer of a series of hack thrillers, entitled Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. Better yet, the author is the proud bearer of the pseudonym ‘Mike Longshott’ and Joe is employed to track down Longshott by an alluring woman. Were the novel not so assured, you’d be right in suggesting that this all sounds rather clichéd. I think in the context of this particular text, though, it is an excellent use of what could be viewed as rather tired literary tropes.

Joe’s attempts to locate Longshott take him on a series of fast-paced and occasionally dangerous adventures across the world. His reality differs from ours in a number of ways – the key difference being that, of course, Al Qaeda doesn’t exist; there are other differences. Consumer technology is different from ours. Indeed, it seems less intrusive. In one scene where we are given a view of our world from the perspective of Joe’s world, we see the now ubiquitous CCTV cameras in London, the white headphone leads dangling from the ears of pedestrians and so on. These are details, though.

There is a little explanation given to the events in the decades following the second world war that led to the divergent path, though this is done with a light touch. The world building isn’t particularly important, though. What is of greater interest is what the novel can show us about the world in which we live. Depicted as fiction, the events which really happened, seem almost fantastical. I had the image of a publisher laughing at the notion of the shoebomber, for example, as being unbelievable. At this level, the unreality of these events is, in of itself, of interest. However, what is more provoking is the wider comment on the events that have shaped the last decade or so that these sections make.

The western countries were deluded to think that they could continue to exert influence over their empires in the years following the second world war; Al Qaeda (whatever that really means) was mistaken to believe that something like the attack on the USS Cole or the Twin Towers would do anything other than provoke a violent response from the United States and, similarly, the US administration was, and I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight in glorious Technicolor, mistaken to think that their middle Eastern adventures would make the world a safer place.

This conceit gets to the heart of the challenges that the world faces in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m not entirely sure that I truly understand what Al-Qaeda is. Is it really a globe-spanning and well-supplied network? A useful invention by hawkish policy makers to describe a few groups with broadly similar aims? A small group who had a very specific aim and who became useful shorthand? An amalgam of these and other things? Of course, me not understanding something could just mean that I am a bit dense and will have little impact upon the lives of others. When, however, powerful men demonstrate a lack of insight and humility, well, then you get the entirely unhelpful invasion of Iraq.

Through the device of an alternate reality with our world impinging through fiction (though this line blurs as the novel progresses) Tidhar shows in, I think a rather profound way, the misunderstanding of terrorism. Though the violence committed by a terrorist may seem to indicate that it is about physical acts of violence, this is only a small part of what they do. I do not intend to belittle the anguish that is suffered by the families of the victims of things such as the London bombings (and nor does this novel). Violence against anyone’s person is abhorrent to me. The effect on all our lives by the various actions by Al Qaeda has been out of all proportion with the individual acts. It’s become trite through how painfully obvious it is in the actions and legislation of western governments and the effects on the way we think and live, but though the US hasn’t withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, the violence perpetrated upon liberal societies has been appalling. These include draconian (and ineffective) anti-terror laws, the profusion of 24 hour surveillance cameras in the UK and even the increased use of bollards outside buildings that may be target worthy giving a further stamp to our public spaces.

Nobody really got the results that they were seeking in the wake of the Twin Tower attacks or the invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, from a western perspective, the post-Cold War End of History triumphalism that the liberals won seems hilariously quaint (if it didn’t then) as liberal democracy is eroded. For me, anyway, this is what Osama really gets to the heart of.

Joe’s search for the elusive Mike Longshott brings him nearer to his goal, but it also begins to blur the lines between his and our world. If I’ve made the novel sound overly didactic, I apologise; it is nothing of the sort and the merging of our world with that of Joe is handled well and adds further to the notion that the impact of terrorism is far beyond its physical effects.

This is an incredibly brave, but more importantly, assured novel from Tidhar. It deserves a wide readership and, I hope that I can encourage at least one person to read it.

Excellent stuff.


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Red Shift – Alan Garner

Red Shift, Alan Garner - coverI’ve noted my love of Alan Garner’s fiction more than once here (and IRL). I remember Red Shift as being my favourite of his. Re-reading it has done nothing to quell my enthusiasm; what I do realise, though, is that I was probably just a smidgen too young to fully appreciate the novel.

