THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS by Will Elliott
(Quercus 312 pp. £10.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
The essence of nightmare is to make sense, but not rational sense, which is at once the principal strength and the major problem about stories which read as if, in part, they are simple transcriptions of the dark places to which the dreaming mind goes at night. Will Elliott's first novel is at its best when it deals in the irrationally horrid, but occasionally slips into default cliche when the demands of story oblige Elliott to impose structure on insanity and terror.
Jamie, a not especially prepossessing young man, falls foul of a group of worryingly unfunny clowns - they wreck his apartment building and terrify the bullies he lives with and then announce their intention of recruiting him, or killing him. Jamie passes their audition and is abducted into their world, turned into a psychotic killer and coward by hallucinogenic face paint and involved in the death feud of clowns and acrobats. The circus is an arena for competing egoes and their murderous spite; Jamie, in the comparative innocence left him when his face is clean, turns out to be the catalust that brings the overreaching viciousness of those around him to a head.
Elliott is always at his best with the things that are never explained and which are as much surreal poetry as macabre thrills- the feyly idiotic clown who wants to marry a fern, the circus co-owner who snacks on a wide variety of teeth. Too much of the time, though, he relies on sheer unpleasantness - Jamie's predecessor as bottom of the clown hierarchy is slowly done to death in circumstances of extreme brutality - as if Elliott is scared of letting the completely bizarre take over and contents himself with mayhem. When he gets to explanations, moreover, they are routine horror cliches with nothing original added to them - the exiled Old Ones manipulating events for the worst from a pocket dimension, the drug made from fragments of soul.
At his best, Elliott writes with a power commensurate with the originality of his vision - it is not just that he has miraculously nasty visions to put on the page, but he has the ability to make us share them. Too much of the time - though it needs to be emphasized that this is a first novel and one of real promise - the dialogue of his horrible clowns shifts down a gear from the menacing subtlety of Beckett, Pinter or Tarantino to routine street-corner threats and viciousness. It is interesting that the one sort of act absent from this terrifying circus is the high wire, as if Elliott were conscious of the fine balance needed for his own performance, and how often amid the brilliance, he wobbles or falls.
WOLF OF THE PLAINS by Colin Iggulden (Harper Collins 458 pp £14.99)
DAWN OF EMPIRE by Sam Barone (Century 483 pp £20)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
In living memory the historical novel was a mass market genre bought by men and women; half- remembered popular writers like Frank Yerby and Rafael Sabatini wrote books full of ripped bodices and buckled swashes that Hollywood loved and that now sit, battered paperbacks in charity shop bargain bins. We still read literary novels set in the past - always a handy way of lecturing us about present crises - and romances are often set in the past as a handy way of putting their heroines in direr perils than currently available. A few male writers have created a niche for themselves with tales of military or naval adventure - O'Brien, MacDonald Fraser - but catalogues' regular heralding of writers as the new O'Brien or Fraser indicates how narrow that niche is.
Much of the energy that went into the historical novel has slipped sideways into the post- Tolkien heroic fantasy - where much creative energy goes into dwarf language or magic technique that might otherwise have been spent on researching the precise cut of a doublet. High fantasy, though, however good - and something like Scott Lynch's 'The Lies of Locke Lamorra' reminds us just how good that can be - is stigmatized in the popular mind as both nerdy and girlish, even in the hands of its butchest exponents like Robert E. Howard or the late David Gemmell. It is not the sort of thing that executives feel happy having in their briefcases, as relaxation from guides to effective habits of mind.
Novels that celebrate the rise and rise of ruthless military and political leaders, on the other hand, are just the thing to be seen with in business class. Colin Iggulden has moved, via 'The Dangerous Book for Boys', from a series about Julius Caesar, that master of spin and leverage, to the story of Genghis Khan, that well-known expert in hostile take-overs. As with his Caesar series, Iggulden has a solid text to fall back on - 'The Secret History of the Mongols' - and the story of the young khan's orphaning, survival and creation of his own clan from other outcasts of the plains is a powerful but little-known one which stands retelling. Iggulden is as intelligent about surviving in extreme environments like the high cold plain as he is informed about the niceties of horse-back archery. This is energetic competent stuff; Iggulden knows his material and his audience.
Teetering on the brink of fantasy material, yet without any magic, is Sam Barone's intelligent attempt at reconstructing the origin of cities. Eskkar, who might as well be the Barbarian With No Name, is hired by the rich villagers of Orak to protect it against a marauding horde, and with help from his slave-wife Trella, and various local experts, invents the moat and wall defense, guerilla warfare and much else besides. By the time he has finished, Orak has become Akkad and he has invented kingship as well. Many of the pleasures of 'Dawn of Empire' are those of watching boys play with soldiers on a table-top, but Barone reminds us just how much fun that can be. Also, his sense of how Trella's desperate situation as a woman without power makes her a ruthless political adviser is informed by values of which the rape-laden descendants of 'Gone with the Wind' were blithely unaware.
