Sunday, January 27, 2008

World War I hits home in Britain

A trio of British students is changed by the Great War

Pat Barker has dealt with the Great War with considerable gusto in her Regeneration trilogy. With Life Class she returns to familiar territory, with a group of art students juggling the personal and political as they pass through a landmark time.

Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville are painters, the former two students of professor Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art. Paul is disheartened at the less than enthusiastic responses Tonks reserves for his paintings, which force him to question his ability as a painter.

World War I does not intrude until well into the book, when a telephone call interrupts dinner and Dr. Brooke, Elinor's father, announces: "We've been asked to clear the beds. Postpone non-urgent operations." A "gloomy start" to the dinner, but "nobody mentioned the European crisis again."

There is a clamor on the part of the young to join the war effort. Paul and Toby, Elinor's brother, stake their claims on letting the war shape their future. Toby, whose father wishes him to become a doctor, too, is enthused about going to war because, as Elinor writes to Paul, "Toby doesn't want to miss the fun, he's got the rest of his life to be a doctor."

Barker builds this nonchalant attitude toward the war in the first part, only to contrast it with its vile degradations in the second.

Paul volunteers his services as a medic in the Belgian Red Cross, and ironically it is the scenes of the wounded, the harrowing stories of the war-returned, that propel his art into another territory. Kit also employs the war to further his career, but unlike Paul's, his efforts are contrived.

The really touching tragedy is that of Elinor, who maintains a fierce passion for her art despite an unrelenting sense that her work is not useful while everybody around her is busy in some way with the war. With Elinor's dilemma, Barker portrays a commitment to art not as inaction, or worse cowardice, but as a hope for the triumph of imagination over intelligence.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sleight-of-hand works at several levels

When was the last time you read a book that was so inventive that it left you breathless, literally, and also, somewhat frightened? A book that used language with such intrepid flourish it humbled you to learn that the written word could do this, this to you. Well, get prepared for a full-on assault on your senses with Nicola Barker's wildly imaginative Darkmans....Read more>>>

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Idle hands have nothing on 'Devil's Footprints'

John Burnside's latest novel is a classic Jekyll and Hyde story, without the physical transformation wrought in the original. It is set in the haunting background of the Scottish countryside, a template that offers immediate rewards to a writer of mystery, and Burnside exploits it to full effect here.

The fishing town of Coldhaven is known to the outside world for the "devil's footprints," footmarks left after a particularly snowy night one December long ago. But to the residents of this sleepy town, personal tales of passion and failure are a dime a dozen, ready to be picked up and regurgitated. The book's narrator, Michael Gardiner, lives at the furthest point of the shore in his parents' house. His parents, it is known from the beginning, underwent a tragedy in Coldhaven because of their "different" ways.

Michael himself harbors a few secrets, revealing early on that he killed, albeit not wanting to, a bully during childhood. That bully's sister is the latest talk of the town. One fine morning, Moira Birnie woke up, packed her two little sons and 14-year-old daughter in the car, drove to a point, asked her daughter to alight, went ahead and then burned herself and her two sons in the car.

Why did she do it? And why was the daughter allowed to get away? Michael is gripped by this random crime, not only because it provides grist to the gossip mill, but also because he has the hunch that he is the father of Hazel, daughter of Moira, with whom he had a passionate affair long ago. With so many ghosts to keep him company, it is hardly surprising that Michael turns his quiet existence upside down to get to the bottom of the mystery.

He abandons his wife and leaves Coldhaven with Hazel. The journey is exciting, if dangerous, and promises ventures into new realms, both real and imagined. But in the battle between memory and reality, the present irrevocably loses out. Are Michael's intentions wholly honorable, or must we fear what he himself dubs a force, a phantom that rose "to the surface of my skin, something old "?

Burnside weaves the personal trauma of Michael's realization with the folkloric strand of Coldhaven's dark history to tease out the legend behind the "devil's footprints." The perfidy of the characters contrasted with the breathtaking calm and scenic beauty of the landscape are evoked with great skill. Burnside is an acclaimed poet and indeed, his prose shimmers with the silence that resides at the center of all poetry.