…Sara Maitland’s The Book of Silence – an autobiographical essay on her search for, and meditations on, silence. I can agree with much of what she writes – of how silence should be regarded a presence, not an absence, for instance; and her joy at living alone and reasonably secure is well expressed, and makes me want to experience it.
I can’t agree with her on everything. She writes about her discipline of keeping her house silent – no TV, no radio, no sound on her computer, having days each week when everything is switched off and she speaks to no one – and I although I can well imagine never speaking, I cannot imagine living without music. The other day, I got an email telling me I’ve won an iPod in a draw; I’m impatient for it to arrive, so that I can load it up with all the tracks i have on my ‘puter so that i can listen to them anywhere in the house. Right now, I’m rocking along with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen blasting This Land Is Your Land through my headphones. Music makes me happy – I will not do without it.
But the book is dammed good – go read it.
The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
The time is 1976, the place is Laos. The Royal Family has been overthrown by the Communist Pathet Lao; many of the country’s intellectuals and ruling class have emigrated, and the country is reshaping itself while struggling out of chaos.
Caught up in this is Dr Siri Paiboun, a 75-year old general medical doctor. Expecting to retire after many years of loyal service to the communist cause, he is instead appointed as the country’s State Coroner. He has no pathology experience and his academic medical training is decades behind him – but there is nobody else remotely qualified for the job.
So he starts his new job, optimistically expecting no more than the odd unexplained death. However, his first case turns out to be a poisoning that somebody seems very anxious to cover up; then he is bought two bodies, apparently tortured to death. More deaths ensue and Dr Siri realises that he is uncovering something nasty….
This is promised to be the first of a series – I shall be looking out for the next book. Most of the way through, I thoroughly enjoyed it – the country and the era are beautifully evoked, without it turning into a Rough Guide; you get a real sense of what it was like to live there and the history lessons are given out in small doses. Dr Siri is a delightful character and the supporting cast are well fleshed out. The opening chapter is terrific – a real attention-grabber that begs to be filmed, and there are enough twists in the plot to keep you turning the pages all the way through.
Crime fiction fans should be warned that there is a supernatural element here, with reincarnation, ghosts, shamans, demons and visions putting in appearances; I found this perfectly acceptable, but some crime fans may not.
What stops me from giving this 10/10 is the ending – it reads like Cotterill suddenly ran out of time and had to wrap up 50+pages of a very complicated plot in about 10 pages. The penultimate chapter is sadly reminiscent of the endings of those Agatha Christie potboilers, where she has The Great Detective explain how the crime was done and unmask the killer; the only difference here is that the chapter is written from the POV of the main villain. The last chapter appears to set the scene for the next book – a device I’m never happy with. IMO, a story , even one of a series, should be self-contained and I much prefer the custom of simply reprinting the first chapter in the next of the series at the end of a book.
But, overall, I give it 8/10.
Duma Key by Stephen King
I have to confess that I haven’t read that many Stephen King books. So this could be far from being one of his best. However, it’s very nearly the best King that I‘ve read so far.
1992’s Dolores Claiborne and last year’s Lisey’s Story I’d class as he very best; I liked Rose Madder enough to read it twice.
Of the other Kings that I’ve tried, I liked a few well enough – The Stand, The Shining, one or two others; One or two were just awful – The Cell comes to mind (was his editor on holiday when that came in?) and I couldn’t get past the second chapter of the first Dark Tower book.
The books of his that I liked all have one thing in common – they play down the gore (knowing that a key scene involved a character having his legs smashed with a hammer stopped me from even picking up Misery; the scene that caused me to put down the Dark Tower book for ever was a minutely-detailed description of a boy getting crushed by a car) and concentrate instead on the human element.
Duma Key reliably carries on with what seems to be King’s new motif – that of the ‘wounded artist’ who has been terribly injured in a traumatic life-changing accident. Edgar Freemantle is a successful building contractor who loses an argument with a crane one day and ends up brain-damaged and minus one arm and his wife. Moving to a remote Florida key, he develops an overwhelming obsession to draw and paint, even though he has never been interested in art before. Naturally, this sudden talent of his is not entirely natural…..
