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Comments on The Finkler QuestionThe Breaking of Eggs

and The Glass Room

Have read three novels during recent weeks: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which won last year’s Man Booker Prize, The Breaking of Eggs, a debut novel by Jim Powell and Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, shortlisted for the Man Booker award in 2009.

Central to The Finkler Question is the relationship between three men, longstanding friends who, despite differences of lifestyles and opinions, have remained in touch throughout many years.

Libor Sevic, a Czech Jew, now 90 years old, is a former journalist / biographer of famous Hollywood filmstars and one time History teacher of Sam Finkler and Julian Treslove.

Finkler, a Jewish academic who writes popular philosophy books with ‘catchy/sexy’ titles, is a regular T.V. pundit. Like Libor, Finkler is a widower.

Treslove, a former B.B.C. radio presenter who, because of his physical appearance, works as a film-celebrity ‘look-alike’, is not Jewish. After an odd late-night incident following a meal shared with his two friends, however, Treslove is drawn, not to convert but to explore and gradually to embrace Jewish customs and culture. Treslove, it seems to me, is deliberately realised as an ‘empty vessel’ of a character - apparently sensitive yet superficial, impressionable but not impressive - does his surname indicate very nothing ie. très l’oeuf?

Much is revealed about the past lives and present preoccupations of these three characters during the course of the novel and, in the process, much territory, relating to Judaism, Zionism and historical/ political perspectives is covered.

Certainly, The Finkler Question is cleverly constructed, interesting in its exploration and portrayal of notions of ‘Jewishness’ and often witty. Unfortunately, contrary to my expectations (raised by several reviews which gave it high praise), I found this novel somewhat disappointing and struggled to remain engaged. Treslove’s self-indulgent, self-interrogation became rather tedious and I grew increasingly irritated by Jacobson’s ‘jokes’ and seemingly contrived cynicism. Perhaps my taste and sense of humour are insufficiently sophisticated, however, since I grew up in Wolverhampton - a place for which the author has expressed little affection and even less respect.


Rather more engaging and enjoyable than The Finkler Question were Jim Powell’s The Breaking of Eggs and Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

These two novels, though very different in style and structure, have certain similarities in that the absorbing personal ‘histories’ of central characters track back from a late-twentieth-century ‘present’ to revisit turbulent and traumatic political events which beset Europe before, during and after World War II, events which shape their later lives. In each novel notions of family, friendship, ‘home’ and loyalty are explored, together with impressions of living and lifestyles in the U.S.A.

In The Breaking of Eggs the ‘present’ is 1991, a year during which the narrator, 61 year old Feliks Zhukovski, a Pole who has lived in France for several decades, acquires information relating to his past, facts which lead him, gradually, not only to reassess his political beliefs but also to embark upon a slow journey of self-discovery.

That the ways in which an individual’s responses to events and people may be based upon and nurtured by misreadings and misperceptions is, I think, a major theme of this novel and, in this respect, as well as on one or two other points, I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Whereas Ishiguro’s ‘unreliable narrator’, (the butler, Stevens) always remains rather unknown to himself, in Powell’s novel, Feliks steadily makes better progress and, by the end of 1991, becomes a more sensitive and emotionally responsive person than he was twelve months earlier.

Another theme, the interrogation of political absolutes, is also pursued as the narrator encounters people from his past whose ‘readings‘ of events differ from his own.

During the course of The Breaking of Eggs much territory, in terms of time, place and history, is covered - several decades of the twentieth century, involving war, political movements and changes in Europe (East and West) are referred to and Feliks’s visit to the United States adds a further dimension to the novel’s scope.

This book is, at various times, serious, sad and funny. It is also, occasionally, a little tedious and over-explanatory regarding the nuances and finer points of Communism, Stalinism and other political ‘creeds’ but this is just a small criticism when set against the plus-points in what was, for me, a thoroughly interesting and thought-provoking novel.

* Jim Powell, who is around the same age as the narrator of The Breaking of Eggs, was one of the ‘12 Best New British Novelists’ chosen by a panel the for B.B.C. 2 programme ‘The Culture Show’ earlier this year. He lives in Northants.

