Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh has written nine novels, as well as several non-fiction books, but so far my experience of his work has been confined to Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire, three novels known as the Ibis Trilogy, which are set in China and India during the First Opium War of 1839-1842. I loved those books, so even though his new one, Gun Island, sounded completely different, I was still looking forward to reading it.

Unlike the Ibis Trilogy, Gun Island is set entirely in the modern day. Our narrator, Dinanath Datta – known as Deen – has been leading a quiet, uneventful life in Brooklyn as a dealer of rare books. In fact, sometimes it is too quiet and uneventful. Approaching his sixties and feeling very alone in the world, Deen visits Bengal, the place of his birth, in the hope of meeting someone special with whom to share the rest of his life. Instead, he meets a distant relative who tells him the story of the Gun Merchant, a legendary figure who had dramatic adventures at sea while fleeing the wrath of the snake goddess Manasa Devi, before taking refuge on the island of Bonduk-dwip or ‘Gun Island’, a land free of serpents.

As Deen digs deeper into the legend and embarks on a journey to one of the historical sites associated with the story, he enlists the help of his friends Piya, a Bengali-American teacher, and Cinta, an Italian academic. But it is not until he gets to know two young men – Tipu and Rafi, who help him to see the world from another perspective – that Deen finally begins to unravel the riddles of the Gun Merchant.

The first half of the novel, set in India and America, is fascinating; I particularly enjoyed Deen’s visit to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Although I found the pace quite slow, I loved the exploration of the Gun Merchant legend and what its true meaning may have been. Amitav Ghosh is obviously an author who likes to play with words and language, something which is more prominent in Sea of Poppies and its sequels but is apparent in this book too. We – and Deen – soon discover that some of the names of places and people mentioned in the legend could mean something entirely different than they initially seemed to.

Two other themes play an important part in the novel and both are hugely relevant to modern life: climate change and migration. These are introduced into the story gradually at first, as Deen’s friends share their theories of how increasing temperatures and rising water levels are leading to the movement of both wildlife and people. In the second half of the book, however, after the action switches to Venice and begins to focus on the stories of migrants who have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya, the story seems to lose its way. Ghosh clearly feels passionate about these issues, but the way he incorporates them into the novel is a bit too heavy-handed and at times I felt as though I was reading a long essay or an article in The Guardian instead of a work of fiction. I think part of the problem is that we see everything from Deen’s perspective and, for most of the book, he is a passive onlooker, listening to accounts of other people’s experiences rather than experiencing things for himself.

Gun Island is an interesting read but the balance between the story and the message isn’t quite right. There are also far too many coincidences, with Deen meeting people by chance whom he had previously met on the other side of the world. As I did enjoy those other books by Amitav Ghosh, I would be happy to try more of his work, but this particular novel just wasn’t for me.

This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1965 and as usual I found a wide variety of books to choose from, as well as a few that I’d already read. Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence was published in 1965 and as I’ve wanted to read that series for a long time this seemed the perfect opportunity to begin.

I did wonder whether I might have read this book when I was younger and forgotten about it, but as soon as I started to read I knew I couldn’t have done as it didn’t seem familiar at all. The story begins with three children – Simon, Jane and Barney – arriving in Trewissick, a small fishing village in Cornwall where they will be spending the summer holidays with their parents and Great Uncle Merry. The children have fun exploring the large house the family are renting, particularly when they move some furniture and discover a secret door leading into a dusty hidden room.

Up to this point, I thought the book had a feeling of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about it, but the plot soon goes in a very different direction when the children find an ancient manuscript inside the hidden room. The manuscript includes a drawing of what appears to be the Trewissick coastline and some text which they are unable to translate, apart from a possible reference to King Arthur and his knights. Could it be a treasure map – and if so, what sort of treasure is it leading them to?

On sharing their news with Great Uncle Merry, the children learn the true significance of the map they have found and set off to follow the clues it contains. But it seems that other people have also been looking for the map and will stop at nothing to get hold of it and discover its secrets for themselves.

Over Sea, Under Stone is described as a children’s novel, but I think it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It did often remind me of the Enid Blyton adventure stories I loved as a child, but this book feels darker than anything Blyton wrote. The villains are quite sinister and there were several points in the novel when I was genuinely worried about the children! It doesn’t help that our young heroes and heroine make some stupid decisions and choose the wrong people to trust – but they are children, after all! I liked the way Susan Cooper gives each of them his or her own strengths and weaknesses and their own chance to shine and play a part in solving the mystery.

