This novel by Lawrence Hill made for fascinating reading. A novel, it follows the story of Langston Cane as he researches his family background in preparation for a novel. This metacognition is heightened by the fact that each of the (male) relatives he follows are also called Langston Cane.
‘Our’ Langston is number five and working for a government minister when the book opens but a misdemeanour with a speech he prepares for his boss finds him out of work. As his wife has also left him, he is without a purpose until family history sends him from Toronto to Baltimore and his aunt who is estranged from her brother. She has information about her father and grandfather and Langston uses this to piece together a story of race and civil rights across the generations.
Both world wars feature as does the underground railway to Canada used by slaves escaping the USA. The civil rights movement and interracial marriage are here, too. An African illegally resident is a key character while historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass pop up.
What makes the book work as more than a fictionalised family history is the story of Cane trying to navigate the present while looking into the past. Lawrence Hill avoids giving us a chronological version of the past Cane’s revealing bits of the past out of sequence before providing ‘chunks’ of the story of previous Langston Canes.
‘Any Known Blood’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Novels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear. It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception. ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity. In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.
The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth. The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times. This is where the insights of the invited guest come in. We see how other audience members react.
There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.
David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novella by Icelandic writer, Sjon, is an interesting exploration of a young man making his way in the world. Gay and prepared to take money for favours, our hero exists in Reykjavik in 1918 when a terrible flu epidemic hit the city.
This tragedy serves as a background to a story of a young man, Mani, who is in love with the cinema because it offers dreams of another life and who becomes an apprentice to a doctor during the worst of the crisis. He goes into houses to find people at the edge of death or, in some cases, finds their corpses instead.
Mani is not ashamed of being gay and enjoys his encounters with his men as much as he likes the cinema. This is not an anguished coming of age tale or rather the anguish is confined to the terrible events in the city. Yet, there is an encounter with a Danish sailor at the independence celebrations. It is this meeting that sends his life off in another direction. Mani may be happy to be gay but he lives in a society that does not share his pride.
In such a short book, Sjon covers issues of belonging, identity and the threat on society from outside. Flu, homosexuals and the cinema all act as alien influences in 1918 Reykjavik.
There is a coda that serves to connect the story to the author. It explains, at last, the sub-title of the book: The Boy Who Never Was.
This novel by Jamila Gavin is called an epic on the front cover of the version I have and I do not think this is misplaced. I could see this story of spies and intrigue making a very good film or television series.
The story centres around young Filippo whose family is in dire straits after the disappearance of his father into India many years ago. Geronimo Veraneo is a jeweller in search of precious stones, hence the trip to India to find them. He never returns and the family fear he is a prisoner of an Afghan warlord. His wife refuses to believe he is dead even though her son-in-law wants to have him declared so and thereby inherit the family fortune. He believes the family holds a precious diamond, the Blood Stone of the title, and he wants to find it. He has spies among the servants but is unable to track it down.
When news reaches them that their father is still alive, it is decided that Filippo should be the one to travel to India to pay the diamond as ransom money. The blood stone is sewn into his head and the adventure begins.
It is unclear who to trust but young Filippo makes the journey across the Middle East from Italy to India.
There are sub-plots involving the daughter married to the unscrupulous son-in-law, Filippo’s friend and his family, and the brothers who are apprentice jewellers. Like other stories by Jamila Gavin, there is the crossing of borders, both physical and cultural but the main narrative is one of adventure and intrigue.
‘The Blood Stone’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have long been a fan of David Wynne’s work as a sculptor. There are so many London landmarks improved by the siting of one of his sculptures. Other places, too, have benefited from his talent, including Newcastle, but it is London I know best and it was here that I first put the name of the artist to the work I most admired: Boy with a Dolphin.
This book, which takes its title from his most famous work, is actually a review of his career. Published before his death in 2014, the book includes photographs of him working as well as of the final pieces in situ. There are still places I need to go to see his sculpture and some are in the hands of private collectors or private companies so will possibly be beyond sight unless there is a retrospective at a major gallery.
The best aspect of the book is the insight into the creative process. There are quotes from interviews with Wynne himself as well as excerpts from newspapers and magazines. David Wynne was friends with people in high places and many of his commissions came from someone who knew someone. As an essentially self- taught artist, though, the fact that so many pieces are on public display is the best outcome for me.
This book with its extensive illustrations is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The death this week of Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, marks another part of my childhood passing away. I loved the books about the bear from Peru who comes to London, where I lived as a boy, as a refugee and who learns how to fit in with the British. The first book was published in 1958 and I read many of them in the 60s. Yet, it was an animated version broadcast by the BBC in the 70s that seared an image of the bear in my mind. With the late great Michael Hordern as the voice of Paddington, the series of short programmes was the definitive interpretation of the stories.
The greatest animation of all time must surely be ‘Paddington Bear Goes to the Movies’ when the young bear performed a version of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Sublime! Thank you Michael Bond.
Paddington swaps Marmalade for Marmite.EMBARGOED TO 0001 THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 13, 2007. Undated Handout of Paddington Bear who swaps his trademark marmalade for a pot of Marmite in a new campaign launched today. Issue date: Wednesday September 12, 2007. He appears in a new TV commercial to publicise the savoury spread following a deal between food giant Unilever, which owns the Marmite brand, and owners of the Paddington copyright. See PA story: CONSUMER Paddington. Photo credit should read: Ben Phillips/PA Wire URN:5129193
This children’s novel by Jill Paton Walsh from 1988 is a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be dislocated as a child. James is new to the Fens, having moved with his parents because of their jobs. He finds himself as the outsider in a village where the children divide themselves neatly into ‘estate’ and ‘village’. As he belongs to neither group, James feels even more alone. It is a good job, then, that the old man next door is so interesting.
Mr Samson, the ‘gaffer’ of the title, is a widower who befriends the young boy providing him with someone to talk to. Such inter-generational friendships may now be threatened but in times past the wisdom of an older person could be passed on. Jill Paton Walsh captures well this friendship across the age gap.
James gets thrown together with Angey, another school outsider. The situation doesn’t help his case for being accepted but, when he goes on a mission for the gaffer, she is a useful ally.
Things come to a head when the gang mentality threatens James and Angey and he finds himself trying to help an ailing Mr Samson while standing up to bullies.
The novel explores themes of belonging, bullying, age and facing death all within a story of a boy in a village in the East of England. The book won the prestigious Smarties Prize and should, by now, qualify for classic status. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?