I found The Glass Room by Simon Mawer utterly enthralling. Not to be rushed, this is a novel to savour. Its deceptively simple prose is eloquent and the harsh historical facts which inform its plot are conveyed in ways which combine subtlety and strength.

Creating an impressive cast of well-realised characters and covering several decades of the twentieth century, Mawer charts the various ‘histories’ of a house (and specifically a particular room within it), of the Landauer family for whom it was built and who are forced to flee from it, of those who maintain and those who visit it and of the purposes for which it was used by a succession of later occupants. In so doing, Mawer also maps the history of a country, Czechoslovakia.

Several thematic elements are woven into the novel: architecture, art, music, wealth, love, marriage, adultery, bi-sexuality, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, politics, Nazi anti-semitic policies, practices and repercussions, war, Communism, austerity, affluence and influence. So many strands are incorporated that, listed thus, one might well assume that such a fiction would be too wide-ranging to be coherent but this is not the case. Mawer successfully melds all together to tell a fascinating, complex tale which is, I suggest, both moving and memorable.


A fiction woven within a framework of fact, Every Man for Himself  by Beryl Bainbridge, concerns a famous disaster - the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic.

There is a short Prologue set during the final moments before the great liner goes down, moments to which the novel returns a few pages before its conclusion. Following the Prologue, starting at a point two days before boarding the Titanic at Southampton on April 10th 1912, the narrator, Morgan, a wealthy and well-connected young American, begins his personal account of events preceeding, during and immediately after the voyage - a maiden voyage, tragically terminated when the ship, having struck an iceberg, sank in the early hours of April 15th.

A number of real passengers figure in the novel, alongside the fictional ‘cast’, and an imagined scenario is constructed whereby, via the narrator’s perspective, the reader discovers much about the typical behaviour of the rich and famous during this period, social and class-related distinctons observed on board ship and attitudes of the crew. The inclusion of known factual information within the narrative also gives one a clear idea of the layout of the vast vessel, the luxurious décor and facilities provided for First Class travellers, as well as a sense of the less lavish conditions experienced by lower class and steerage passengers.

Morgan, though leading a financially secure and privileged existence, is aware of social unfairnesses and is disturbed by vague recollections of an impoverished and troubled infancy. Knowing only a few bare facts about his early life, during the course of the ill-fated voyage, he learns more about his mother and his past from Scurra, an urbane and enigmatic fellow passenger.

That the end of the Titanic story is common knowledge did not trouble me. The interest of this tale is in its telling.

I had forgotten the skilful, stylish economy of Beryl Bainbridge’s prose, her seemingly effortless ability to engage. My enjoyment of Every Man for Himself has encouraged me to revisit her earlier books and I eagerly anticipate The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, a novel finished just before her death, to be published next June.



Have recently finished reading The Pattern in the Carpet - A Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble - a pleasurable ‘puzzle’ of a book. Part a personal memoir in which the author not only describes past family ‘history’ but also reflects upon her present circumstances and pre-occupations, and part History, this book is intentionally digressive. I found it enjoyable and engaging. As with assembling a complicated jigsaw, however, the process of reading was sometimes frustrating but, ultimately, proved to be both rewarding and satisfying.

Drabble’s detailed account of the history of the jigsaw is informative, ranging rather wider than the puzzles, encompassing board and card games, mosaics, paintings, poetry, writers, commonplace artefacts and much more. The historical references and critical comments are fascinating. Unfortunately, the profusion of facts and dates is just a little overwhelming in places.

Most interesting, to me, are the sections and passages in which Drabble writes about personal experiences, past and present, and about people. The account of her long-lasting relationship with her Auntie Phyl and her portrait of this spinster schoolteacher are both affectionate and shrewd. Engaging, too, are her descriptions of holidays spent at ‘Bryn’, a Georgian farmhouse run by her grandparents as a ‘B.& B.’ and tea-room on the Great North Road, of the primary school and surroundings of her childhood, as well as of various objects, locations and events to which she attaches particular significance. Passages relating to Drabble’s parents, especially her ‘difficult’mother, and occasional comments referring to her sister, Susan ( A.S. Byatt), are revealing, suggesting a sense of discontent which she no longer feels compelled to shroud in fiction.

