Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hugo Hamiltons new book "Hand in the Fire"

Hugo Hamiltons new book "Hand in the Fire" is reviewed in todays Irish Times. He will be reading from the book on March 30th in the County Hall in Dun Laoghaire.

ONE OF the most notable aspects of Hugo Hamilton’s 20-year literary career is his refusal to limit himself to a single genre or narrative style. His best-known work, the memoir The Speckled People (2003), chronicles his extraordinary Irish-German childhood in ways that brilliantly reinvigorate a form that too often trades in hackneyed sentiments and scenarios. Eschewing stock victims and villains, Hamilton eloquently anatomises the contradictions of a dual heritage that left him hovering perilously between two cultures and three languages. No one nation can lay claim to this “speckled” hybrid. Rather, nation here is narration, “a place you make up in your own mind”.

Although aspects of Hamilton’s macaronic origins were hinted at in his early fiction, nothing quite prepared readers for the faux naïf voice and perspective that makes the memoir so affecting. In fact, The Speckled People was preceded by works of a very different style and tone, the fast-paced Dublin thrillers Headbanger (1996) and Sad Bastard (1998), which segue from comedy to seriousness. These novels were themselves a radical stylistic departure from the trilogy with which Hamilton first established himself. Coolly meditative and carefully modulated, Surrogate City (1990), The Last Shot (1991) and The Love Test (1995) explore the deep-seated schisms of post-war Germany from the perspective of protagonists who are decentred spiritually as much as physically, caught between a dispersed historical inheritance and a disorientating present.

Yet for all his eclecticism, core themes recur: a preoccupation with history’s secrets, the shaping power of memory and the way identity is changed by the journey. The mood of heimatlos evoked in the opening chapter of Surrogate City stands as a kind of overture to Hamilton’s work as a whole. There is a certain archetypal quality about the young Irishwoman who stands breathless on a Berlin pavement, lost, needy and not knowing the language. Versions of this troubled outsider reappear in the later fiction, most recently in Disguise (2008), the hero of which is a bohemian musician whose life consists of “departures and comebacks”.

Vid Cosic, the narrator of Hand in the Fire , is cut from the same cloth. Vid is a recently-arrived Serbian migrant eager to build a new life for himself in Dublin. Far from wanting to maintain a sense of cultural distinctiveness in his new environment, he is keen to acquire a “true certificate of belonging” and assimilate as quickly as possible. His opportunity comes when his discovery of a lost mobile phone brings him into the social orbit of affluent young lawyer Kevin Concannon, who gives him occasional work as a carpenter.

The speed with which Kevin befriends Vid proves decidedly double-edged. On the one hand, it gives this newcomer a much-desired sense of belonging; on the other, the suffocating intensity of Kevin’s bonhomie makes Vid party to a violent attack in which a man is left for dead. The legal machinations that ensue transform Vid’s relationship with Kevin, yet he will not easily relinquish the satisfaction he derives from being treated as a trusted insider.

The all-or-nothing nature of Irish friendship – summed up in Kevin’s insistence that “a true friend was someone who would put his hand in the fire for you” – is one of the many cultural peculiarities that fascinate Vid. Whereas Kevin relishes transgressing the limits of acceptable social and sexual behaviour, Vid lacks the cultural knowledge to judge Irish people and their motives, to tell “where the boundary lay between a joke and an insult”. However, while Hamilton skilfully evokes the mixture of curiosity and gullibility that makes Vid vulnerable to exploitation, he occasionally tests the limits of credulity by creakily manoeuvring him into situations – such as his abrupt excursion to Belfast in chapter 17 – that serve as pretexts for Irish history lessons.
As the narrative unfolds, deeper correspondences between the two central protagonists emerge. Like Vid, Kevin is in flight from a troubled history – he disposes of his biography in a single sentence, “like something he needed to leave behind” – and he too knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in London, he “did his best to be Irish” when his mother returned to Ireland with him when he was nine. His Connemara father, who is a mysterious absence for much of the novel, is another misfit, a refugee from a time when Irish people “mistrusted success, when they laughed at enterprise, when they could not even trust friendship because emigration spread so fast, like contamination”.
This web of multidirectional journeys gradually expands to encompass virtually every character in the novel, making Hand in the Fire a slow-acting meditation on the entanglement of histories and genealogies that constitute Ireland as a diaspora space. Neither old nor new worlds offer any stability but rather appear to be constantly changing, and it is not only those with foreign accents who are forced to outrun the shadow of intolerance.
The story of a young woman from Furbo whose drowned body was washed up on the Aran Islands comes to haunt Vid, drawing him westward. Pregnant and unmarried, she was first condemned from the altar and later mysteriously “expelled into the sea”. The story has the power of a folktale; Synge might have forged a tragedy from it. To a refugee from eastern genocide, the fate of this vilified outcast encapsulates a truth that is very close to home: all that is fearful comes from within ourselves. Hand in the Fire is an uneasy but rewarding read, offering us a fresh perspective on Irish society through only partly comprehending immigrant eyes.

