Monday, 23 March 2015

"The Untouchable" by John Banville - March 2015

John Banville - The Untouchable – Review from Clapton Book Club, Hackney.

§ A surprising amount of wit was utilised throughout the book, built mostly out of irony and sarcasm and often self deprecating in style. Was Victor self conscious about his writing? The group was divided in opinion on this, and around several other subjects; some believed Victor to be overly in love with language as if to say “look how clever I am”. On the other hand one member of the group exclaimed how alike the language was in the book to those from Oxford and Cambridge at that time, and how clever of him to style the change in prose and language throughout the periods so eloquently. Words the group particularly enjoyed – embonpoint, bedizened.

§ It was suggested that half a page descriptions of people and the in-depth pictures created were often too detailed and distracting from the story i.e. down to the white and blue smoke and light, was just too much. When we consider the important point that Victors first and real love is painting, should this surprise us? It is considered by several in the book club to be a rather clever approach as it is Victor painting a picture with each scene and reflects the frustrated artist within him. The descriptions left you no mould to develop your own imaginative take on characters, they were prescribed to you in detail. It was questioned if this was done on purpose or not.

§ One member of the group found some of the language particularly unsavoury and often catty prejudiced comments such as that on page 384 in regard to Hackney did not add anything to the book, whereas others found this part of Victor’s charm and it amused them greatly. This tends to sum up the majority of conversations involving Victor during our meeting, he was like Marmite – you either love or hate him!

§ The book is not one you can skim read, it requires dedication and concentration and it was felt that it reflected the changes in Britain occurring during the periods successfully. It was noted that those of a younger generation could often find it harder to digest and, rather than making comparisons to the real life story it was based on, read it more at face value as a novel. Comparisons included Boy Bannister as Burgess, Querell based on Graham Greene and Victor as Anthony Blunt.

§ The writing style, when compared, is similar to that of author William Boyd. The way Victor addresses points in his head worked as a reflection to bounce ideas off, and made it easier to follow through the lightness stemming from this. Most felt it was cleverly done and enjoyed this tactic employed by Banville.

§ The group discussed the homosexuality alluded to throughout the book, it was very decadent and also touched on very similar stories in the news at the time. It was felt marriage was commonly a safe option during this era, due to the illegalities involving homosexuality. The group agreed on Victor marrying “Baby” as she was a substitute for his true love Nick, her brother. Often parallel stories of being a spy and being gay were told, as he compared it to acting all the time in life.

§ The family dynamic was interesting, with a brother with disabilities and clear class divisions within the family. Victor appears human at infrequent times, but only when with his own children and his relationships with his family does this really come into effect. Banville writes so intellectually about his life, but then includes humour with “he he” when Victor teases his son, and the comment “there’s always spies about, whoops!”.

§ One member felt that by telling you the plot in snippets i.e. Baby, I will marry her later, it was a rush to get to the next point covering this part of the story, and there wasn’t a need to tell you the plot that is coming as in some ways it spoilt the storytelling element.

§ Overall the book adds context to history and gives a very authentic coverage of the eras and the differences in society. It highlights the slapdash style of spying back in this era, whilst covering several other topics which were handled well such as sexuality, class and disability. It would make a great book for someone reading it to get a sense of history and Britain during this time but also makes a marvellous read for those who lived during this time and can relate to the real life counterparts described.
By Virginia

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

"The Shining" by Stephen King - February 2015

Only one person in the group had read any Stephen King before and the others had always avoided the “horror” genre so approached this book with some trepidation. The first surprise was how different the novel was to the well-known film version. The film was a straightforward horror movie with no back-story for the characters whereas reading the novel we discovered a psychological drama.
We admitted that some of us were biased and thought the novel would be dreadful but we were pleased to encounter “real” characters. One reader commented on how she enjoyed Dick Halloran’s Florida story – a wonderful vignette of a man who is disdainful of his bosses yet able to get on with his job and life.

We agreed that the drama builds very well at first and the depiction of Jack’s deterioration is absorbing and credible. However this is not maintained throughout and we are forced to start suspending disbelief. We felt that the device of the scrap book was not enough to explain the rapid change in Jack. Too many mystical elements are introduced and not joined together well enough. There is a sudden and, to our mind, unnecessary change from Jack wrestling with his internal demons to “possession” by external demons. We are no longer witnessing the sad decline of a man, rather the malign influence of the hotel itself.

The story made more sense before Wendy heard and saw ghosts. Up until that point all the strangeness was in Jack’s mind with Danny able to see it because of his ability to read minds. Once this change of tone occurred the story became less gripping and started to drag. The endless repetition of “take your medicine” was irritating. The ending was not believable, how did a badly wounded man get Danny and a badly wounded Wendy out of the hotel? We definitely felt it was a novel of two halves.

There was concern over the depiction of Halloran and the constant reference to his colour. There was no justification for the stereotypical portrait of the single black character. If the intention was to expose racism it back-fired.

The group felt that the depiction of Jack was a very sympathetic portrait of alcoholism showing real respect for those on the wagon. His fall from grace was well handled and I was a nice touch having an educated man, an academic, go through this rather than the usual poor manual worker.

We also discussed how real a character Jack’s mother was; would anyone put up with all the abuse she suffered at her husband’s hand? We agreed that it was a disturbingly accurate portrayal of domestic violence. This led to discussion of whether Jack had chosen Wendy because she was like his mother and the issues that Wendy had with her own mother. These relationships, Jack and Wendy’s marriage and the jealousy she felt when looking at her son and husband’s interaction all rang true. In summary we found Stephen King a far more skilled writer than we had given him credit for even if we weren’t happy with where he took The Shining.