Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mohammed Hanif writes an astonishing account of life on the streets of Pakistan.

I read a review of this novel that made it sound both brutal and beautifully written.  It certainly is both.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Mohammed Hanif’s second novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (256 pages, Knopf, $25.95) recounts life among Pakistan’s poorest of the poor.  These are crazy erratic lives, as played out in and around Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments.  Alice Bhatti is a nurse in this institution and the life and death she sees around her all the time are brutal and, at times, electrifying.

We get her life in bits and pieces: she is from the poorest class in Pakistan and her father spends his life cleaning gutters.  Because of an accident of geography—she has been born in what is called The French Colony—she is brought up Catholic, and that is perhaps part of the reason that she is taken on as a nurse at the hospital.

Brought up in a borstal and at times violent in defense of herself and what she loves, she seems so close to the edge that it is amazing that she survives from day to day.

But survive she does, and her story is very beautiful even as it fulfills its inevitable tragic arch.  She is friends with a teenager called Noor, who helps out at the hospital and watches his mother slowly slip to death from cancer.  The relation between Alice and Noor is wonderful to behold, but it offers neither of them more than a solid, if sometimes misunderstood, friendship.

Alice Bhatti also gets close to an older nurse, who tries to toughen her and give her something of a mother’s guidance.  This works to an extent, and the two women together do a lot to save lives and counteract the forces of malevolence that hover round the hospital.

Out of this malevolence emerges a man that Alice comes to love.  Teddy Butt is a body builder and a petty hooligan, who gets involved with an underhand kind of law enforcement that leaves endless young men dead in the outskirts of town.  Alice doesn’t know about this side of his life, but she gets frustrated about how often he spends nights out with his colleagues.

Mohammed Hanif writes with a beautiful and vividly descriptive style that makes it possible almost to smell the world that Alice inhabits.  When it seems that she has performed a miracle in the obstetrics ward, the novel moves into an almost spiritual mode that is both moving and debilitating.

The climax of the novel is as rich as it is painful, but it brings the forces of the story together in the kind of catastrophe that the novel has been preparing us for all along.

Alice Bhatti is one of the great creations of contemporary literature, to be sure.  Read this novel if you read any novel this year!  I will go back and read Mohammed Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Mohammed Hanif

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alex Grecian writes a wonderfully dreary Victorian thriller.

After reading one Victorian-like blockbuster, I decided to read another, but this one couldn’t be more different from D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.


The Yard

The Yard (436 pages, Putnam, $26.95) is Alex Grecian’s novel recounting the early days of the Scotland Yard.  Just after the grizzly failure of the police to find Jack the Ripper, London is both angry with the police and ready to blame them for a lot of its woes.

Into this demoralized Scotland Yard, Grecian introduces three key characters.  The first is Walter Day, a young detective who has risen quickly in the ranks and finds himself running a case in which a policeman was dismembered and left in a trunk in the train station.  Day and his colleagues are baffled by the crime, and it does not help that several other detectives refuse to trust this young man and do things to make it harder for him to accomplish anything.

He does have a couple of supporters, though, and one is a rough and ready young constable called Hammersmith, who worked as a boy in coal mines in the north and has come to London to right wrongs, especially for children, when he can.  Another help to Day for fighting crime is a local doctor, Kingsley, who deplores older medical techniques and tries to introduce new ideas, like looking at fingerprints, into the detectives’ arsenal.

Dr. Kingsley is a wonderful character, and his morgue/autopsy room, with its utter disregard of issues like cleanliness and contamination—one has to shudder as the constable shaves with a razor that had been used to slit someone’s throat—offers a beacon of hope to the detectives who are dealing with far too many murders for their tiny “Murder Squad” to be able to handle.

This is not a mystery, really, because Grecian makes the murderer one of the many characters.  Instead, he offers a portrait of this psychopath and makes him even more threatening because of his maniacal need to keep his obsessions secret.

Grecian brings out vividly the life of the streets, and he does a lot to portray the true misery of nineteenth-century life.  This is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a rewarding tale and one that raises the hope that these characters might come together again in a similar seedy challenge to the sanity of London life.

The narrative is well-paced, and the characters are richly drawn.  The novelist struggles a bit at first to find his voice, but once he does, this novel is hard to put down.  This is Grecian's debut attempt at a novel: I hope we can anticipate many more!

Alex Grecian

The Yard is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

D. J. Taylor creates a rich and complex story of a horse race.

I read an enthusiastic review of D. J. Taylor’s novel, and when I looked for it, I realized what a prolific novelist I had stumbled upon.  I enjoyed this novel and will undoubtedly read a few more of his dense and beautifully conceived narratives.