During this book Drabble refers to The Peppered Moth (2001) in which she drew upon autobiographical material relating to her mother and aunt to tell the fictional tale of three generations of women, considering themes associated with inherited genes and ’adaptability’. I enjoyed this novel very much when I first read it and, after reading The Pattern in the Carpet, am inclined to take a look at it again.




Have received a copy of Faulks On Fiction as a birthday present and, having read its ‘Introduction’, am looking forward to further sections.

This book has been published to accompany the current B.B.C. television series on the British novel in which Sebastian Faulks considers major fictional characters according to types. Thus far, in the first two programmes, heroes and lovers have been discussed and, whilst I have found these of interest, I feel that a little too much film footage has been employed at the expense of analytical depth. This series provides, nevertheless, rather more appealing Saturday night viewing than is usually on offer and I am keen to watch what will follow in the two remaining programmes which deal with snobs and villains. From an initial glance, Faulks On Fiction - the book - promises to be ‘a good read’ and, perhaps, even more engaging than the television series.

More on this later.

Am also keen to watch the Andrew Davies adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding being serialised in three episodes on B.B.C. 1 from Sunday 20th February.

I recall really enjoying this novel, set in Yorkshire during the austere early 1930s, when I first read it years (and years!) ago.

Holtby, a firm feminist and pacifist, wrote many novels but South Riding, with its strong-willed heroine, headmistress Sarah Burton, and its vast cast of characters, is probably the one for which she is most remembered.

The novel was finished only a few weeks before Winifred Holtby’s early death in 1935 and, through the efforts of her devoted friend Vera Brittain, published posthumously in 1936. Sub-titled ‘An English Landscape’, South Riding is a Big Book - my own oldish copy quotes a review by L.P. Hartley which describes the novel as “amazingly rich and complex”. One trusts that Andrew Davies’s usually admirable expertise in translating fiction into film will do full justice to this twentieth-century classic.


Am really enjoying dipping into a lovely Christmas present - no, not the box of chocolates, that’s long gone - Neil MacGregor’s A History Of The World In 100 Objects. Based on last year’s BBC R.4 series of broadcasts which I relished, this is much more than a ‘history book’.

The pleasure of this vast ranging book is not simply that the objects and artefacts (selected from the British Museum to represent aspects of different civilizations and societies at various points in time from almost 2 million years ago to the present) are beautifully described and accompanied by excellent photographic illustrations, but that their wider historical and cultural significance is also explored.

For instance, from the Early Victorian Tea Set (Part 19, object 92) produced in Staffordshire c. 1840-1845 we learn not only about its composition, dimensions and decoration, but also of tea-time ‘practices’ of the wealthy and the promotion of tea drinking by employers and temperance movements as a means of social control over the urban workforce during the nineteenth century. Also, reference to each of its three elements - teapot, sugar bowl and milk jug - foregrounds factual information associated with the tea and sugar trades during this period and notes the impact of suburban railway development in relation to the transport of fresh milk from rural to urban areas.

I mention only one section of the book here, others which I have read are equally engaging and, as a whole, A History Of The World In 100 Objects is impressive.


Have recently finished reading The Music Room by William Fiennes, a memoir of growing up in an Oxfordshire moated castle where daily, family life is often punctuated by the sadly disturbed, sometimes unpredictable behaviour of a beloved older brother suffering from epilepsy. The narrative, which contains many fine descriptive passages concerning the castle’s interior, its surroundings, its inhabitants (family and staff), its visitors and its functions as a film and ‘event’ location, also incorporates sections which trace the history and development of medical experiments and research relating to brain-function and epilepsy.

I found this an enjoyable and quite fascinating book, though towards its end my engagement flagged just a little. Nevertheless, The Music Room is, I think, a worthwhile read.



Have finished Penelope Lively’s Family Album - an engaging novel which ranges back and forth in time, covering the present and, retrospectively, the last four decades of the 20th Century.

