Thursday, April 27, 2006

I dare you to put down: Incendiary.

It's a Christmas stocking of a book, and I couldn't wait to pull it apart. I mean, how can you put down a book written entirely in first person -- with a stream-of-consciousness-type disregard for punctuation, a supremely unforgettable heroine, mad devotion to the Arsenal, outrageous amounts of emotion, and a poignant understanding of the times we live in -- that opens with the words: "Dear Osama".

It's also a debut.

Sure, it's a book about how terror attacks have changed the emotional landscape in which our children will grow up in almost as much as they have altered the physical one. But, more tellingly, it's a portrait of a mother drawn in broad strokes of fear, passion, humour, coarseness, and courage. She's an absolute triumph of characterisation, and to describe her in too much detail would be to ruin a ripping good read. Suffice to say, she manages to charm you one minute, and move you the next, and then, when you least expect it, pose an incredibly intelligent question about the very nature of our lives.

Chris Cleave shifts emotional gear effortlessly, and as the story -- and his heroine's life -- unravels, it reveals greater and greater depth. What could easily have remained a well-written but sentimental story of loss opens up into a staggeringly mature piece of writing about the way terror has permanently changed our world.

There is no raving and ranting about the pointlessness of terror, just an utterly subjective maternal point of view. No rush to judgment about Islam and jihad; in fact, an air of bewilderment at the extent to which anti-terrorism measures marginalise Muslims. No moralising or doom-saying, but some damaged emotion that sounds surprisingly like hope.

For a book about the reality of terror, it's surprisingly wrought with hope. After all, it's in the form of letters written to convince Osama bin Laden to change his ways. And, even though it's set in the near future (the Gunners have moved from Highbury to Ashburton Grove), Thierry Henry is still with the club.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Oh, you must read: Cloud Atlas.

There is ambition, and then there is this. Easily the most awe-inspiring experimental narrative that I've ever read. Entertaining. Enviably sophisticated. And so alarmingly well-written that the experimental pattern of the novel is never -- not for one page, one paragraph -- anything but background.

You can't help but notice the distinctive pattern, true. But to see it as something separate from the stories (story?) that form the foreground of the book is quite impossible.

Separate stories. Separate genres, even. Separate narrative voices. Separate protagonists, or 'overlapping soloists', if you will. And one stunning narrative that reaches across all of them to tell the fundamental story of good versus evil. It's a rollercoaster of a story that travels through art and envy and fear and loathing and curiosity and intelligence and the future of the world as we know it.

When I finished the book, I put it down beside me and just sat there, drinking in the feeling of such an immense piece of writing.

It's David Mitchell's third book, and I'm certain to look for the other two -- in a while. For now, I'm going to savour the aftertaste of Cloud Atlas.

Not since AS Byatt's Possession have I been so blown away. Not for many, many years have I been -- so much -- just another reader.
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