Red Shift is, much like Garner’s other work, rooted in space, though not time. It draws on the history and folklore of the north of England drawing on the stories of Tom and Jan, a young couple, soldiers involved in the English Civil War and a group of Roman soldiers. Though the novel is set in a small area, geographically, it spans hundreds of years. A wider sense of scale is evoked through Tom’s speech. He is studying and has a keen interest in astronomy and cosmology. His explanations of our movement through the universe and the idea of red shift – whereby the wavelength of observed light increases as the source moves away from the observer – evoke the vast scale of the universe in which we reside and our insignificance within it.

Much of the novel concerns Tom and Jan. Though both are on the cusp of adulthood, Tom is studying and Jan is preparing to study nursing in London, it is clear that they – Tom especially – are still beholden to their parents. We see their attempts to enjoy one another’s company while suffering the disapproval of Tom’s parents. His relationship with other people is complex; clearly bright and intellectually curious, he struggles to relate to those for whom he cares and who care for him. He is often short with his parents and even Jan, despite his oft professed affection for her. Indeed, Jan remarks that she doesn’t believe that she truly understands him as he doesn’t seem to open himself to her, or anyone (this is in marked contrast to the way that he speaks to strangers where he is courteous to a fault).

“He spread his arms and lifted his head towards the sky. ‘Through the sharp hawthorn blow the winds,’ he shouted. ‘Who gives anything to poor Tom? Tom’s a-cold! Bless thee from whirlwinds, starblasting, and taking!’

‘Stop it! You’re all quote! Every bit! And you call me second hand!’

‘Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill. Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!’

‘You can’t put two words of your own together! Always someone else’s feeling! Other people have to go to hell to find words for you! You’re fire-proof!’

‘Take heed o’ the foul fiend. Obey thy parents; keep thy word justly; swear not; commit not with man’s sworn spouse; set not thy sweet heart on proud array. Tom’s a-cold.'”

Through the novel, Tom’s mental state deteriorates, as does their relationship. Every time they part company, they say hello. The reasoning being that their meeting is just taking them closer to the time that they will have to say farewell.

Tom’s discovery that Jan had been seeing and older man (with whom she had had sex; Tom and Jan had been avoiding physical intimacy) does little for his own state of mind. His insistence upon their sleeping together results in Tom’s state of mind deteriorating further. This leads to the ending of their relationship as symbolised by his selling a stone hand axe, which they had kept as a symbol of their love, to the museum.

The hand axe is more than just a symbol of Tom and Jan’s love. It is a link through the hundreds of years that the novel spans. One of the Roman soldiers in these sections of the novel possesses the axe for a short period. Though Garner doesn’t show that the axe protects those that possess it, the artefact seems totemic at the very least. The boy who held on to it in the Roman section is spared the fate of his companions, who are all slaughtered after raiding a village and capturing a girl held to be sacred by the tribe. Of course, it is possible that he is spared this fate due to the fact that he didn’t participate in the violence of his companions.

Similarly, a young lad (also named Thomas) finds the hand axe while he is involved in the construction of a barricade during the defence of their village against an attack during the English Civil War. Thomas, once again, is spared during the carnage. Though, once again, it isn’t ever seriously suggested that the axe is what saved him. However, when Thomas founds a new home after his life is spared, he and his wife embed it in the chimney of the house that they build together. It is here that it is found by Tom and Jan.

This, as noted, is the physical link through the ages. However, there is a further link through the ages. Visions, madness and depression link the three male possessors of the axe. The novel even seems to suggest at some points that Tom’s waning mental health may be the source, his influence spreading back through time (perhaps another reference to the red shift of the title?)

The novel is told mainly through dialogue. This makes for a particularly striking novel and one where Garner can use local dialect (as he often does) to striking effect. Although I have to confess that the years that have passed since I first read this have done little to further my understanding of the choices of words used by the Roman soldiers. They are clearly not native to northern Britain, but then their speech patterns seem modern rather than archaic. This is, presumably, a deliberate stylistic choice. It makes sense that the Tom and Jan and the seventeenth century characters would use what we consider to be the local dialect. However, given that in Roman times the linguistic influence from Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Scandinavian settlers would not have affected the language yet, it doesn’t break the immersion and sense of place that the use of dialect in other sections has. Indeed, the soldiers, as outsiders would not speak the local language.

Cannot recommend this highly enough. In some ways it feels different to Garner’s other novels and yet the grand sweep of time and acute sense of place, bolstered with a feel for language and his familiarity with myths and legends is entirely fitting within his oeuvre. Excellent.

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Sarah Hall – The Carhullan Army

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army won the Torque Control Future Classics by women last year. Readers of Torque Control are, naturally, erudite and possess excellent taste; despite this, I have to confess that I’d resisted reading this one for a while. Having done so (finally) I am regretting this decision and will be reading some more of Sarah Hall’s oeuvre soon(ish).

