Freedom by Jonathan Franzen [London: Fourth Estate, 2011] richly repays all the time spent working through its 597 pages. On the evidence of this book (and taking previous convictions into account) Franzen has earned his place in the pantheon of Great American Novelists in the tradition of Updike, Steinbeck and Faulkner.
Pat Barker should need no introduction and this is her latest novel: Noonday [London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015]. She became ‘famous’ with the Man Booker Prize winning The Ghost Road, culmination of the Regeneration trilogy that recounted the WW1 experiences of some of the actual War Poets, their real doctor Rivers, and others as they came to terms, or failed to cope, with the horrors of that war and it’s psychological impact; once known as ‘shell shock’ and latterly PTSD. The irony of their worked-for regeneration was that as soon as the doctor declared them fit they were shipped back to the Western Front; some to die on the eve of Armistice.
It’s hard to know quite what to make of Slade House, David Mitchell’s latest novel [London: Sceptre, 2015]. It seems to be not so much a sequel as a ‘parallelequel’ to The Bone Clocks and there is, in fact, one key character in common. The context is the battle between those who can sustain immortality at the expense of feeding on the souls of the Engifted and the good guys who are naturally and continuously reincarnated after 49 days in limbo. The latter, the Horologists, carry over all their memories from previous existences but although they have paranormal powers they are not necessarily immune to attack and destruction by the bad guys. Slade House is about the activities of a couple of bad guys until they seem to get their comeuppance at the hands of a good guy. But read to the very end!
Like two other novels I know called Paradise,* this one by A L Kennedy [London: Vintage 2005] uses its title ironically. The life described is no Paradise on earth nor even any purifying purgatory. In the end, there is no way back. On the way to perdition there is love, humour, coruscating wit but these are all counterpoint to misery, failure and degradation. Curiously, the book that came to mind while reading Paradise was the Martin Amis novel Money. The common thread is not so much the booze but the quality of the language. Amis’s protagonist John Self can think as well as Martin Amis can write. In Paradise, the narrator Hannah Luckraft uses language as her medium even more than she does alcohol. Her similes are scintillating simulacra and her metaphors modify the metanarrative and make it an even better one. And you need that in order to make a sad, sad story bearable and meaningful.
Once again, David Mitchell has sent a large bucket down into the deep well of his imagination and produced a masterwork: The Bone Clocks [London: Sceptre, 2014]. Mitchell enjoys the writer’s challenge of imagining the improbable, even the impossible, and writing such compelling prose that the reader is completely absorbed, suspends disbelief and revels in the story and, as ever, the language. Mitchell also has that essential gift of being able to write fluently from inside the mind of his several narrators. The narrative here is about precognition and the power to enter the minds of others and redact their memories; all that and more. But it is also a human story of a life lived to its fullest extent.