The Cornish coastline is beautifully described and although the village of Trewissick is fictional, it felt very real to me and I wasn’t surprised to learn later that Susan Cooper based it on Mevagissey, a real fishing port in Cornwall. The coast, with its rocks and caves, beaches, cliffs and bays, is an integral part of the story and not just a pretty setting!

This is a great book and I do regret not reading it as a child, as I’m sure I would have loved it then. I will definitely be continuing with the rest of the series, although I’m aware that the other books are a bit different and have a stronger fantasy element.

~

I will have another 1965 read to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are some other 1965 books I have previously reviewed on my blog:

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Stoner by John Williams

The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

‘You’re right, of course,’ he said finally. ‘I’m not very good at thinking up plots, that’s the problem. I feel like all the stories in the universe have already been told.’

‘But that’s just not true,’ I insisted. ‘There’s an infinite supply for anyone with an imagination’.

This month is Reading Ireland Month. I wasn’t sure whether I’d have time to join in, but then I remembered I had A Ladder to the Sky on the TBR pile and, of course, John Boyne is an Irish author. I have read and enjoyed several of his books and this – his most recent, published in 2018 – sounded as though it would be another good one.

John Boyne’s books are always imaginative and always a little bit different to anything else I’ve read and this one is no exception. It tells the story of Maurice Swift, an aspiring novelist whose ambition knows no bounds and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to climb the ‘ladder to the sky’. The first section of the book, however, is written from the perspective of Erich Ackermann, a successful author who is touring Europe to promote his latest novel. Erich, a gay man in his sixties, has almost given up on the idea of finding love, but when he meets Maurice at a hotel in West Berlin in 1988, he feels an instant attraction to the young man and offers him a job as his assistant. Soon he finds himself confiding in Maurice, telling him all the secrets of his past and his youth growing up in Nazi Germany. But can Maurice be trusted – and what might he do with the information he has been given?

While I was reading this opening section, I was beginning to feel confused. It wasn’t really what I’d expected from the blurb – it seemed as though Erich Ackermann was the protagonist of the novel rather than Maurice and instead of reading a story about an ambitious young author I was reading one about Nazis and the fate of a family of Jews during the war. Eventually, though, I understood the point of all this and saw where the plot was heading. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, sometimes you need to give a book at least one hundred pages before making up your mind (“Yes, perhaps you’ll be bored at the start, but what if it gets better and suddenly everything that went before falls into place”) and that was certainly the case here. The book became more and more enjoyable the more I read, and by the time I reached the end I could appreciate the clever structure and the way in which Maurice’s true nature was revealed.

I won’t go into too many details about the things Maurice does as he tries to climb the ladder of ambition, but I can tell you that he is not a pleasant person at all. He is ruthless, cruel, completely without morals and doesn’t seem to care how much he hurts and betrays people. As an author, he suffers from a problem which will be familiar to many aspiring writers – he knows he can write, but he doesn’t know what to write about. Unable to think of any stories of his own, he decides to steal other people’s. But these are not just simple cases of plagiarism; the methods Maurice uses to obtain these stories and pass them off as his own are much worse than anyone could imagine.

Although the novel is quite dark at times (the section narrated by Maurice’s wife, Edith, is particularly disturbing) there’s also some humour, especially when Boyne is having fun satirising the literary world and various author stereotypes – for example, we meet Henry Etta James who writes an award-winning novel called I Am Dissatisfied with My Boyfriend, My Body and My Career and Garrett Colby whose books all feature talking animals, including one about an ‘unrequited love affair between a man and a raccoon’. At one point Maurice also picks up a book by Maude Avery, the fictitious author from Boyne’s previous novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I thought was a nice touch. Real authors find their way into the novel too, such as Gore Vidal, whom Maurice visits at his villa on the Amalfi Coast.

I ended up loving this book; in fact, with the exception of The Thief of Time, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by John Boyne so far. I still have four of his earlier adult novels to read: The Congress of Rough Riders, Next of Kin, Mutiny on the Bounty and The House of Special Purpose. If anyone has read one or more of those, I’d love to know which you’d recommend I read next.

Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott

I was aware that Agatha Christie had written several books under the name of Mary Westmacott but I had never really thought about trying one until I saw that the February book for the Read Christie 2019 Challenge was Giant’s Bread. Published in 1930, this is the first of the Westmacott novels, so seemed like a good place to start with them. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she used a pseudonym as it’s very different from the mystery novels for which she is much more famous, but it’s still enjoyable in its own way and I will definitely be going on to read more Westmacott books.

