Thursday, 30 June 2011

Reviews: Go Tell It On The Mountain, Written on the Body and The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Ah, the silly season is upon us. Today a tourist asked me where to find pads of paper "like the students use, that say 'OXFORD' on them". I pointed out that students would probably use blank refill pads, like all other people, and she looked confused, as though I had shattered her illusions.

Then another lady asked where "the Mister Moss series of books are, that someone told me about, I think they're by an author called - Dexter?" I did not laugh, but oh god was it hard. I think I like this one better than the request I once got for How To Cook A Mockingbird.


Today I have three reviews for you, or rather two reviews and a short bit where I am rude about Jeanette Winterson. As I have been taught in many careers self-improvement sessions, I will sandwich the bad between the two goods, so as to cleanse it from your minds and leave you with a general impression of the four stars that I have given both of the books that happen not to have been written by Jeanette Winterson.

The books in question: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and The Lost Books Of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason.

First, the Baldwin. I've come at Go Tell It On The Mountain slightly back-to-front, since I read Giovanni's Room last month on a recommendation from my mother, expecting, goodness knows why, something a bit like a gay Good Soldier: beautifully written, mannered and full of characters with dark wicked secrets hidden underneath their detachable collars. Well, it certainly was beautiful, but otherwise completely unlike what I was imagining - it's written in incredibly clear, expressive, immediate prose, with a bastard of a narrator that you instantly sympathise with and a horribly compelling central story. My mother calls Giovanni's Room a "little gem", which makes it sound a bit like salad, but it's not such a bad description - it really is a gorgeous little book. I finished it, realised that I MUST HAVE MORE OF THIS IMMEDIATELY, and the next day rushed out and bought Go Tell It On The Mountain, Baldwin's first published book, written years before he got round to Giovanni.

First published in 1953 (which I guess makes this a classic review), Go Tell It On The Mountain is the story of a black family living in 1930s Harlem. They're all members of The Church of The Temple of the Fire Baptised, which is one of those all-singing, all-dancing affairs that takes the basic view that you're either a saint or you're damned horribly, and you're much more likely to be the latter than the former. The father, Mr Grimes (can you see the symbolism there?), one of the church's preachers and therefore a saint, seems to spend his days helping his children along to godliness by beating them a lot. This makes his eldest son John hate him intensely and then of course feel horribly guilty about doing so - since he hates a saint, he must be a terrible dirty person who's going to go straight to his father's rather detailed version of hell.

As you may already be able to tell, this is a book that has a lot of painful, mightily suppressed issues. The whole plot takes place within 24 hours, on the fourteenth birthday of the main character John (similarity to James Baldwin not coincidental), and most of it goes on inside its character's heads - John's, as he tries to work out whether or not he can be saved; and his mother's, his father's and his aunt's as they go back over the events of their (fairly awful) lives. It's all incredibly interior - one of those books where people just sit in a room and stare at one another meaningfully - but Baldwin's so good at understanding people, how they work and how they think, that you totally believe in his characters and buy into their inner lives.

All the same, though, the lack of forward movement in Go Tell It On The Mountain does get a little irritating at times. Internalised emotional epiphanies are all very well, and perfectly realistic - most of my moments of deep revelation about the course of my life have happened when I was half way through eating an apple, or washing my toe, or handing my ticket to the train guard - but all the same it's nice to have some sort of accompanying emotional resolution out there in the book's real world. Even the characters in To The Lighthouse finally got to go to the lighthouse, for heaven's sake. John never confronts his father about how horrible he is, for example, and his mother never tells him how much she loves him - they think all this in their heads, but nothing actually comes out.

This all sounds a bit like I didn't enjoy Go Tell It On The Mountain, but I really did. It's a fascinating story, beautifully and colourfully written - not quite as perfect as Giovanni's Room, maybe, but still a very worthwhile read.

4 stars.

When I was about half way through Go Tell It On The Mountain, I happened to leave it behind when I went for my break. Instead of running all the way back downstairs to get it, I decided to finally have a go with Written on the Body, which I have been eyeing up for quite a while. I've enjoyed the Jeanette Wintersons I've read before, and Written on the Body is pleasingly small and slight, apparently perfectly break-sized.

This was an error.

It's very rare that I don't finish a book - I've really got to hate something with exceptional fervour - but twenty minutes with this was more than enough for me. It's possible that Written on the Body gets unrecognisably better after page 32, but I decided that in this case I was perfectly happy to take my chances. The thing - up to page 32 - reads like some bizarre Digested Read parody of itself, and of snobbishly literary fiction about romance in general. I'm paraphrasing, because I don't have it in front of me any more, but the average paragraph went something like:
Then I met Helen. She was such a staunch leftie that even her nipples pointed sideways. She loved beauty but was committed to anarchy, which made her sad. I slept with her on a lilo to comfort her but afterwards she was still racked with fundamental doubts. She thought about blowing up some paintings, to show her contempt for the patriarchy, but she found them too beautiful so we decided to detonate a urinal instead. I went into the urinal first to warn the occupants - it was full of pricks. That was a joke. I made a joke! Or maybe I didn't. I'm so fantastically clever that you can't tell. Did I tell you that I've slept with a lot of people? Because I have. Boobs.
On page 32 I gave up, never to return. Two stars, I feel, would be far too generous for what this was.

1.5 stars.

And finally, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I was lured towards it on the promise of my coworker (who has never been wrong about a book yet) and also because of its cover. I mean, look at that cover. That is a cover that knows its market and calls out to it seductively, like a high-class prostitute in a historically accurate toga. Classics geeks, this one's for you.

I usually don't like describing books by saying 'it's as though Grisham/Joyce/Tennyson/Atwood sat down and wrote a book with Asimov/Heller/Golding/Jodi Picoult', but, in this case, I have to make an exception, because The Lost Books of the Odyssey really is a bit like what would happen if Italio Calvino had written the Odyssey. It's classical myth filled with EXTREME POSTMODERN UNCERTAINTY - non-linear what-ifs, going round and round the original story - what if Penelope was dead, what if Odysseus was a coward, what if (my personal favourite) Penelope was actually a suitor-murdering werewolf. Or, to put it another way, it's 44 bits of really high-end fanfic.

This is definitely a book that works best if you know its source well, both because of how cleverly Mason picks up on little throwaway details from the Odyssey and takes them to their logical conclusion and because of how oddly shocking it is when he departs from the plot you know. Just like in fanfic, an alternative universe where a character is dead is interesting mostly because both the writer and the reader understand that they should really be alive, and that in killing them off they've purposefully messed with the strings of the story.

Because it is so similar to the Odyssey, and at the same time not similar at all, there's a weird, intense, dreamlike quality to The Lost Books of the Odyssey - only it's the sort of dream where your friend has someone else's face and you open your front door to find you're in a garden full of dark statues that turn to watch you as you go by. What I'm trying to say is, it's creepy. Mason's got an incredibly clever, eerie imagination - there's a story, for example, where Paris is Death personified, and Troy is Hell - and when the stories work, they work, like a punch in the (mental) gut. Unfortunately, though, sometimes they don't - Mason's far too fond of putting long words and complex philosophical ideas into the mouths of characters that they don't suit at all, and towards the end of the book I felt like he might be running out of ideas somewhat.

However, for the most part, what he's done in The Lost Books of the Odyssey is awesome. It's gorgeous, and stately, and totally different, and most importantly it's an absolute pleasure to geek out over, top-quality fanfic for people who (mostly) don't even know what fanfic is.

4 stars.

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