“Smoke” by Dan Vyleta – Book Review

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Smoke

Dan Vyleta

smoke dan vyleta5-stars

 

For the fourth time this year, I have found my new favourite book.

A gripping story, complex characters and a world rich with ideas.

What would a world be like where all your sins are laid bare and you are judged by the smoking gun you carry within you everywhere? Judged for sins you have not committed, for desires you never act on. A world in which even an impure thought is betrayed by your own body, seeping from your pores, staining your clothes with Soot and infecting those around you in a Smoke of your own making. A world where teenage boys fear retribution if their sheets are stained with Soot in the morning because of what they dreamt the night before? In “Smoke”, this is the reality for Dan Vyleta’s characters. Like our sweat glands responding to fear, anger or excitement, so do his characters produce Smoke.

His world is wreathed in the so-called Smoke: the physical manifestation of sin. But if one Smokes when one feels love, lust, pain, is it really as simple as that?

Vyleta’s is a world that could have been. He takes Victorian London, bathed in a different kind of smoke than existed in the Industrial Revolution of our familiar history. A symptom of change and development is transformed into a cause of social and political stagnation in the novel. Everyone believes that Smoke is caused by sin, and that belief breeds fear and separation. The elites of society are the clean ones; taught control from a young age, they appear smokeless. The city of London, on the other hand, filled with common people and common dirty desires, is a well of sin, of Smoke. The gentry therefore appear pure and reasonable, while the commoners are dirty and sinful. But underground, in the mines and the sewers, there are those who speak of revolution.

It is a simple and elegant metaphor which Vyleta extends into a complete landscape, so familiar and yet so altered by this one change. Moral systems warped but still recognisable as our own; a fantasy that rings with truth and is therefore all the more unsettling.

“Power … is underwritten by morality. Those who rule, rule because they are better people than their subjects. It’s written on our linen. It cannot be denied.”

The novel is written in the present tense which I really enjoyed, bringing urgency and reality to the narrative. Vyleta also uses an ensemble style of narration, periodically inhabiting different characters. It’s a great way of not only building tension and helping to the move the story from a variety of different directions, but also ensures the reader gets a full understanding of the world Vyleta has created. He covers all the social strata, reinforcing the significance of the moral function of Smoke as it transfers to the social and political landscape. A miner’s wife, a headmaster, a noblewoman, a drunk priest, a righteous revolutionary, a butler, a teenage girl, a murderous schoolboy.

Dan Vyleta must be a man with an amazing ability to empathise with all kinds of people. He completely embraces the complexity of his characters with an honesty that is acutely felt, existing as they do in a world of moral confusion. What is most striking is the ease with which Vyleta slips into each body. At times, he conveys concise and acute spasms of emotion that sound with absolute clarity. Emotions that are meaty and guttural, but also tender, embarrassing and secret. He embraces the humanity of emotions we are ourselves ashamed of and removes that shame by putting them into simple, unapologetic terms. And that is perhaps the blessing that follows the curse of Smoke. It confronts us with our own intentions and asks us to reckon them, but also to share them and find solace in each other.

“Smoke”, besides being a wonderful read, is a book that raises questions. It highlights truths about the society we live in today and about the social landscape we have fashioned from the roots of our moral beliefs. It also highlights the fragility of those beliefs, warning against damaging absolutism; looking for the greys, not just black and white.

One of my favourite things about the book is the fact that it leaves the reader with a lot of questions unanswered. I like this aspect because it stays true to the book’s themes:  questions of morality have no easy answers. This novel is a great example of leaving the reader wanting more without infuriating the reader with an abundance of loose ends. I can enjoy the invite to speculate. It also means that Vyleta has completely avoided being preachy in spite of his moral subject matter.

Vyleta achieves the ultimate: makes his reader think and imagine in equal measure. And we are made to think not by force of opinion or clunking pointed dialogue, but by favour of the narrative that wills itself into existence within the minds of its creators. As Vyleta says in his afterword to the novel:

“to the reader belongs that greatest act of creation where stories are concerned, the transformation of words and sentences into tentative meaning, forever on the move.”