What I liked: the descriptions of Freemantle in his painting ‘frenzies’ – I’ve never got that intense, but I have pretty much lost myself in painting sessions; the descriptions of Freemantle’s friend Wireman – one of the best depictions of male friendship I’ve read; the descriptions of the pitiless depredations of Alzheimer’s; the thorough fleshing-out of even the subsidiary characters (with one exception); the nice, sneaky literary device of occasionally referring to the one-armed Freemantle’s “hands”, which makes you sit up and say “Hey, did I just read hands-?”. Oh, and the real can’t-put-this-down hold of the story.
What I didn’t like: the treatment of the one character that was little more than a two-dimensional cipher, even though he was essential to the later action – he had a name but might just as well have been called The Sidekick, since that was pretty much all we were shown of him. Why King couldn’t have given him a backstory and fleshed him out as much as he did with characters who were given only a couple of pages, I have no idea. And I didn’t like the way that we were told so little of how Freemantle managed everyday life without an arm. We were told how difficult it was for him to drive, but when he did drive, there was no indication of any problems; there a scene where he had to stand up and read from a book – King gave us no indication of how a one-armed man can turn the pages of a book he is holding. And although there are detailed descriptions of his painting sessions, we get no indication of how he manages to, for instance, unscrew the cap of a paint tube. OK, the lack of such descriptions don’t detract from the story – which is terrific – but I do wonder why King couldn’t have found a one-armed artist to observe at work.
Alic Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was built around in interesting and (as far as I know) original concept of the afterlife: rather than there being a single one-size-fits-all Heaven where everybody goes, everyone gets their own individual Heaven – a place where they are truly happy. Although each heaven is specific to each individual, they are not alone; all the Heavens are 3D Venn diagrams and those with similar ideas of happiness find their Heavens intersecting to greater or lesser degrees.
In this cosmology, there is of course no Hell. Evil people (like the serial killer who raped, murdered and dismembered Sebold’s heroine) find themselves, like everyone else, in their personal idea of Heaven; which is presumably (although Sebold doesn’t explore this) populated with willing victims whose idea of heaven is to be tortured and killed. Though-provoking ideas, with a good story attached too.
Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is built around another concept of the afterlife: that everybody goes to an afterlife and stays there only while there is somebody alive who remembers them; then they well and truly vanish. Brockmeier’s afterlife isn’t described as heaven; he makes it sound like any largish, quiet US town, with gardens and squares and sunshine and lots of pleasantness. People have jobs and go shopping and walking and make love and talk. There are orphanages for the children (who never grow up – nobody ages here). People don’t change from their pre-death selves – blind people are still blind, crazy people are still crazy, selfish people are still selfish. So presumably the evil people are here as well and still evil, but we see no sign of them and nothing really bad seems to happen.
However, I can forgive Brockmeier that particular inconsistency in his cosmology – the guy can write well enough for it not to matter. The story is set in the near future, when global catastrophe is occurring and international tensions and wars are increasing. The Afterlife is starting to get crowded. Then, suddenly, it starts emptying – somebody has released a devastating virus that is rapidly killing off every human. Eventually, the only people left in the Afterlife are those held in the memory of the last human alive – how long can it last?
Towards the end, the story got pretty meandering. Characters kept getting introduced only to do very little to advance the plot. But it was still worth reading right to the end.
An initial irritation for me was the constant and blatant use of the Coco-cola brand name in the narrative – the heroine works for the company, every soft drink is a Coke, every crushed soft drink can is a Coke can, and so on. But it rapidly becomes clear that Brockmeier is only doing this to give the company, and global corporations generally, a damm good kicking. He really, really doesn’t like them and they are the villains of the book. If this novel ever gets filmed, this is going to be one product-placement opportunity that won’t be taken up.