Monday 21 October 2019

The Children's House - Alice Nelson (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Due to some leave from work it has been a while since I have had to read a novel for the library's book clubs, but the time came and The Children's House turned out to be almost tailor made for book club discussion. The novel features some serious themes; trauma - childhood trauma in particular, and its consequences, refugees, alienation and the healing and nurture that families can provide. The principle protagonist is Marina, an academic and writer whose life is shared with her husband, child psychologist Jacob and his son, Ben. Marina's life changes when it intersects with an African refugee, Constance and her young son, Gabriel. Constance is traumatized by the Rwandan genocides and is obviously incapable of looking after Gabriel. As the novel progresses the characters back-stories unfold, revealing families both torn apart by dysfunction and circumstance, but also united by their need to heal. The Children's House is undoubtedly a novel for our times

Despite its noble intentions The Children's House is a flawed novel, with a ponderous pace that causes reader concentration to flag and disinterest in the characters lives to creep in. Alternate chapters that swing back and forth in time add to the disjunction. There is a great deal of description and very little dialogue, resulting in the authors voice dominating in a way that makes it hard to connect with the characters and their stories. The narrative style is also quite self-conscious, making it obvious that every turn of phrase has been burnished for public consumption. Half way through an unkind thought entered my mind, that the novel was popular fiction masquerading as literary fiction, although this is unfair both to the author and popular fiction itself. However something happened in the last third of the novel that changed my mind, the writing seemed more deftly executed and the emotional undertow of the characters stories began to pay off. I also realised that despite the dominance of the author's voice Nelson had been showing, rather than telling the stories of the characters, and quite subtly too. Ultimately the novel was saved from a mediocre rating with its beautifully effecting denouement, in which the narrative's multiple stands are brought together in a sensitive and emotionally effecting manner. Essentially Alice Nelson has done what every novelist strives to do - win over the (cynical) reader and bring something of worth into their life, and for that I can't help but display a degree of admiration.

Monday 7 October 2019

Vikings: A History - Neil Oliver (2012)

Rating: Admirable

I am an avowed fan of the History Network's Vikings series, which is apparently extending to a sixth and final season this year. I have often wondered how much of the series was based on what is known about the Viking era (quite a bit as it turns out...) and was looking for a succinct history, when I spied Oliver's book languishing on a table at Planet Books. Neil Oliver is an archeologist, historian and BBC presenter of shows such as Coast (2005), The History of Ancient Britain (2011) and Vikings (2012), from which this book is based. Oliver's writing style is very much like his TV presenting and you can certainly picture him looking rigorously Scottish whilst standing on a cliff-top discussing just how the Vikings came to strike fear into the hearts of Europeans between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Vikings is perfect if, like me, you want an easy to digest short history of the Viking era. Vikings is akin to an amiable but passionate historian holding forth with a class of wine in front of a roaring fire; you don't have to concentrate all that hard, but you can still feel like you are receiving a solid enough historical account.

Although the Vikings were a dynamic people, the first part of the book keeps you waiting around for quite a while for the real action to start. Oliver spends the first 100 pages of the book giving the back history of the northern European peoples who became the Vikings through the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages, as well as the wider historical context leading up to that first historically recorded Viking raid on Lindisfarne Abbey in 793. This is all very necessary, however I was left feeling that this part of the Vikings story could have done with some brevity, particularly as the book is not an extensively detailed history of the Vikings. Vikings contains maps, a list of principle Viking figures, colour plates and a timeline, all of which are very useful as Oliver takes you on a mostly chronological accounts of the viking era. Although not all of the most significant Viking historical events are contained within Oliver's book (I did some reading online as well...), there was enough to give you a rounded idea of who the Vikings were and just why they were significant part of European Medieval history. If you are interested in an exhaustive account of the Viking era (as I now am) Vikings can be viewed as an adequate entree to further reading.