Tag Archives: Wales

On the Black Hill (1982) – Bruce CHATWIN

You know it’s not a good day for your wallet when your place of employment has a 3 for 2 offer on Vintage Classics. Seriously, Random House must love me. Anyhoo, On the Black Hill stood out for one main reason – it has a kick-ass cover. That’s right, people, judging a book totally on its cover. Metaphors and idioms can go to hell. But, is the old saying right?

Benjamin and Lewis Jones are twins born at the turn of the twentieth century. They are born on a small farm in the Welsh countryside, to an English mother and Welsh father. As they grow up, they begin to realise that they are closer than usual twins, leading to some friction between the two. Benjamin wants to stay on the farm and look after his brother, while Lewis wants to leave the farm, get married, and lead a life. After Benjamin’s disasterous involvement with the First World War, the two remain on the farm for the rest of their lives, blissfully unaware of what else is going on.

I love the concept of two characters living out their lives through the twentieth century, seeing everythingas it passes them. But that’s really not what the novel is about. It’s surprisingly timeless, and I don’t mean that in a “classicly timeless” kind of way. I mean that time itself is mysteriously absent, and the passage of time in the narrative is strangely fractured. The first half of the novel deals with about 20-25 years of the twins’ lives, while the next half is dedicated to the other 50 years, much of which is skipped over in a few paragraphs. It makes for a strangely jumpy plot, and one that relies on us being interested in the minuitae of the lives of the people who live in the same village as the twins, and their descendents’ actions and so forth.

For an arguably character based novel, there’s surprisingly little development of the two main characters. Both Benjamin and Lewis remain fairly two dimensional and, apart from a few incidents that give us differences between the two, the twins themselves remain quite similar. There’s a lovely scene about two thirds of the way through the novel, where a German physchologist has come to visit the twins, and is doing a study on how twins live with each other. In her interview with Lewis, reveals that he wishes he could change it all, and actually leave his brother and the farm. But the time has passed, he is now well into his fifties, and cannot. Benjamin’s character pieces come far earlier in the novel, and his dealings with the army during the First World War are really quite well done. After that, though, he simply becomes the clingy brother, the one who loves his twin unconditionally forever. But apart from this, the novel is very plot driven. Not that this is a bad thing, but it doesn’t sit comfortably with what the book ostensibly wants to do – which, I assume, is to explore the close relationship of thes brothers. If plot, then, is what Chatwin wanted to focus on, I would have liked to see him place the twins in the face of more historical events, maybe live out the twentieth century through the events that defined what the century became.

So, it doesn’t really work as a character piece, and it doesn’t really work as plot. Does the cover lie, then? Not totally. The book, despite its shortcomings, is enjoyable enough. I certainly didn’t begrudge my time reading it. But, that was about it. It didn’t move me, it didn’t give me a eureka moment, and it didn’t exactly take off. It’s a very average novel – stuck between its ambition, and the failed way in which Chatwin tries to pull this ambition off.

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Decline and Fall (1928) – Evelyn WAUGH

Continuing with my many books that have to be read for uni this semester (yes, my life is very tough…), I present Decline and Fall. I’d heard of Evelyn Waugh, but had never read him, and after being told that this was a hilarious satire about the upper classes of England in the inter-war period, I was very much looking forwward to being entertained.

Paul Pennyfeather is a young man at Oxford, having arrived after a fairly average high school career. An unfortunate case of mistaken identity, however, sees him booted out of Oxford, and he finds himself as a teacher in a second rate private school for Britain’s rich and elite. In Wales. Here, he meets a number of people who will change his life in ways he never imagined, least of all Margot Beste-Chetwynde.

To be totally honest, I’ve never really been a big fan of satire. Partially because it usually goes over my head. My lecturer believes that satire is good for the reader because it panders to their intelligence – it makes jokes at the expense of the context in which it is written, and which the reader is expected to understand. Maybe it’s because this book was written eighty years ago. Maybe I’m just not smart enough. I didn’t get it.