Derby Day

D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day (416 pages, Pegasus, $25.95) recounts the build up for the annual horse race in Epsom Downs by looking at a range of characters at different social levels.  The result is a richly nuanced account of British society in the later nineteenth century.

Primary among the characters under consideration are Mr. Happerton and his wife.  Happerton is a gambler and an investor who buys up debt and then uses it to leverage purchases and financial pressure of various kinds.  He runs a dark and underhanded business and his father-in-law, a London attorney called Gresham, distrusts him and despises him.

Gresham’s daughter, Rebecca, perhaps modeled on Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe, from Vanity Fair, never gives too much away.  She marries Happerton because he intrigues her, and she is ready to throw her weight and her money behind his scheming and his manipulations.

Primary among these is his purchase of the race horse Tiberius, who is an odds-on favorite for winning the Derby that year.  Happerton is only vaguely slowed down in his pursuit of the horse by its being owned by a country gentleman whose financial affairs make him the perfect dupe for Happerton’s techniques; and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Happerton owns the horse and the estate while the poor owner can only apologize to his ancestors and feel a kind of desperation.

Happerton lives large, and he has a few friends, both men and women, that he tries to keep from his wife.  When he recognizes that she is willing to support him in whatever he does, he tells her a bit about the horse and what he is trying to do.  He also explains why he is trying to ruin the horse’s chances of winning: there is more money, he tells her, if the horse loses and he wins by betting on a long shot.

To make this all work, he hires a decrepit jockey and gets involved with  some low-life thieves who help to finance his ascendancy. These activities get more and more sordid, but when Happerton decides to take his mistress to the race instead of his wife, he makes a fatal mistake.

Happerton is the kind of character who has to be brought down, and he plays so fast and loose with the law that it catches up with him eventually.  How it does and what forces conspire to bring him down, D. J. Taylor does a lovely job in relating.

The end of the novel is satisfying as only a sprawling novel like this can be. D. J. Taylor writes a compelling tale with a very satisfying ending.  What more could we ask for?

D. J. Taylor

Derby Day is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

William Boyd writes another compelling thriller.

I liked Boyd’s most recent novel, and I have gone back to read some others.  This one is great.

Ordinary Thunderstorms

William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms (432 pages, Harper Perennial, $15.99) was published last year.  It tells the story of Adam Kindred, a handsome young British academic, who has returned to London from Arizona, where he got his doctorate and was working on a project concerned with seeding clouds for rain. 

He has just had a job interview and is feeling great about the world when, like other Boyd heroes, he is caught in a tailspin. Befriending a solo diner, he follows him home and then burst in on what is clearly a murder.  Before he escapes the scene, though, he does just enough to make himself a suspect.  So he takes the only sensible course: he runs.

He gets no farther than his hotel, however, when he realizes that he is being followed; and after some effects swipes with the dead man’s briefcase, he is off and running both from the police, who already list him as prime suspect, and the murderer, who has traced him to the hotel and is now after him once again.

Adam does what no one thinks possible in this day and age: he falls off the grid.  Hiding in a bit of waste ground by the Chelsea Bridge, he throws away his phone, avoids ATMs, and uses the little cash, at first what he had in his pockets and later what he gets by panhandling.  Once his beard grows in and he starts looking like a homeless person, he can get around fairly easily.

Of course, living on the streets as he does, he also comes in for some tough handling in some of the rougher ghetto districts, but he is almost miraculously befriended by a black prostitute, who is upset that he didn’t have any money to offer but nevertheless offers him a place to stay when the Chelsea spot seems compromised.

This woman has a young son whom Adam enjoys, and as he hides out in her flat, he and the boy become quite close.  Nothing is easy for Adam, however, and even though he’s managed to avoid the cops, some other toughs are hot on his trail.

As he runs and tries to put some kind of life together, he recognizes that some of the material he took from the guy who was murdered expose faulty drug trials that may be endangering the lives of young asthma sufferers.  This becomes a kind of crusade, and as he builds a case against the drug companies, his life starts to have new meaning.

This is a great moral tale, as the academic builds his life up again from the very bottom, but is also a nail-biting kind of thriller because Adam is often only a hair’s breath away from capture or exposure.

Boyd tells a wonderful tale here.  The ending is satisfying and everything that builds up to it is of a caliber that I can now come to expect from this fabulous writer.

William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.