Tag Archives: Ireland

Booker Prize 2015: Fractured Families

Families have always provided a rich vein of inspiration for authors looking to examine people, and this year’s Booker Prize longlist shows that there is no sign of that slowing down. I want to talk today about two quite different novelists—a first-time Nigerian man, and a well-established Irish woman—who are both interested in how families in their respective contexts cope with stress.

Despite being a first novel, The fishermen never feels anything less than steady and assured. It is a fairly simple presence: one day, four brothers are out fishing at the local river—a forbidden pastime. On their way home, the local crazy man, Omi-Ala, tells the oldest that he will be killed by a fisherman. This sets off a chain of events that will, inevitably, change the family in ways no one could imagine.

At first glance, this might sound more Harry Potter than Booker longlist. But in Akure, where God is king, and human law seems flimsy at best, these four brothers are free to roam the streets, particularly since their father has gone away for work, and their mother is left at home with the two youngest children to look after. And so, in the absence of any steadying force in their lives, these boys are completely and utterly enthralled by the stories of Omi-Ama and his abilities. The oldest is no more than 13 or 14, an age where these kinds of stories really get into your head and mess you up. And so it is with Ikenna, who really truly believes that one of his brothers is going to kill him.

What is perhaps most terrifying about this is that at each step of this descent into madness, for these brothers, their actions are completely logical. What begins as a little bit of innocent rebellion against their clearly insane older brother slowly and carefully turns into something far more horrific—and though perhaps in the hands of a lesser author, these actions could be considered contrived, Obioma’s ability to turn the screw on his reader so methodically is perhaps the greatest strength of The fishermen. Though the characters are well-drawn throughout, it is the narrative structure that is perhaps most impressive here. Despite the chaotic nature of the city in which they live, and indeed the lives of the brothers themselves, it is easy to be caught up in the suffocating atmosphere of a household living in fear.

And yet, much of the writing is lyrical. Obioma begins each chapter with a beautiful metaphor that he spins out throughout the entire chapter, never letting up. Contrasted with the quite intensely psychological violence that is taking place both within and without this family—while the four brothers bear the brunt of this violence, their mother’s rapidly deteriorating mental health in the face of what she is attempting to control is another subtle but necessary touch—this style never veers toward feeling flowery or purple.

If The fishermen is the story of a family slowly unravelling, then The green road is its mirror image. Anne Enright has always been known for her ability to get inside the workings of a family (which is why The gathering won the Booker in 2007), and this novel is no different. But while The fishermen is about one family living under one roof, The green road explores what family means when each member is scattered around the globe.

The first half of the novel is essentially made up of four short stories: seemingly keen to move out of home as early as possible, the Madigan children find themselves far away from their country home, unwilling to think of their mother left behind. Dan runs to New York in the 80s after a failed stint as a student priest—the biggest problem being his love of men. In the 00s, his brother Emmet has run away to Mali, and though he thinks he has found his soulmate in another aid worker, he cannot seem to find the right way to talk to her. Constance is stuck at home with a husband who loves her but doesn’t seem to care that she is spending the day at an oncologist. The youngest, Hanna, has just had a baby with a man, though is finding it hard to come to terms with this, particularly since it also means coming to terms with her drinking.

Each of these sections, by themselves, is a perfect slice-of-life story that draws each character perfectly. None of them seem to be able to have a functional relationship with their significant other, and struggles to reconcile what they want from life with what they have. Despite being on the other side of the world, Dan struggles to come to terms with who he is, and this leads to perhaps the most touching part of the entire novel—a tiny but perfectly formed look at how the AIDS epidemic ravaged an entire community that spent years looking over its shoulder in an attempt to see who was next.

The second half of The green road, however, loses some of the momentum that had built up over these vignettes—as these characters gather for a combined Christmas, Enright has to change gears to allow all four—five, in fact, if you include their mother—characters their place on the page, and doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. Rather than ending with a sense of purpose—whether positive or negative—the narrative trails off as these characters, so vivid in their own lives, are forced to act as search and rescue for their frail mother, who has wandered off into the wilderness. Maybe, though, this loss of individuality in the family setting is what Enright wants us to see: forced by a false sense of duty when coming together as a family unit, there can be no space for individuals wishing to strike out on their own.

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The Bone Clocks (2014) – David MITCHELL

I should note, before I start, that I can in no way be a partial judge of David Mitchell’s work. If ever I had a favourite author, this guy would be it. So apologies if this sounds a bit fanboy-ish.

David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, is another genre-bending, time-travelling, sprawling epic from the author of Cloud Atlas. When Holly Sykes runs away from home as a 16 year old, she cannot begin to imagine her life as an adult—a life that will see her travel the world, meet interesting people, and be drawn into a supernatural war thousands of years old.

