Posts tagged ‘historical fiction’

September 22, 2018

The Old Slave and the Mastiff by Patrick Chamoiseau

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Dialogue, £14.99, out now

Old Slave ChamoiseauPatrick Chamoiseau’s latest novel is a little masterpiece: perfectly-formed, mesmerising, thrilling, moving, eye-opening, distressing, poignant, the lot.

This is a deeply singular piece of work that takes a simple, if grim, narrative – the titular old slave, who has spent his life in bondage on a Caribbean plantation, flees it one day pursued by the plantation owner and his horrifying hound – and explodes it. The old man’s journey through the surrounding jungle towards possible freedom becomes a simultaneous freeing of his mind; what we’re experiencing, through Chamoiseau’s gobsmackingly poetic prose, is a kind of anti-brainwashing on the part of our hero, an awakening to the world, to the present, and to a past both personal and cultural which he has tamped down in order to survive the humiliation of his servitude.

The fact that a chase narrative of heart-pounding proportions runs perfectly in tandem shows Chamoiseau’s staggering mastery of his craft; they’re so perfectly intertwined that the old slave’s physical, spiritual and mental progress become one hypnotic, hallucinatory broth. He discovers as he runs scraps of his old language, is spellbound and shaken by newly-remembered Creole folk tales and the creatures which haunt them, and gradually rekindles the fires of a selfhood long discarded; all while fighting to stay one step ahead of a despicable slaver and fiction’s most malevolent dog.

The sum of this is a distinctly idiosyncratic addition to the canon of literature addressing slavery, one that lays bare on a micro level the psychological torment and cultural subjugation heaped on a slave while managing, incredibly, to be uplifting, at times joyful; the old man’s flight, and his mental and spiritual re-entry into the world, is powerfully moving. It’s hard to think of another character in recent fiction I’ve wanted to succeed more.

And speaking of characters – none of this would work if Chamoiseau’s protagonist didn’t resonate with the reader, but he, the plantation owner and even the dog feel carved out of stone, somehow managing to be both archetypes and intensely individual. For such a short, fast-paced novel these guys are brilliantly and vibrantly illuminated, meaning that even the undeniable villains of the piece become multidimensional.

And once again it’s translator extraordinaire Linda Coverdale behind the superlative translation, and whose note at the beginning in which she details the challenges of adapting Chamoiseau’s Creole and Creolized-French-peppered script is fascinating.

It’s a completely captivating book. Buy it, read it and read it again.

Review by Tom

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June 29, 2016

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Chatto and Windus, £16.99, out nowRose Tremain THE GUSTAV SONATA

Gustav lives with his widowed mother in Switzerland, just after the Second World War.  A young boy, he is raised by his mother to value Switzerland’s neutrality, and told to master his own emotions.  Gustav forms an intense friendship with a new arrival at his school, a Jewish boy called Anton, who is set to be a piano prodigy but is plagued by performance nerves.  The Gustav Sonata charts their lifelong friendship, showing the complexity and importance of such relationships in a way that reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.  Gustav’s father was a Swiss policeman – but how did he die, and does it have any connection with his mother’s strong dislike of Anton and his Jewish background?

But neutrality and mastery may not get you the intimacy you crave.  To be connected with life and other people, you might need to take risks.  And isolation is not a neutral state.

I am a Tremain fan, especially of her outstanding novel Sacred Country, a great story about a trans person.  But you don’t have to be a fan of hers to enjoy The Gustav Sonata, as it’s a very readable and thoughtful historical novel.  In her exploration of the gaps in what people kept silent about after the Second World War, she evokes some of W G Sebald’s concerns.  But the theme of friendship remains the primary concern, and she does justice to the epigraph she has chosen from Montaigne: “If anyone should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I feel it could not otherwise be expressed than by making the answer, ‘Because it was he, because it was I’”.

October 20, 2015

The Murderer in Ruins, Cay Rademacher

by Team Riverside

Arcadia Books, £8.99, paperback out now

“Still half asleep, Chief Inspector Frank Stave reached an arm out across the bed towards his wife, then remembered that she had burned to death in a firestorm three and a half years ago. He balled his hand into a fist, hurled back tCay Rademacher THE MURDERER IN RUINShe blanket and let the ice-cold air banish the last shades of his nightmare”.

So opens The Murderer in Ruins, a gripping historical crime novel set in Hamburg in 1947. The city is experiencing the coldest winter anyone can remember, and refugees and displaced residents are living in the ruins. Hamburg is occupied by the British after being destroyed in the conflict, and it appears that a serial killer is leaving unidentifiable naked bodies in the frozen ruins. Stave has his own problems – his young soldier son is missing, and he is a frequent visitor to the Red Cross reunification office, without success.

The description of the barely-functioning city is completely convincing, and the mystery is satisfyingly gripping and surprising. The lingering poisons of the Third Reich and the war are shown to touch relationships and power structures in post war life. Translated four years after its German publication, and released here by a small press with the support of the Goethe Institute, it is intended to be the first part of a trilogy. I hope Arcadia Press crack on and publish the next two, as I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Review by Bethan