Central to this novel is a large, suburban Edwardian house, ‘Allersmead’, silent, impartial observer of all that occurs within its walls and gardens. ‘Allersmead’ is the home of the Harper family - parents, six children and Ingrid, a longstanding, long-staying au pair.

In the novel’s ‘present’ the adult children, all but of one of whom have left home, return occasionally, both physically and/or in their thoughts, and it is mainly (though not entirely) from their individual perspectives that the reader gains access to the details and nuances of how things were/are in ‘Allersmead’.

Humour, sadness and frustration colour accounts of family interaction and relationships. Past ‘histories’, small triumphs, disasters, disappointments and secrets are revealed in the recording of particular situations, ‘events’ and celebrations.

The ‘Allersmead’ set-up, particularly the characters of the Harper parents - the chattering, family-centred, cake-making ‘super cook‘, Alison, and her semi (if not wholly) detached husband, Charles, who continually retreats to to his study to read, research and write, somehow brings to mind the Ramsays in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Also, there are echoes of the Bennet parents in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Penelope Lively’s skilful technique compels one to read on and, though there are one or two disappointments (eg. a ‘revelation’ which was rather obvious and an anti-climactic outcome concerning a children’s game) this novel is, on the whole, an entertaining read.


Having eagerly anticipated reading Hilary Mantel’s lengthy novel Wolf Hall, I have not been disappointed.

Although for the first fifty pages I wondered whether its present tense, dialogue-laden narrative style might prove tedious and its vast cast of characters daunting, I soon afterwards found this novel utterly compelling.

Set in 16th-century England, Wolf Hall is clearly a soundly researched, fictionalised, imaginatively constructed interpretation of historical events and to categorise it simply as an ‘historical novel’ seems somehow inadequate.

Central to the book is a figure who rose to become Henry VIII’s Secretary and chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell, and it is through Cromwell that the novel’s ‘action’ is focalised. The evocation of his private and public life and the charting of his upwardly-mobile progress towards power unfolds within the context of the religious, legal and political dealings and intrigues surrounding the king’s determination to achieve an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to wed Anne Boleyn, thus securing, he hopes, a male heir. Based on the ‘stuff’ of history, the novel’s plot-line may seem all too familiar. Wolf Hall  is, however, so much more than a prettily padded-out version of facts we, perhaps, remember (or half-remember) learning in school.

Not only is one subtly drawn to inhabit the mind and world of Cromwell, to feel a sense of involvement in his personal family circumstances, his relationships with and attitudes towards major public ‘players’of the period - Cardinal Wolsey, the King, the Queen(s), Thomas More - but, also, to experience the 16th-century ‘worlds’ and ‘underworlds’ of London and elsewhere. Woven into the complex texture of the novel are passages and references which create the ‘feel’ of the age. Food, fruits, plants, paintings, fabrics, and furnishings of the period are made ‘real’- as are its stenches, sicknesses and sudden deaths.

Wolf Hall (Wulfhall) in Wiltshire belonged to the Seymours (* Jane Seymour became Henry VIII’s third wife in 1536) but the author’s choice of it for the novel’s title is playfully enigmatic - to discover why, however, you must read the book!