Giant’s Bread is the story of a young man and his love of music. We first meet Vernon Deyre as a child, growing up in a wealthy household under the care of a succession of nursemaids and servants. With a highly-strung, melodramatic mother and a father who is more interested in other women than in his wife, Vernon retreats into a world of imaginary friends – and imaginary monsters, such as the grand piano, which he thinks of as a vicious ‘Beast’ with teeth. This irrational fear makes him avoid all forms of music until, as an adult, he allows himself to listen for the first time and is enchanted by what he hears.

Although the focus is mainly on Vernon as he pursues a career in music, determined to make up for all the years he has wasted, we follow the stories of several other characters too. There’s Joe (Josephine), Vernon’s cousin and best friend, an independent and rebellious young woman who wants to become a sculptor; the beautiful, timid Nell Vereker, Vernon’s childhood playmate with whom he later falls in love; Jane Harding, an older woman who shares his love of music; and Sebastian Levinne, whose family buy the house next to the Deyres’ estate, Abbots Puissants. Sebastian is Jewish, and yes, you can expect some of the anti-Semitism that appeared in so many books from this era – but despite that, I thought he was portrayed as the most likeable of the five main characters in the novel. The others are all deeply flawed people but, of course, that is what makes them and their struggles so interesting to read about.

Before I started to read Giant’s Bread, I had the impression that Mary Westmacott’s books were light romances, but that’s not how I would describe this one at all. Although characters do fall in and out of love over the course of the novel, it’s not a very romantic story – more a story of the sacrifices we are prepared or not prepared to make in order to get what we want out of life. This is illustrated particularly well with Nell’s storyline, in which she has to decide whether her love for Vernon is more important to her than her love of comfort and luxury.

Towards the end of the novel, things became much more dramatic, with some very implausible plot twists and some coincidences that seemed far too convenient! It was disappointing because up to that point I had really believed in the story and the characters. This did let the book down, in my opinion, but didn’t spoil it too much, as there had been so much else that I’d loved. The early chapters describing Vernon’s childhood were wonderful and captured the way a lonely, imaginative little boy may have looked at the world. Later in the book, I enjoyed reading about Nell’s experiences as a nurse during the First World War.

On finishing the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what message Christie wanted us to take away from it. Yes, Vernon and the others had made sacrifices, but were we supposed to agree that those sacrifices were worthwhile or not? If anyone else has read the book, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that. I do like books that leave me with something to think about and this one certainly did. I hope the other Mary Westmacott novels will be equally fascinating.

If you’re wondering, the title Giant’s Bread comes from the lines spoken by the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk – ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’.

The Trap by Dan Billany

I knew nothing about Dan Billany until I decided to read The Trap, published posthumously in 1950, but his life story sounds dramatic enough to be the plot of a novel in its own right. As a Lieutenant in the British Army during World War II, he was captured in North Africa and transported to a camp in Italy. He wrote The Trap during his internment and, when he made his escape, left his manuscripts with an Italian farmer, who sent them to Billany’s family after the war ended. Billany himself never returned home and is thought to have died in 1943.

The Trap, I think, must be at least partly autobiographical, as its protagonist, Michael Carr, is also a young army officer sent to North Africa in the early years of the war. The first half of the novel, though, describes the quiet life Michael leads in Cornwall before war breaks out and his relationship with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Pascoe. Michael takes his time to tell this part of the story, in a style which is slow and rambling – quite ‘stream of consciousness’ at times – but I liked it. The writing is beautiful, painting a picture of a young working-class couple’s life in the 1930s, as well as delving into Elizabeth’s family background with descriptions of her parents’ marriage and the house in which she and her brother grew up.

I really enjoyed the domestic section of the novel, although it wasn’t what I had expected at all. I had been expecting a war story…which it is, but not until you’re halfway through the book. At this point, after some training at a camp in the English countryside, Michael is sent to fight in the deserts surrounding Tobruk and suddenly his life with Elizabeth seems very far away. As a young officer, Michael has to learn how to lead men and how to care for those under his command. The novel explores some of the problems he experiences with his men, as well as the challenging conditions they face in the desert before they even encounter the enemy. Knowing that Billany had lived through all of this himself, I have no doubt that his descriptions were authentic.

Looking at other reviews of this book, I think most people read it primarily for the story that is told in the second half and were disappointed with the time devoted to Elizabeth and her family. For me, it was the opposite: I preferred the first half set in Cornwall and started to lost interest once Michael arrived in North Africa and the book became more concerned with military tactics and army life. It felt almost like two separate novels in the same book – the two halves have a different tone, a different pace and a different style.