Mitchell has few peers when it comes to the way in which he mixes and remixes genre and style to create an entirely new entity. So the best comparisons to draw are with his other work. I have seen several reviewers point to Cloud Atlas for comparison, but other than the fact that The Bone Clocks is composed of six interlocking novellas, there isn’t a lot going for that comparison. For while the beauty of Cloud Atlas is that those six novellas are, for the most part, unrelated, The Bone Clocks is a much tighter, much more controlled narrative. Each of the six stories here relates directly to Holly Sykes, whether through her family or through people she comes into contact with as she lives her (comparatively) normal life.

The other huge departure, too, is that The Bone Clocks is, if you’ll forgive the expression, balls-out fantasy. There’s none of the pussy-footing around the idea of reincarnation that we saw in Cloud Atlas, or even in Thousand Autumns—the concepts of Horologists, Atemporal, of people who can read minds, of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cather are right out of a Neil Gaiman or China Mieville novel. And yet it all seems to work, and never feels forced or too much like a literary trying desperately to be cool: it’s not just fancy decoration.

So though the fantasy is omnipresent in the pages of the novel, these complexities and fireworks would be nothing if there was no humanity, no soul (if you’ll forgive my taking of Mitchell’s own parlance) at the centre of it. Once you are drawn into the real lives of the five protagonists, it is easy to forget that any other-worldly creatures exist in this novel ever existed—Hugo, Ed and Crispin are all fascinating portraits of ordinary people learning to live in a world that doesn’t quite make sense to them. Each finds themselves on the outer, each tries to get closer to Holly in order to ground themselves in a world they see slipping out of their grasp at an alarming rate. Perhaps, then, this is a novel of the men in Holly’s lives?

Mitchell has always been deeply concerned with the soul, with exploring the essence of what it means to be human. His work finds this soul, this humanity, in people from all over the world and from all over time. He doesn’t seem to see any particularly inherent difference between, say, a Noongar elder from the dawns of time and a Japanese prostitute working in 1600s Dejima. That kind of beautifully humanist naivety is what has always drawn me to his work, and The Bone Clocks is no exception.

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A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) – Eimear McBRIDE

The new Folio Prize is designed to be a Booker killer. Apparently fed up with the fact that one judge said one year she was looking for a book that was readable as well as literary, a group of authors have come together to create ‘real’ literature prize. It’s a big call, and when you put together a shortlist for your first prize, you have to make sure you get it right. So does this debut Irish novel make the cut?

It seems faintly reductive (and truistic) to suggest that I’ve read nothing like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Others have compared it to Joyce, but since I am sadly lacking in that area, I couldn’t possibly comment. What I can tell you, though, is every time I offered the first page to a friend, they looked at me like I’d gone nuts. There is no question that that first page is intimidating—short sentences, irregular punctuation, and a collection of words that, at first glance, don’t seem to belong together.

But as you continue to read, and as you become accustomed to McBride’s rhythms, you cannot help but be drawn in by this unique style. It seems almost obscene that a writer this young should be able to so masterfully manipulate the English language. Though there are moments of ambiguity, they are deliberate—designed, perhaps, to confuse the reader and evoke in them the same confusion felt by the main character. It’s the same confusion any adolescent or young adult feels as they become a fully-fledged adult, allowed to make their own decisions, coming up against the wall of societal expectations that prevent them from making those exact same decisions.

This structure and construction, then, feed into what McBride is trying to talk about. The three relationships that make up the backbone of the novel are fully-formed, fleshed-out slices of reality: from the conservative Catholic mum who can’t stand the fact that her daughter enjoys sex, to her older, mentally-ill older brother, to the uncle she sees as more than just an uncle. Each one is confusing and hard to categorise easily, just like all familial relationships, and McBride teases out the intricacies of each one to highlight the fact that no one is always good or always bad. (Though the uncle comes pretty close.)

Of course, what is wrapped up most in growing up and coming to terms with societal restrictions is sexuality, particularly female sexuality. Growing up in conservative Ireland and being a teenager (and later, young woman) who enjoys sex puts the protagonist in a position that sees her judged for her lifestyle, even by those closest to her. Her mother yells and screams at her for not being pure, while her teenage brother, in a fit of rage, does the same thing.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book you need to read. There can be no question that is not, perhaps, the most ‘readable’ of all novels, but though experimental in its structure construction, McBride does not forget that ‘real’ literature is not about showing off with tricksy, literary fireworks, but about believable people trying to make sense of the world around them.

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The Spinning Heart (2012) – Dónal RYAN

The book I’m most looking forward to reading on the Man Booker longlist this year, The Luminaries, still hasn’t been released in Australia, so I’m biding my time reading other, smaller entries on the list. Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a debut novel, and one of three Irish authors to be longlisted. But while Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann deal with history in their entries, Ryan’s novel is about contemporary Ireland, about the fallout from the European Financial Crisis.

A new housing development in Ireland has collapsed in the wake of the European Financial Crisis, and no one is safe from the effects. Builders, property developers and young mothers have all found themselves poorer because of the forces of globalisation, and they are quickly discovering that life in the new paradigm takes some getting used to.