Have just finished Irene Nemirovsky’s The Dogs and the Wolves (first published in France in 1940 and translated into English in 2009 by Sandra Smith).
Though not, perhaps, as gripping as the highly acclaimed Suite Francaise, which concerns the departure of the French bourgeoisie from Paris in 1940 and was found in a notebook written before Nemirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in Auschwitz in 1942 but not published until 2004, The Dogs and the Wolves is, nevertheless, a worthwhile read.
Nemirovsky’s wealthy Jewish family eventually settled in France in 1919 having fled Russia following the 1917 October Revolution and she draws upon her intimate knowledge of both countries for the background locations of the novel.
In its settings, characters and social observations this novel chronicles the experiences of affluent and more impoverished Jews in the Ukraine and in Paris during the early decades of the 20th Century prior to World War II. 
The Dogs and the Wolves traces the story of Ada Sinner, a motherless, artistically inclined child from the poor Jewish quarter of a city in the Ukraine, and her attraction and increasingly obsessive love for Harry, a distant relative from the wealthy branch of the Sinner family, who lives comfortably in a fine house behind gilded gates in the ‘better’ area of the same city.
Initially cared for by her kindly father, Ada’s life changes when her formidable, widowed aunt, moves in to run the household. Aunt Raissa has two children, the pretty Lilla, upon whom rest her mother’s upwardly mobile aspirations, and the clever, wily but somewhat alarming Ben, whose affection for Ada is unwavering.
Ada’s father gradually acquires more money and Aunt Raissa persuades him to send her, together the three children, to live in Paris where she hopes they might acquire fame and fortune.
For a while their lives are lived in moderate comfort, but then things go badly and though Ada continues to develop her artistic talent, the business of earning a living is, for Aunt Raissa, of paramount importance.
For Ada, the presence of Harry Sinner, whose family have also moved to Paris, brings both pain and pleasure.
The rest of the novel charts Ada’s relationships with her cousin Ben and with Harry, while achieving some success as a painter whose work reflects the Ukrainian landscapes of her childhood. Finally, Ada has to make a decision which will lead to a new life in another country.
On the whole, I enjoyed this novel. Many of the characters are vividly realised but I found the portrayal of Harry Sinner somewhat unconvincing. Rather like Stephen Guest in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and, perhaps, Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, Harry seems weak and not to deserve the affection which is bestowed upon him by the heroine.
Of particular interest are the author’s depictions of the nuances of the interaction between various groups which make up Jewish society and of the difficulties associated with émigré life in France.


 Though rather harrowing at times, I found The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore absolutely compelling. A sequel to The Siege, it moves on ten years to 1952 to continue the story of Anna, a nursery school teacher, her husband, Andrei, a hospital doctor, and Kolya, Anna’s adolescent brother as they strive to live and work in Leningrad, attempting to maintain a ‘low profile’while subject to the oppressive constraints of the Stalinist regime.

Having been persuaded, both by a manipulative colleague and his own good conscience and caring inclinations, Andrei agrees to become involved in the treatment of the seriously ill young son of Volkov, a powerfully influential Secret Police official. As a result of his involvement, Andrei and his family become vulnerable, aware that fearful consequences may follow should the boy’s treatment prove unsuccessful.

Thus the plot is set up.

The Betrayal stands alone, I think, having numerous references to characters’ past ‘histories’ and events of the earlier novel but may, perhaps, be even better appreciated if one has first read The Siege.

Clearly, all aspects relating to the background of this novel have been meticulously researched - the portrayal of the period is utterly (often chillingly) convincing - and descriptions of locations, landscapes and changing seasons are vividly realised. The Betrayal is an excellent book and Helen Dunmore is, in my opinion, one of our most effective contemporary authors.


Susan Hill’s short novel, The Beacon, which I’ve just finished, though perhaps unsettling in some respects, proved to be an interesting and engaging read.

Concerning the Prime family, whose remote hilltop farm ‘The Beacon’ provides the novel’s title and its major setting, the story is framed by the death and funeral of Bertha, the elderly widowed mother of four grown-up children.Tracking to and fro between present and past, the ‘histories’ of family members, their interaction and reactions to a traumatic event which exposes them to public scrutiny are revealed.

The novel explores notions of ‘truth’, perceptions of loyalty and somewhat disturbing themes relating to mental illness in the character of May, the clever but unfulfilled elder daughter, and what might (or might not) be false memory syndrome in the character of Frank, the successful and eventually famous younger son.

Some may find The Beacon a bleak book but I found it rather intriguing.

Am eagerly awaiting Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, to be published later this week.

The Rambler writes ...

It’s a catastrophe. Relax!’ - How to enjoy Ian McEwan’s Solar.

Although described in the ‘blurb’ as ‘darkly satirical’ (with some justification!), the Rambler suggests that there is more to Solar than this.

There has always been a clear element of unintentional farce in apocalyptic literature. Its imagery frequently juxtaposes the sublime with the ridiculous and McEwan skilfully exploits this flaw to create the novel’s comic appeal.

