Friday, 11 September 2015

Review: The Quorum by Kim Newman

Aaaah. Nobody does nasty like Newman.

Meet Derek Leech, a less-than-sly stab at Murdoch type press barons, who oozes from the Thames like an eldritch entity slipping through the gaps between worlds. Able to read the future, he harnesses pain to his own ends, building a media empirein London's Docklands. To fuel this, he promises three teenagers the fulfilment of their youthful dreams if they begin an annual campaign against Neil Martin, the absent member of their clique. Between New Year's Day and Valentine's Day, they pool their efforts to destroy his life further each year, ensuring their own success.

Enter Sally Rhodes, P.I. and single mother, paid by one of the group to keep an eye on Neil before New Year's Eve. With this, the stage is set for a deal-with-the-Devil, black magic thriller.

This is not what Newman delivers.

I admit to being something of a fangirl, and will cheerfully say this is the most uncomfortable of Newman's books that I've read. I also suspect it will probably be one of those I reread the most. Like his short stories, this is one that slips into your head and twists, not letting you escape. While his social commentary is more subtle here than in his other works (more reminiscent of An English Ghost Story than things like Bad Dreams) its views the political through the personal, dealing not with global movements, but human nature.

Because, in The Quorum, Leech is a liminal figure and the focus is less upon ruthless, captitalist bastards, as amusing, geeky artists. Michael, Mark and Mickey are all flawed, selfish, prejudiced, but they are familiar. Worse, they are horribly, fascinatingly, likeable (although I struggled a bit with Mickey.) Meeting at school, they are outcasts who revel in their strangeness and make it serve them. Their conversations are clever, full of references dropped and running jokes about the world that is agaisnt them. They put on anarachic am-dram productions and play life-or-death boardgames that are far more relevant to them than the real world. Even into adulthood, quickly revert to their old bantering style.

As a member of a similar clique myself, I sympathised, I empathised. Knowing how hard it is to succeed in creative industries, I wished them well. Even their early pranks had an air of playfulness to them, of the score settling contemplated on a lazy afternoon as friends egg each other on to ever greater excesses. I've never really taken revenge, or played a cruel trick, but, oh, the plans I have laid.

Then, of course, you remember. Then you look at Neil, scraping by in a pitful, wounded life, paying for their success.

No-one does nasty like Newman.

(Also in the edition are a series of short stories featuring the characters from the novel in very different worlds and situations. They are like little hooks in the mind, small nightmares to keep you awake, the sort of jokes that have you cracking up even as you scream, "I should not be laughing at that!" I've always been very fond of Newman's shorter fiction.)

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Oh. I wanted to love this book like I've loved the the other Waters books I've read and, like, Affinity was so magical and I...

Calm down, Alys, take it slowly.

Set in the interwar years, The Paying Guests is a "love story that is also a crime story", and follows the relationships that develop between Francis Wray - a gentlewoman of slender means forced to rent rooms in her house - and Mr and Mrs Barber - the eponymous "Paying Guests". This being a Waters novel, we can guess in what way these relationships develop.

And that aspect of it is handled wonderfully. For, of course, Miss Wray is not the prim, downtrodden spinster her current life seems to refelct. Instead, in the aftermath of the Great War, she is in a fugue state, mourning the loss of her two brothers and her relationship with another woman which family circumstances - or perhaps a failure of courage - caused her to abandon. While something of a slow burner, the first half of the book is an eloquent and moving examination of the pains and perils of clandestine love and the possiblity of honesty as permitted by the period.

I was especially taken with the gut-punching accuracy with which Waters describes the awkward, charged physicality of the the closeted queer body when faced with homosocial relationships. In simpler words - straight women get to touch each other without there being a sexual subtext. The same does not apply when you aren't straight and aren't out about it, and, oh my word, that haircut scene could have sprung from my adolescence. Good, character driven fiction gives us insight into ourselves and those around us - and Waters is enormously skilled in that regard.

It is in the middle section of the book, with the shift from romance to crime, that the novel suffers. The crime scenes themselves (no spoliers!) are wonderfully done, but the characters' emotional reactions don't quite satisfy. I've seen Waters in interview saying she did not want her protagonists to "shrug off" the crime aspect, but this has made the novel very introspective, and caused the already leisurely pace to slow further. The final third - where it becomes a full courtroom drama -  is a again a moving and engaging read, but I did nearly abandon it in the middle bit. Personally, I feel the book would have been better had the three strands been more throroughly intergrated.

What was more, the character of Lilian Barber felt like something of cypher - a place marker for a "man's woman"/"love interest", who was permitted little more interiority than such a character would have in a comparable heterosexual novel. You know, the kind that wouldn't pass the Bechdel Test. This was frustrating as Waters' characters are usually so well realised and comprehensible - even the mysterious ones.

For all that, The Paying Guests is an intelligent, ambitious novel with an engaging, uncomfortable set of characters. It doesn't have the intensity I associate with her other works, and the claustrophobic, '20s set up leads to a slow pace and a slightly unsatisfactory element of psychological drama, but it is unquestionably accomplished and well worth a read.