Lean on Pete by Willie Vlautin

Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson wants a home; food on the table; a high school he can attend for more than part of a year; and some structure to his life. But as the son of a single father working at warehouses across the Pacific Northwest, he's been pretty much on his own for some time. "Lean on Pete" opens as he and his father arrive in Portland, Oregon and Charley takes a stables job, illegally, at the local race track.

Once part of a vibrant racing network, Portland Meadows is now seemingly the last haven for washed up jockeys and knackered horses, but it's there that Charley meets Pete, an old horse who becomes his companion as he's forced to try to make his own way in the world. A portrait of a journey - populated by a vivid cast of characters against a harsh landscape - "Lean on Pete" is also the unforgettable story of a friendship and of hope in dark times.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan reviewed by Eileen Battersby

THE PLANET IS in danger; worse than that, it is doomed unless an answer is found. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard is an unlikely saviour. He has a mild interest in that global fear and the various conferences it demands – after all, that shared anxiety keeps him busy on the lecture circuit. Beard is not in such good shape himself, bloated and unfit, possibly alcoholic, and burnt out; he is a mess, even if his name remains a useful commodity. Long since contented with living off a reputation established early in a life that now seems to have belonged to someone else, his major interests are sex, food and cockily extending dinner invitations to females he happens upon while avoiding others who think they may have a hold on him.

When the novel opens, Beard is 53, childless and about to part company with the lovely Patrice, his fifth wife, who, aware of his womanising, has forsaken him for their building contractor, a nasty piece of rough called Rodney Tarpin – uncouth and illiterate, and “seven inches taller and 20 years younger” than our hero. But good old Beard has an advantage: his natural recklessness. McEwan is obviously as fascinated with the flawed Beard as the reader will become. Beard, we are told, “belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.”

Beard is an Everyman; opportunistic, greedy, self-obsessed and very human. He is somewhat more intellectually sophisticated than Martin Amis’s John Self, who clambered through Money (1984). There are also flashes of John Updike’s Rabbit. McEwan, an admirer of Updike, is a gifted writer, precise and ironic. While his prose does not possess quite the linguistic flourish of Amis the younger (whose feel for the grotesque has always set him above his peers), McEwan has a quick eye, an elegantly brisk turn of phrase and, here more than ever before, a grasp of inspired detail. Beard is a terrific creation, a human disaster. Vain, vulnerable, he is all of us; he lives in his own little fantasy and sees everything in relation to himself.

Each of his marriages has collapsed in turn, but now he is older and despite his infidelity, he wants to keep his current wife, particularly as she is having an affair. Tactics are important. Jealousy, he muses, is always effective. Having sustained a conversation with a female voice on the radio, he then goes down the stairs on his hands and knees, attempting with his hands to create the impression of a second set of departing footsteps and hoping his wife thinks a lover is being escorted from the house. Beard is obnoxious, but he is also resourceful, somehow immensely likable – and yes, he fails to keep Patrice.

This is an impressively plotted, adroit and well-executed black comedy; it is also incredibly funny, with dialogue worthy of an accomplished scriptwriter. McEwan has always been ironic, a quality that dominated his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998), but the comic writing in Solar is a revelation. Many of the set-pieces, such as Beard’s frantic efforts to escape his snow-suit in order to answer the call of nature, his flight from a polar bear or his visit to the builder’s mock-Tudor semi, are cartoon funny. McEwan’s timing throughout Solar is flawless, all the more so because while Beard’s antics are graphically believable, so too is McEwan’s message.

As a righteous group of eco-warrior artists and environmentalists converge on the Arctic for a global-warming mission, they subject the snowscapes to the polluting emissions spat out by their snowmobiles. Equally, the same group can’t even keep their bulky protective gear in order. They throw it all over the base-camp boot room and end up stealing from each other. The polemical point is obvious: man is destructive and self-seeking, even when it comes to respecting snow boots.