Book Review: “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

the-bookshop-fitzgerald-2

A short and utterly compelling novel that I read within the space of a few hours. I simply could not sleep until I reached the final page… and then wrote a review.

Florence Green has a simple desire to open a bookshop in her quiet Suffolk town of Harborough. There’s an old, damp, unwanted building, stood empty for years and Florence has the idea to repurpose it as The Old House Bookshop. The old farts and local council botherers don’t like change and decide to kick up a fuss.

Mrs Green is an astonishing woman. Not in any sensational sense of fame or great feats of strength or ability. Hers is a quiet courage, juxtaposed with moments of delightful bluntness that the majority of her peers find intolerably rude. “Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.”

Half-baked officials for the Something-Or-Other Committee periodically appear out of the damp woodwork, as the self-important Mrs Gamart engages in ruthless tactics, determined to see the shop fail. Mrs Gamart, a petty woman and chair of various local committees, “always acted in the way she felt to be right. She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.”

Some of my favourite moments in the book are the correspondence Florence is obliged to enter into it with the various officials that pop up. Letters filled with verbal parrying and barely concealed contempt are quintessentially British and delightful to read. When Florence’s decision to market a certain “unduly sensational novel” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – gets a surprising amount of local attention, a certain prominent member of society sees fit to seek legal representation:

December 4 1959
Dear Mrs Green,
               I am in receipt of a letter from John Drury & Co, representing their client Mrs Violet Gamart of The Stead, to the effect that your current window display is attracting so much undesirable attention from potential and actual customers that it is providing a temporary obstruction … and that she, as a Justice of the Peace and Chairwoman of numerous committees (list enclosed herewith) has to carry out her shopping expeditiously.

 After much back and forth, Florence exhausts the pretence of polite correspondence and brings it to a close rather succinctly:

December 11 1959
Dear Mr Thornton,
Coward!
Yours sincerely,
Florence Green.

The descriptions of small town society and their petty commander-in-chief made me laugh out loud. While scenes shared with her ten-year-old assistant, Christine, and aging neighbour, Mr Brundish, are peaceable moments that deflate the barriers of age and status. The misanthropic Mr Brundish and the terse ten-year-old are her closest companions and biggest supporters of her bookshop. Neither of them are great talkers and Florence is fine with that. Moments of silence are used to great effect throughout the novel, demonstrating the ease with which mutual understanding can be found between kindred spirits without need for words.

Florence is quietest when among friends, while she is at her most effluent, ready with a quip, when confronted with her opposers, her letters being great examples of this. The silence also allows for the presence of the mysterious ghost that resides in the Old House, referred to as “the rapper”, as well as the absence of her husband, whose death is only briefly alluded to. Altogether creating a sense of lonliness to the novel, but it is not a self-indulgent or overwhelming. The silence, the lonliness, is an accepted part of her existence, and becomes a thing to be shared with her chosen companions.

“Lonliness was speaking to lonliness.”

The most touching stories are the ones that don’t try to be so. A Whole Life, The Book Thief, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. These titles are treasures because of their quality of being uncomplicated and reserved; their pages gently exude warmth and compassion with honest emotion, eschewing the kind of melodrama and tragedy that some authors pump into their chapters, determined that we should burst from the pressure of it all. No, the stories that stay in my heart, in my stomach, are the ones that creep up on me with their unassuming tones and humble offerings. To this list of pearls within oysters, I now add “The Bookshop”.

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such must be a necessary commodity.”

 

Book Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

the book thief

This is a beautiful book. Exquisitely heart-breaking.

Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things.

In this novel, Markus Zusak is our omnipotent and benevolent wielder of words. His ability to capture the imagination is powerful and gentle. Master of the concise metaphor. I was drawn into the Book Thief’s world within the opening paragraphs and could not put it down. It begins simply and proceeds in uncomplicated terms. Its gentle twists and turns develop into a fully formed and complex story without you even realising. But I will not allow myself to over-analyse; I wish to leave this story unbroken.

Liesel stole books. And Death was her friend. Discover the rest for yourself.