Probably the biggest problem I have with the novel is Paul himself. He’s so badly written, that I had a lot of trouble identifying with him at all. He just seems to go from event to event, never changing, and barely making any sort of assertion or opinion of his own. He is very much a wet blanket, who you just want to slap in the face and tell him to do something. Anything. He seems to get lost underneath all of the other crazy events and over-the-top characters that exist in this book. And there are many. Some of the farcial bits of this book are just plain silly. The Sports Day, for example, is the main set-piece of the novel, and it just gets confusing. Admittedly, there are some bits that are funny, but they get lost in the mess that is Waugh’s writing. And I can’t even describe what’s so wrong about it – it just doesn’t gel with me in any way.

I do like some of the caricatures of people, though, that are ever present in this novel. The architect, Professor Silenus, is very good as an exaggerated, frustrated artist, who designs these completely unliveable modernist houses, and everyone praises him ’cause they think they have to. So, too, are the teachers in LLanabba School – they have all completely lost the will to teach, and the boys that populate the school are little brats, anyway. Perhaps this is the redeeming feature of Decline and Fall – the caricatures of people that exist throughout the whole book. Now they just need to be written into a good novel…

In the end, I’m afraid this wasn’t for me. While some of the characters are nice, I didn’t enjoy reading it. I kept waiting for it to end, which is not a good sign. I think the thing that frustrated me most was that while Waugh’s ideas were sound enough, the execution of said ideas failed as a novel. And now I have to read another one. Hmm. Hopefully he got better as he went on.

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Submarine (2008) – Joe DUNTHORNE

One of the many advantages of working in a bookshop is the free books. Publishers will send you freebies so that you read them and (hopefully) then sell them to unsuspecting customers. This novel comes from Hamish Hamilton, who publish fantastic authors such as Hari Kunzru and Zadie Smith, so Submarine has a lot to live up to with people like these in its midst.

Oliver Tate is 14. His mission in life is three-fold: to save his parents’ marriage, to get laid and reading the dictionary so he can use big words. With these three things in mind, we follow his journey into adulthood. We watch him try and fix his parents’ marriage through feng shui, through drugs, and through staking them. We see his terrible teenage relationship with the eczema ridden Jordana. And there are enough pretentious words in the novel to fit the last bill.

First novels are always exciting, aren’t they? The possibilities are endless, with new voices coming through in fantastic, imaginative ways. Why, then, do so many first time authors feel the need to saturate the market with whiny, pretentious, annoying teenagers that are nothing more than echoes of themselves ten or twenty years ago? And why must they all read the same? The only exception I will grant is David Mitchell.

It doesn’t help that Oliver Tate rivals Charles Highway (see The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis) for most unlikeable protagonist. Ever. And yes, I’m sure that everyone was that annoying and stupid when they were 14. But I don’t want to read about it! Though, to be fair, I don’t think that many people poisoned their girlfriend’s dog, killing it, so that if her cancer-ridden mother dies, she will be able to cope with the grief. And yes, that is probably one of the most horrifying passages of book I have ever had the misfortune of reading.

On the plus side, I suppose, Dunthorne’s writing style is consistent throughout. Consistently pretentious and annoying. And yes, that is because of the character, I know. It still annoys me.

To give him his dues, the end of the novel is not a cop-out. Well, most of it isn’t anyway. I do like the way that Oliver gets his punishment from a girl who used to be teased mercilessly by him, and now turns out to be a stunningly attractive young woman. And the epilogue with his parents would seem to show that he might have actually learned something. Not much, considering the scarily rude way he still treats his parents, despite their respective nervous breakdowns.

Is it possible for someone to hate a genre as large and nebulous as ‘coming of age’ novels? Yes, because I do. Unless they are done really, really well. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t. Instead, authors resort to the stock standard pretentious 15 year old who has a way with big words, but never understands. Anything. Unfortunately, Submarine has done nothing to change my opinion on this topic. It will take a better man than Joe Dunthorne to move me.

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