Narrated by an unnamed woman, ‘Sister’, in a series of confessions – though not apologies – to an interrogator  at a time after the events depicted, the novel to explores repressive regimes, our reactions to them and how they corrupt.

The Carhullan Army is set at an unspecified near future Britain. Though it is a dystopian view of the future, it is one that a present day reader can all too easily understand and believe readily. The climate of Britain has clearly changed, there is little fuel available and  people engage in work that is dangerous, unfulfilling and entirely pointless.

Sister, being aware of a retreat at Carhullan, escapes her life under the cosh of the repressive and intrusive regime that has taken power in the wake of the crises that have befallen Britain. One does, however, always have the impression that (and in spite of the fragmented nature of its power) that the government that rules represents the heirs to our current leaders. That is to say, it is an evolution, rather than a break with the past. Once there, however, though she gains some freedom it is immediately evident that the leader of Carhullan, Jackie Nixon, is autocratic and paranoid. Whether she was always thus is not entirely clear. The residents of Carhullan had been subject to rumour and innuendo from the start and all that we truly know of it is the view given by Sister.

The Carhullan Army, as noted before, explores power. However, it has depth and subtlety beyond this. For example, one detail that particularly interested me was the forced insertion of contraceptive devices into women. I considered this in several ways. Firstly, it represents an unpleasant intrusion by the state into the bodies of women. That it is an unwanted penetration carries suggests that the state is literally raping women. That it is suggested at one point in the novel that the settlement may have started life as a women’s refuge adds a little to this idea.

Secondly, preventing people from conceiving – and here I might be reading a little too much into it – reminds me of the kind of eugenics policies favoured by more than one US state in the past and Sweden until 1975. That the government of the novel might have an idea that some people are undesirable is given further credence by an aside by a character that a close friend was deported.

Finally, it is an interesting reversal of the behaviour of people who wish to remove the right for women to choose. Usually, when we are considering the reproductive rights of women, the right to choose is in terms of promoting, firstly, the use of contraception and , secondly, the right to safe abortion. In the world today, whenever someone is launching an attack on females in this way, it is in picketing abortion clinics or enacting laws that ensure that the only way to prevent the birth of an unwanted child is to seek the services of illegal and possibly dangerous clinics. In this novel, however, the right to choose is removed in the opposite manner. When she arrives at Carhullan (after they’ve brutalised her) one of the first things that is done for Sister is the removal of the device, thus giving her choice again. I think that this is a valid way of thinking about this aspect of the novel. Freedom to choose is, after all, at the core of the debate around abortion.

That Sister gains freedom on leaving the town in which she lived would seem not to be in question. She is no longer forced into wasteful work, her reproductive rights are assured and she is no longer monitored at all times. On arriving at Carhullan, however, it is clear that, if this was an entirely free place, this is no longer the case. On arrival, she is thrown into a shit-encrusted box, that is swimming in piss and left until she can no longer bear it. This exercising of power by Jackie Nixon (a former soldier) does appear to bear the hallmarks of toughening up new recruits but it does lie at odds with the earlier assertion that this is a libertarian enclave.

This leads me to a problem that I had with the novel (though by the time I had finished, I did tend to find that it was entirely in keeping with where the novel had led us). Sister seeks freedom and – to an extent – she finds it. However there is one troubling aspect. Though I would argue strongly that, for many, social progress and justice have entirely failed to keep up with material advances, the back to nature aspect of the settlement remove one form of repression and replace it with another. The inhabitants of Carhullan are forced into what amounts to little better than subsistence farming. While there are – many – aspects of industrialised farming that trouble me (both environmentally and socially) I’m not entirely convinced that reverting to that is intrinsically a good thing. The removal of drudgery from day to day life is, surely, a worthwhile progressive goal? Though, admittedly, in the context of this novel, this does represent the freeing of Sister from pointless work to work from which she can derive personal satisfaction.

A small aside – one other aspect of the novel that particularly struck me is that it seems rooted in place; this reminded me a great deal of Alan Garner and is, I think, A Good Thing.

Picking up the main theme of the novel, however, The Carhullan Army culminates in a battle against government forces by the inhabitants of Carhullan. This is never seen by the reader; rather this happens off page. That Hall chooses to do this is in keeping with her theme, however. That war is brutal is not in any question. What is of more concern is how we got there. At first glance, one might think that Carhullan is a place where people go to be free and live a life free of violence and coercion. Indeed, it is for this reason that Sister chooses to escape there. However, it soon becomes clear that fear and paranoia and Jackie Nixon’s autocratic leadership is creating a place which, while certainly more desirable than the world Sister has left behind, is reduced to behaving in a manner which resembles the tyranny of the regime.