BEATRIX POTTER - A Life In Nature by Linda Lear
(Penguin 584 pp £25)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Potter was quick to reject the amateur psychoanalysis of Graham Greene; her children's books were, she claimed, simple and straight from the heart. Of course, Greene got it all wrong, except for the big thing; nothing as perfectly simple as Peter Rabbit or The Tale of Two Bad Mice comes straight from anywhere. The triumph of Linda Lear's thorough, well-documented life of the children's author and illustrator, and pioneer conservationist, comes from this: after reading it, one feels, finally, entitled to theorize on the basis of most of the possible information.
Beatrix Potter had a privileged Victorian childhood that was at once an opportunity and a cage; her urbane civilized parents encouraged her interest in art and biology, but as hobbies, not as ta career.. Or rather, would have done, in a world like Edwardian England in which science was almost entirely off limits to women; Potter did some original research on lichens that was utterly correct in its conclusions and entirely rejected and neglected by the Linnaean society when she presented it. Women were not even worth stealing from.
This rejection - Potter was a fine observer and her illustrative talents were still an important skill in an era before accurate colour photography - was the wound, if any, that made her a great artist. The doomed engagement to a publisher of whom her parents disapproved followed on from that work - he was the publisher of the early books before they fell in love; his premature death gave her the strength to withdraw from London and daughterly duty to live on a hill farm where she wrote her later books and married, happily, a country solicitor.
The paradox is, then, that rejection as a scientist made her one of the artists who turned the children's picture book into part of the canon of High Art; it does not take much ingenuity to see that the strength of most of those books comes from imaginative sympathy with theft and other transgressions. Male biologists taught her, very clearly, what it is to trespass on someone else's cabbage patch.
UTOPIAN DREAMS by Tobias Jones
(Faber 220 pp. £12.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
We cannot fix the world, and to fix ourselves without fixing the world is merely selfish. There remains the option - some would say the temptation - of withdrawing to a private world where we fix ourselves by helping other people, of showinthe world what it is missing, by showing the joy of loving kindness placed directly in opposition to destructive consumerism. After the years he spent taking apart the kleptocracy of Berlusconi's Italy, Jones was ripe for conversion to an ideal, and this is the story of his love affair with the communal simple life.
Much of this book is attractive, as how could it not be? Jones spends time in a Quaker retirement community, with a Catholic Italian charity that brings up orphans, and with an Italian cult that make candles and burrow secret ampitheatres and take weird names. He plays billiards and mends hedges with alcoholics in recovery and chats to mystical hermits about the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. And he does all of this not as a tourist, but as someone who, for a while at least, walks the walk of the communities to whose talk he is listening.
The problem is that Jones is far too tolerant for his own good. He bites his tongue about ultramontane Italian attitudes to Protestantism, but fails to see the deeper malaise of intolerance that underlies the minor jokes and slurs; indeed, a lot of the time he comes out with standard crass apologetics about how the secular world mistrusts the good intentions of the religious.
The issue in the end is this - for most believers, saving bodies is the fast track to saving souls. For too many of the communities which Jones records accurately but oversympathetically, the point of living together in harmony is ultimately to turn all the inhabitants, and all the recipients of their bounty, into sock puppets for a strong central personality or set of dogmas. Jones is a good enough writer that his book does not say what he intends it to; his quest for utopia reveals quiet nightmares.
MENDEL'S DAUGHTER by Martin Lemelman
(Cape 222pp. £14.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
There are some stories which need to be told over and over again because telling them helps to define what is good or contemptible in our humanity. The difficulty comes in compelling our attention on the thousandth iteration; humans get bored or resistant or deny the stories have anything to do with us, personally. The story of the Holocaust is one of those stories, no more and no less; it is one of many sets of facts that we deny at the peril of failing to understand ourselves, of committing sins of which repetition is only one.
Six million is a figure so vast we cannot comprehend it; those six million were killed one at a time or in batches and each of them was an individual who did not deserve to die. Lemelman tells the story of his relatives who died, and of his relatives who lived and bore witness - plucked, all of them, from life in a Ukrainian village so ordinary in its mild exoticism that this recitation of cooking and cleaning and going to school would be boring were it not the peaceful prelude to bleakness.
Being a distinguished illustrator, Lemelman does not just tell his mother and uncles' stories; he draws them in greys and blurs that show the origin of some drawings in photographs. The delicate realism of this work reminds us of what cannot be documented otherwise because it has been lost - a way of life and the death that came upon it. And every so often, fellow villagers are named, and along with their name there comes their fate. Almost all of them died and are only remembered in these pages.
The one time Hitler is mentioned in these pages, it is with the curse 'may his name be erased'; to be forgotten is the worst and this book serves as memory. When more recent injustices tempt politicians to deny or mock the reality written and drawn here, this book in its incisive yet wistful sorrow is a shaming answer.