But before Beard takes off on his jaunt to Norway, which proves more trial than vacation, he acquires an unwanted follower, an eager, young, rural-accented scientist named Tom Aldous, who is relentless and wants, with Beard’s help, to save the world. He also desires something else, Beard’s wife. None of this is known until Beard returns to London following his trip to the Arctic. On discovering Tom very much at home in Beard’s house, the action takes an unexpected turn. Throughout Solar, McEwan plays with ambivalence. In attempting to cover up an accident, Beard, ever resourceful, not only conceals the facts but takes his revenge – or does he?

SINCE THE PUBLICATION of his debut collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), Ian McEwan has been a searing force in British fiction. Initially a master of sexual menace, as in The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), he went on to consider his country as a passive entity in thrall to Margaret Thatcher in The Child in Time (1987), a novel which defined every parent’s worst nightmare while also presenting Britain in decline. Later he would explore, less emphatically, the Blair years, in Saturday (2005). The legacy of the second World War, as is evident from The Innocent (1990) and Black Dogs (1992), shaped the consciousness of McEwan, who was born in 1948 and spent his childhood years in various military bases.

Throughout his career, McEwan has looked to the past with its burden of psychological damage, as in Atonement (2001) and the delightful bitter romance, On Chesil Beach (2007), but also to the present, his England, his world.

This new novel tackles a huge issue and McEwan, just as he did his homework on surgical procedures for Saturday , has grasped the science of the climate-change debate. It takes daring to balance all of this, including the potential of solar energy, with an account of one less than virtuous man’s appalling personal life. While the world’s ice caps melt, Beard gets fatter. Here is a gluttonous scientist whose spiralling cholesterol has not yet killed him, if only because his love of alcohol does not also involve cigarettes. Beard, “rotund, slow-moving and pinkly hot”, sits in the bath contemplating with horror the heaving mass that is his body.

Elsewhere, on a train, Beard prepares to devour a packet of crisps: “He would eat two crisps at once.” McEwan then unleashes the unexpected:

“It was at this moment, as he glanced up, that he witnessed his fellow passenger, sitting forward, gaze still eerily fixed, elbow on the table, perhaps in conscious parody. Then, letting one forearm drop, crane-like, down into the bag, the man stole a crisp, probably the largest in the packet, held it in front of his face for a second or two, then ate it, not with Beard’s fastidiousness, but with an insolent chewing motion, with lips parted so that one could glimpse it turning to paste on his tongue. The man did not even blink, his stare was so intense. And the act was so flagrant, so unorthodox, that even Beard, who was quite capable of unconventional thought – how else had he won his Prize? – could only sit in frozen shock and try, for dignity’s sake, by remaining expressionless, to betray no emotion.”

The passage continues with Beard attempting to read the man’s behaviour. “The physicist,” writes McEwan, “knew much about light, but about forms of public expression in contemporary culture he was in the dark.”

The redeeming quality of Saturday was that the smug brain surgeon, Henry Perowne, thought like a smug brain surgeon. The appalling Beard is a convincing professional who has no idea how to relate, or commit, to other humans. In the aftermath of his divorce from Patrice, Beard had rented a flat that he systemically reduced to squalor. But of course men such as Beard always manage to attract a woman intent on providing food and other comforts. Such a woman is Melissa, who not only wants Beard, she wants his child. Beard recoils in horror, but Melissa is determined.

LIGHT HAS A symbolic role in the action. It is not only the subject of Beard’s life’s work; it is a source from which he has acted, not least in the use of Milton’s poem when wooing a literature student, his first wife. As the action moves in three major time sequences, from 2000 to 2005 and on to 2009, with fleeting flashbacks, the characters evolve and change. Relationships falter, while Beard encounters not only ghosts from his past but the fallout of his behaviour. McEwan keeps us guessing. Just when his professional life appears to be falling asunder, Beard, with commendable control, turns to his surest comfort, food. The two women in his life converge upon him and ultimately it may be Beard’s heart that decides the outcome.

Solar is an ambivalent, comic picaresque of cunning and subtle wisdom. Beard, not quite a villain, is no saint. As his American lover informs him, “you’re not an entirely good person, nor am I!” Nor is anyone in the novel, with the possible exception of Beard’s little daughter. McEwan has no delusions about humankind and wonders at the patience of women. McEwan’s established readers will enjoy it, as will everyone else, not only for the humour but for many moments of eerie truth.