I found The Trap too uneven to be truly satisfying, but still worth reading, as much for its place in history as for its story.

Campion at Christmas by Margery Allingham

I love Margery Allingham so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read this new collection of four short stories, all with a festive theme. The title is slightly misleading as only three of the four stories feature Albert Campion, but they are all quite enjoyable in their different ways. They are also very short, so perfect for readers with busy Christmas schedules who just want something quick to read!

The first story, On Christmas Day in the Morning, was my favourite and involves Campion investigating the death of a postman hit by a car on Christmas morning. The culprits have been identified, but the evidence provided by local residents is confusing and Campion must decide whether the suspects and the victim really could have been in the right location at the right time for the accident to have taken place. It’s not much of a mystery, but I found it a sad and poignant story which reminded me of how lonely some people feel at Christmas.

Next we have Happy Christmas, probably the weakest story in the book, in which a young couple with a passion for the 19th century decide that they would like to have a traditional Victorian Christmas. Campion doesn’t appear at all in this story and I’m not sure that it really belonged in this collection. I’m not entirely sure what the point of it was, although I do love the idea of a Victorian Christmas.

The Case of the Man with the Sack is a more conventional detective story. Albert Campion is celebrating Christmas with friends at their country house when a theft takes place – and the main suspect is Santa Claus. This is a slightly longer story than the others, so there’s more time to develop the plot. Of course, it can’t compare with a full-length Campion mystery, but it was interesting enough to hold my attention until the end.

Finally, there’s Word In Season, a lovely but unusual tale about Campion and his dog, Poins. Did you know that, according to myth, animals are given the power of speech in the final hour of Christmas Eve? I didn’t, but that’s what this final story is about.

These four Christmas stories were obviously ideal for the time of year and I did find them entertaining, but I thought they were too short to be completely satisfying. I’m looking forward to reading some more of Allingham’s longer novels soon.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

Rebecca West is the final author to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors this year. Having previously only read The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, I decided to read The Fountain Overflows next as it is one of the books on my Classics Club list. This is the first in a trilogy (the other two – This Real Night and the unfinished Cousin Rosamund – were published posthumously), and although it is a work of fiction, it does apparently draw on the author’s own childhood experiences.

The Fountain Overflows is set in the early 20th century and tells the story of the Aubrey family through the eyes of Rose, one of the children. As the novel opens, the family are preparing for a move from Scotland to London, having only recently returned to Britain from South Africa. The children have become used to changing address on a regular basis due to the fact that their father, a newspaper editor, seems unable to stay in one position for very long. He is irresponsible, unreliable and has a habit of gambling his money away on the stock exchange, but his wife and children love him anyway and hope that this time he can make a success of the job he has been offered and that they will be able to stay in their new home for longer than usual.

The Aubreys are a creative, cultured and highly gifted family – Rose and her twin sister, Mary, are talented pianists; their little brother Richard Quin, as he grows older, discovers an aptitude for the flute; and Cordelia, the eldest, plays the violin. Their mother, Clare Aubrey, had been a concert pianist herself, and it falls to her to see that each of her children receives the correct guidance and tuition to make the most of their abilities. This proves particularly challenging where her eldest daughter is concerned, as thanks to a well-meaning but interfering teacher, Cordelia is led to believe she is much more talented than she really is. I found the Cordelia storyline very moving – it’s obvious from the beginning what is going to happen but it takes a long time to play out and I dreaded the moment when she would inevitably discover the truth.

Although this is a story driven by characters, relationships and family bonds, there is also some drama. There is an episode where Rose and her mother visit the home of Rose’s Aunt Constance and cousin Rosamund, only to find the house apparently haunted by poltergeists. Later in the book, the mother of a friend from school is accused of murder and the Aubreys are drawn into that too. But these incidents, each of which could have formed the entire plot of a different sort of novel, are relatively minor aspects of The Fountain Overflows and no more or less important than many of the other things that happen in Rose’s life.

I loved Rose’s narrative voice; not all authors can write convincingly from the perspective of a child, but Rebecca West certainly does. She really captures the way children think and feel, the things that matter to them and the way they look at the world. But the most engaging character, for me, was Rose’s mother. I admired her for her strength in trying to keep her family and marriage together, seeing that the rent is paid on time, helping others despite her own financial hardship, and providing a stable, loving home for her children when their father couldn’t or wouldn’t.

With such strong, believable characters and such lovely writing, this was a wonderful read. I was sorry to have to leave the family behind at the end, but I’m looking forward to meeting them again in This Real Night.

This is book 10/50 from my second Classics Club list.