Fortunately, Hall doesn’t provide an answer for the reader. That the government had to be resisted is clear. That Jackie Nixon had to torture her soldiers in order to break them down and build them up stronger is less so. Of course, this is me, as a reader, bringing my own instinctive revulsion at repression and personal violence to the novel. You may well feel differently about it.

A deserved winner of the Tiptree Award in 2007, I regret that I resisted reading this for so long. Excellent stuff and, if you haven’t tried before, I suggest that you do so.

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The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

The Weird - Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (cover)Algernon Blackwood is one of the author’s with whom I was familiar although, I realise having read this, not familiar enough.

In The Willows, the narrator and his companion (‘the Swede’) are paddling up the Danube. The river of this story is alive; not just in the sense that it is the home to flora and fauna. It is an entity seemingly possessed of agency. A playful being which is capable of emotion and desires.

“From its tiny bubbling entry into the world among the pinewood gardens of Donaueschingen , until this moment when it began to play the river-game of losing itself among the deserted swamps, unobserved, unrestrained, it had seemed to us like following the grown of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, though all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.”

The mercurial nature of the river, the tendency of it to throw tantrums and destroy that which it has tired of seems, to the reader at least, to be clear. Though the narrator is respectful of the river it does occasionally seem that the respect is born as much of fear as awe at its power.

Though the story, to this point, has acknowledged the awesome power of nature and its ability to reshape the landscape, this destructive power is within the realms of the everyday. Our narrator and his companion find themselves, as the story progresses, trapped on an island. This takes the narrative from the banal (though the majesty of nature can only be considered commonplace and everyday in the sense that it is all around us) and into the realms of the weird.

This refuge from the rising water is slowly being destroyed by the river while they are assailed from all sides what they, in one breath, rationalise as otters, dark shapes in the water, the other a sinister figure, threatening them whilst the willows surrounding them hem them in, like an army. This view of the world is not consistent, though. Their perception shifts, seeing the willows as protectors, friendly to them. This shifting reality could be considered evidence of psychological trauma in the characters. Can we trust the narrator? Can the narrator trust that what he is experiencing is real?

Blackwood never really makes it clear to the reader what the truth of the situation is. This mystery lends it some of its power. We have only the narrator’s (unreliable, shifting, if rich) description of the world around them to keep the reader informed of the situation in which they find themselves. The world around them may be shifting and something unfamiliar, unbound by the physical laws to which the world is subject is projecting into our reality. Equally, there is a sense, at times that the narrator and the Swede are victims of their own imaginations.

The refusal to present us with a simple narrative or easy answers certainly makes this a rewarding read. At all times there is a fine sense of terror, of dread. Excellent stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

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Let’s Go Ape!

A while back, I posted that I had lost my reading mojo. This saddened me. However, I’m pleased to say that it is fully back now! Recently, I’ve been reading some stuff about the origins of homo sapiens. Evolution, in general, interests me as does the story of humanity. If you’re interested, the three books that I’ve read most recently were:

  • Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World (Stephen Oppenheimer)
  • The Humans Who Went Extinct (Clive Finlayson)
  • The Origin of Our Species (Chris Stringer)

All are, in their own way, instructive and thought-provoking. If you’d like to know a little more about modern theories on the beginnings of the human race they are all recommended.

One thing in particular that always strikes me when thinking about evolution is how insignificant we are as a species and how much circumstance has played a part in there being a being which is capable of attempting to make sense of the world through science, art and philosophy. We flatter ourselves that we are, in some way, the pinnacle of evolution when that’s not how evolution works. There is no design to it and (granted, my knowledge here is a little shakier) I’m given to understand that a lot of the make-up of our bodies is pretty kludge-some.  We may be successful – for now – perched atop the food chain and inhabiting every type of environment but the genus homo is a mewling child as compared to the likes of the cockroach which has survived, with little change, for millions of years. Our intelligence has just been one (and not the only or even the best) evolutionary survival strategy.

Finlayson’s book, in particular, goes to stress that our sense of uniqueness is unjustified. We shared the planet not so long ago with other similar species who had diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently. We didn’t ‘win’ because we were better than they. Circumstance merely allowed for the expansion of homo sapiens at a time when others (such as the neanderthal) found themselves in decline.