Book Review: “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

The first book recommended to me by the staff at Waterstones:

a whole life book

A Whole Life

by Robert Seethaler

5-stars

Neither the economy of language nor the physical coldness of the landscape do anything to dampen the warmth of feeling woven throughout this short novel – both bitter and sweet.

There is a frankness and plainness to the words that creates a world without over-filling it. You feel that every word is necessary. It is ungarnished. The infrequent dialogue is made the more potent by its scarcity and blunt truthfulness. You feel as if these are memories hewn by time to their most composite form; memories whose accuracy encompasses all that is needed, all that is most affective. Our guide, Egger, is a man of fortitude and quiet strength. His many trials, though tragic, are without the solipsism of tragedy.

“But each time the rumbling died away and the clear cries of the jackdaws could be heard again.”

He limps through life as best he can, and his quiet, persistent trudging is honourable and life-affirming. An unstudied lesson in philosophy; gently shown, not taught. We are blown through his snowy valley as quiet observers. In Egger’s solitude, we are not made to feel like intruders, but rather to join with the quiet breath of the mountains that are his constant companions. And for our silent companionship, his unimposing wisdom is our gift.

“A Whole Life,” in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long.

Book Review: “Several short sentences about writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Several Short Sentences About Writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

book 1

“The question isn’t, can the reader follow you?
That’s a matter of grammar and syntax.
The question is, will the reader follow you?” (128)

I’ve never written a book review, but I think it goes something like this: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience; list good and bad points; and a couple of pithy quotes.  I shall largely adhere to this format.  Though do forgive me if I find the implied rules of this genre too confining for my wild artistic tendencies.

So, to begin: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience

This is a book written for writers by a writer about writing.

Too brief, perhaps.

While this text is applicable to writers of any experience or style, I think it is particularly useful for those at a turning point in their career as a writer – professional or otherwise.  You might be taking on a new genre, or adapting to an alternative medium – you wouldn’t write an internet blog like you would a private diary entry, for example. Or you might be moving from school to university, or university to the working world, and experiencing the imperative to evolve as a writer as well as a person. It is this last writer to whom I particularly recommend this book.

I have personally struggled with the step up from school to university writing. It is a transition that leads to anxiety. Be more mature, be more sophisticated. Be “better”. While university is the place to improve and mature, a better writer grows, not by anxiously reaching, but by exploring and experimenting. Don’t be bogged down by the “rules” of writing as they were dogmatically put to you in the early years of education. Respect the rules, of course, but don’t be afraid to challenge them. Verlyn Klinkenborg is emphatic on this point. “And yes, you may begin a sentence with ‘but.’” (119)

(From here-on, I shall refer to the author as VK. Younger readers: feel free to insert drinking puns.)

A revised brief description: this book is for the reader who is struggling to find her voice.

good and bad points

I am loath to tritely fulfil this requirement.  I shall rather offer a few points of interest:

On VK’s style: he really does practise what he preaches. Expect many short sentences about writing.

Don’t be precious about clichéd notions of “what it is to be a writer”. In fact, don’t be precious about clichés, full stop.

“A cliché is dead matter.
It causes gangrene in the prose around it, and sooner or later it eats your brain.” (45)

He isn’t a romantic. There will be no coddling.

VK follows the recent trend of using “her” as the generic pronoun in his text. I’m trying it out. I still find it odd on the ear, but then perhaps I’m antifeminist.

His style isn’t for everyone. He makes no exceptions and allows no excuses.  But he does not patronise you.  His is a clear, forthright voice.  He does not seek to trick or beguile, and though witty at times, his humour is curt at best. Some may find him abrasive, others, refreshing.

At times you will feel like you are back at school. But, as I have already discussed, re-examining the confining and sometimes misleading rules of English school teaching is crucial. This is how you extinguish anxiety and allow your own voice to emerge confidently.

and a couple of pithy quotes.

How about just one:

“You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.
You’ll recognize it less from the character of the sentence itself
than from the promise it contains – promise for the sentences to come.” (101)


Reference:

Klinkenborg, V. Several short sentences about writing (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

Further Reading:

“Several Short Sentences About Writing” Reviewed by Vinton Rafe McCabe (New York Journal of Books, 2012)