Professor Beard, of course, ticks all seven boxes on the Deadly Sins checklist but, unlike Milton’s Satan ( whom, as an undergraduate, Beard learns to admire whilst planning the seduction of an English student) he lacks the necessary nobility to qualify as archetypal anti-hero.

To borrow a Miltonic technique, he is attractively despicable and yet, through a combination of theft, deceit and rampant self-indulgence, he is presented with a chance of saving the planet and mankind.

Read the book with this delicious irony in mind and you’ll enjoy it!


Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, The Hand that First Held Mine, is, as one would expect from this author, a subtle and skilfully written novel.

Two time-schemes (late 1950s/early 60s and the present) are interwoven to relate the tales of two women, Lexie and Elina. Though decades apart and living life at a different pace, both women’s interests, commitments and tastes are comparable in many respects

- art, love, loss, memory and motherhood are significant elements in their experiences.

In the contemporary world of Elina and her partner, Ted, though in ‘altered states’, particular locations and objects are linked with Lexie’s fast, furious, traumatic and tragically short life half a century earlier. Most importantly, however, people provide the ultimate connection between past and present.

Although just a little over-contrived in its early pages and, perhaps, not quite as stunning as The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, her previous book which interrogated the once acceptable practice of consigning ‘problematic’ women to asylums and also employed a ‘past and present’ device, O’Farrell’s new novel is, nevertheless, a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking read.



 Have just finished reading Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers which was quite recently serialised on R.4.   Though, perhaps, just a little sluggish at the beginning and slightly flawed by occasional awkward passages of dialogue, I found this novel rather engaging.

The central character, Vi (Violet) Hetherington is a widow taking a short cruise to New York to meet an old friend, Edwin, a successful poet with whom she once shared a house in Cambridge. Vi is herself a published, though now ‘lapsed‘ poet - H.V. St. John.

In the novel’s ‘present’ we follow Vi’s experiences on board the ‘Queen Caroline’, witnessing her encounters with an odd assortment of fellow-passengers, her assiduous steward, Renato and with Dino, the half-Italian Des from Leicester, employed as a ship’s dance host. Through her thoughts, we learn of Vi’s relationships with her grown-up sons, her father and her long-standing, close friend, Annie. We also discover her feelings about her recently deceased second husband, Ted, and their marriage which, though seemingly successful, was an imperfect match.

Through a series of flashbacks, often prompted by Vi’s re-reading of the contents of old notebooks which she has brought with her, intriguing details concerning her past gradually emerge and it is this episodically revealed ‘story’ which is at the heart of the novel. Needing to understand more about the character of Edwin, Vi’s relationships with him and, later, with his old friend, the awful, intimidating Bruno, one is compelled to read on. Having discovered this background story and having travelled across the Atlantic with her, what happens when Vi reaches New York is a question one does not want left unanswered.






Am currently reading A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, an impressive writer whose previous novels I have usually enjoyed very much. His last novel, Engelby, is, I think, one of the best examples of the use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ in recent years - previous examples would include Ford Madox Ford‘s The Good Soldier ( 1915 ) & Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989).

Set in the pre-Christmas week of 2007, A Week in December is a satirical portrayal of the London-based lives of seven characters whose ‘worlds’ already do, or seem destined to further, ‘connect’.

According to the ‘blurb’ on its back-cover, this book is "Dickensian in scope" and "a thrilling state of the nation novel". Having read only a third of it, I am reluctant to either endorse or refute these assessments, other than to comment that, thus far, I have found this novel both amusing and structurally interesting and am drawn to read on. Whether my present engagement will endure remains to be seen - more on this later.


Having been caught up with the ‘business’ and busyness of Christmas and New Year, at last I have time to comment on A Week in December.

Whilst agreeing with others who feel that this novel has certain weaknesses - some extended sections are over-analytical and/or rather tedious and its cast of characters includes more ‘extras’ than seems necessary - I found it, nevertheless, more interesting than I had anticipated.

I particularly appreciated the novel’s wit, its structure and the subtle strategies employed to persuade one not only to read on but also to assume that one has correctly interpreted ‘clues’ signalling an explosive and catastrophic conclusion.