The sentences at the end of his book struck me, though (although this might be as much to do with my own politics as anything else):

“The children of chance, those poor people who today must scrap for morsels each day without knowing when and where the next meal will come from, will once again be the most capable at survival. The innovators will once again win when the rapid and powerful perturbation that will be economic and social collapse, generated by the conservatives themselves, will ironically mark their own downfall. And evolution will take another step in some as yet unknown direction.”

This idea – that those on the margins – contained the seeds of our development is trailed and argued well throughout the book. There is also a bit more to his book than this. I do, however, like that conservatism should always be rejected. But then I’m a progressive at heart.

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The Weird: The Screaming Skull – F. Marion Crawford

The Weird - Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (cover)The introductory blurb for F. Marion Crawford’s The Screaming Skull (1908) describes it as an early example of the modern monologue (noting that it verges on the stream-of-consciousness at times). This form suits what, at first glance, would appear to be a ghost story. Braddock, the narrator, has inherited a property in tragic circumstances; the previous owner (his cousin, Pratt) died a death shrouded in mystery, his throat bitten out by an unidentified creature.

Pratt’s body, found on the beach, had a box containing a skull next to it. Since he was found killed, this had been returned to the house and, apparently, largely forgotten.

This provides the background to the story. Crawford’s decision to tell the story in the way that he has allows him to play with the reader. Braddock opens by telling his companion (an old friend) that he has often heard the skull scream. He rejects the idea that he is a superstitious man, suggesting that we should not question his account of events. However, as the story moves on, it becomes clear to the reader that the reliability of his account could be in question. He seems in no doubt that he and the servants in the house are hearing the terrifying screams made by the skull.

That others hear them is, of course, essential for Braddock if he wishes to maintain his grip on reality. From a declaration that there can be no supernatural carrying on, he notes that the screams are as clear as ever, even when only his deaf ear is uncovered. This opens us to the possibility that the screaming could be a manifestation of Braddock’s guilt. Some years before, Pratt’s wife had died in mysterious circumstances. The presence of materials, including a spoon which may have been used to transport molten lead and the fact that the skull rattles, points to the possibility that Pratt killed his wife by pouring molten lead into her ear. Braddock feels guilt for this because he told a gruesome story about a woman who murdered her husbands by doing so.

That Braddock fears that he may have inadvertently caused someone’s death is not in question. That this person is wreaking revenge from beyond the grave by killing her murderer and then beginning to torment the man who gave the means to him is more questionable. Granted, these questions arise mostly through Braddock’s refusal to admit that the events he is relating would seem to point to both foul play on the part of Pratt and vengeance from beyond the grave.

The lack of credulity in Braddock means that, even as it becomes clear that something odd is afoot, he refuses to believe the evidence of his eyes. Normally, this is something of which I approve. Would that more would reject charlatans who prey upon the weak and the gullible, inventing stories of guardian angels and spooks while rejecting the wonder that surrounds us nature. However, in the context of this story, Braddock’s unwillingness to accept the supernatural explanation becomes a pigheadedly irrational stance to take. After all, he is witness to the skull (complete with rattle) making its way back to the house after his attempt to dispose of it.

The Weird has, after a strong opening with the Kubin story, maintained its fine form. The Screaming Skull is an excellent and, I think, quite an unusual ghost story. Of course, plenty of supernatural fiction has a psychological element, but I think that Crawford handles it in a way that sets it apart from its peers. Of course, it is also possible that I just haven’t read enough horror.

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Interment – RJ Barker and Mikko Sovijärvi

Interment is the first part of a trilogy of prose poems, which will be followed by The Social Diary of a Ghoul and The Boy Who Listened in at Doors. Short prose poems, the words are by the excellent of hair RJ Barker and these are illustrated Mikko Sovijärvi, a man of (mostly) fine musical taste.

Here comes an admission followed by a disclaimer.

I’ve been struggling to do something clever with this (plus ça change, eh, dear reader?*). This is no reflection on the quality of the work; on the contrary, I enjoyed it a lot. The poem has an excellent sense of brooding horror which is complemented perfectly by the illustrations.

I feel that I should also note that RJ Barker is a fine fellow who was a great source of chat and hilarity during an unfortunate period of unemployment. So if you wish to take my praise with a pinch of salt, then do so. I hope, though, that someone who fancies a bit of psychological dread topped with some dark, brooding collages would be willing to take a look. You may be surprised. Buy (go on).

*Also, I realise that this makes me a pretentious git. I’m going to say that it is the least of my crimes against good taste.

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