In his skilful, if not entirely successful, endeavour to create a contemporary state of the nation novel, Faulks addresses serious issues - suspect financial practices, the process of Islamic radicalisation, mental ill-health, drug-addiction, the ethics and effects of ‘reality’ and ‘virtual’ entertainment, the detached ‘neglect’ of offspring by wealthy parents as well as the (lighter, perhaps) 'world' of football and the 'behind the scenes' business of literary reviews and prizes - and in so doing portrays a version of 21st-century London via the perspectives of seven major (and many minor) disparate characters. That the players in this drama often seem representative metropolitan ‘types’, rather than being fully realised and ‘rounded’, does not, to me, suggest a flawed authorial approach. Though not in the league of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, this novel is a satirical fiction and the ‘typical’ is, surely, the substance of satire. Unfortunately, in A Week in December Faulks often strays, perhaps too convincingly, into the realm of realism so that the total impression is somewhat uneven.


Having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2008, I was keen to read her second book, The News Where You Are, and was not disappointed.

As in her first novel, the territory of O’Flynn’s second is that of the West Midlands, specifically Birmingham, and again, within this setting, she succeeds in blending humour and sadness to create a story which is simultaneously satirical, poignant and socially relevant.

The News Where You Are explores serious themes concerning age, loss, loneliness, commitments to family and friends, urban architectural development and media-related issues. This author’s sparing, pacey narrative style, however, renders her novel moving rather than morbid.

In the process of quietly investigating the background of a small, sad newspaper report, Frank Allcroft, a popular but unpretentious presenter of regional television news, eventually discovers the explanation behind the fatal accident to an old friend and former colleague, an event described in the novel’s short Prologue. Thus, as well as being a fiction reflecting and interrogating current times, The News Where You Are is also a ‘detectiveless’ detective novel.

Characters are convincingly realised and O’Flynn’s descriptions of the urban landscape (past and present) and of interiors are both effective and affecting. Particularly impressive are the representations of the residents and rooms of ‘Evergreen’, the private care home where Frank and his family regularly visit his mother.

Although this novel seems occasionally a little laboured compared with What Was Lost, and is, possibly, burdened by a cast of characters which is rather longer than it might have been, I nevertheless found The News Where You Are both engaging and entertaining.


Kate Atkinson’s early novels, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird and collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, were (and remain) exceptionally exciting works of fiction.

(* Many of my former students may recall the interest and lively debate which discussions of these texts generated.)

In recent years Atkinson has written three linked novels which, I think, transport the genre of ‘crime fiction’ to an enthralling and, for the reader, a demanding new realm - ‘another country’, perhaps! Case Histories, One Good Turn and When will there be Good News? were widely acclaimed and with Started Early, Took My Dog, the fourth in the series, Kate Atkinson has produced a novel which is equally as entertaining, clever and thought-provoking as her previous books.

Introducing us to an unglamorous heroine, feisty former policewoman Tracy Waterhouse, continuing to chronicle the progress of ex-policeman, semi-retired private detective, Jackson Brodie, set mainly in Yorkshire (specifically Leeds), shifting in time between the 1970s and the present and interweaving the perspectives and perceptions of numerous characters, Started Early, Took My Dog is both intriguing and challenging.

This novel explores serious themes, including the illicit acquisition of children, police practices and corruption, murder, prostitution, issues relating to class, gender and race, infertility, bereavement, ageing, animal cruelty and companionship, while at the same time incorporating great wit, humour and apt classical, literary and contemporary cultural allusions.

Many of Atkinson’s devotees will be familiar with the character of Brodie - his family background, former relationships, wives, children - and with significant and traumatic events in his life. While several references to his ‘past’ are woven into this book, however, it is difficult to assess the extent to which anyone who hasn’t read the previous three novels would fully grasp Brodie’s complex ‘personality’.

Cleverly constructed, highly paced, sad, serious and subtly amusing, I found Started Early, Took My Dog a compelling read, though to savour its special flavour, one needs to be an alert as well as an avid reader.


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