My engagement with Irish fiction and literature is limited, to say the least, but I couldn’t help but feel that Ryan seemed to be pulling out all the clichés people might usually associate with it. The novel’s tone is unrepentantly bleak, and no one seems satisfied with their lot in life. To be fair, almost every character’s life is far from ideal—and I’m not advocating some kind of false hope—but this is just another long line of Irish novels that feeds into the idea of depressing Irish literature (see also, The Gathering and The Dead School). We can be thankful the characters in The Spinning Heart made it through their journeys without any hint of sexual assault.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Kristina Carlson’s short novel, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, and the lack of clarity that work had because of its fractured narrative structure. In many ways, The Spinning Heart suffers from the same structural problem. In his attempt to highlight just how many have been adversely affected by the collapse of the housing market in Ireland, Ryan fails to make his readers care about anyone in particular. By dehumanising the individuals in his tale, he highlights the fact that this is a national problem, a conundrum that has affected everyone in Ireland, no matter what they do or who they are.

What strikes me as most interesting in this novel, though, is the construction of a masculine identity in contemporary Ireland, particularly in younger generations. Left without jobs to go to , many men who might otherwise have found employment in the construction and physical labour industries are left to either scrounge for the few positions that still exist, or move to Australia. (As a Sydneysider, I can vouch that the latter option is based on real life.) No longer able to provide for their families, they spend their days in bars, chasing women, or trying to woo back women they’ve hurt in the past.

The picture of Ireland Ryan paints in The Spinning Heart is not a pretty one. People have been reduced to nothing but ciphers in a society where no one has answers to the problems. They have been promised all the riches of capitalism, and those promises have come crashing down faster than anyone could have imagined. And while Ireland’s national psyche is impeccably evoked, this occurs at the expense of relatable, interesting characters.

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The Gathering (2007) – Anne ENRIGHT

The recent debate over the Booker Prize’s perceived shift away from the literary and towards the ‘readable’ overlooks a variety of important facts. The first, of course, is that one judge, in an off-hand comment, suggested that there is no point awarding a novel that no one will read—a comment that, taken at face value, seems to be eminently true.

The other important fact is that many of the recent winners have been big, complicated novels dealing with big, complicated ideas. Enright’s The Gathering is no exception.

The eponymous gathering is that of a large Irish Catholic family. Liam, the younger brother of our narrator Veronica, has died of an alcoholic overdose, and the family has come to mourn. As the family struggle to come to terms with this death, Veronica finds herself attempting to piece together just why Liam might have taken his own life.

It’s hard not to describe The Gathering without it sounding like a litany of Irish literature clichés: Catholicism, families, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and depression all get a good workout. But Enright takes those themes and turns them on their head with the inclusion of a rather interesting take on memory and narration. It’s also to Enright’s credit that, despite the horrific and depressing nature of this tale, I didn’t want to top myself by the end.

There are two themes at the heart of this novel: family, and memory. As Veronica tries desperately to understand how and why Liam’s life came to suicide, she begins to remember her childhood, growing up with her many brothers and sisters. She also tries to piece together how she became so unhappily married—she has been unable to sleep with her husband (both metaphorically and literally) since Liam died. All of a sudden, she cannot quite believe how her life came to be nothing more than a mother and wife, driving a fancy car, married to a man who seems to spend all his time in the office, away from his wife and two daughters.

In an even greater feat of memory, Veronica imagines/remembers her mother and her grandmother’s lives, too. The recurring theme in all three lives is the way in which women seem to been driven mad by the responsibilities placed on them by simply having a family. As though these tales are handed down from woman to woman, Veronica finds herself reliving the pains of her grandmother’s lost love, of her mother’s miscarriages. Each and every woman seems to find herself battered and bruised simply by having to adhere to the conventions required of the women of their time.

Veronica admits her own failings as a storyteller/narrator about halfway through the novel. She knows there is something that probably caused Liam’s unhappiness, but has been unwilling to remember it. Perhaps because she feels guilty, or perhaps not, but she has chosen to forget that Liam was sexually assaulted by an uncle when they were children. Though it is not spelt out, it is heavily implied that this incident led to Liam’s hedonistic life of drinking and debauchery. The implicit judgement—that sexual abuse is not a one-off case of assault—is horrific, and should give us all cause to think.

The two warring elements of this novel—the investigation of the twentieth-century Irish family, and the construction of a story from imperfect human memory—come together perfectly, highlighting Enright’s gifts as both storyteller and examiner of the human condition. For anyone sceptical of the Booker’s ability to find classics, try The Gathering.

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The Dead School (1995) – Patrick McCABE

I saw Breakfast on Pluto a few years ago, and made a mental note to look out for Patrick McCabe’s books if I ever saw them. Fortunately, The Dead School was to be found in a second hand bookstore I go into sometimes, and I picked it up. A good year and a half ago. In my defence, I moved overseas, and didn’t have access to it for a long time – but excuses no longer. I finally picked it up, and set myself up for some depressing Irish fiction.

Malachy Dudgeon and Raphael Bell are two men born in different times in different places, but with similar upbringings. Both are born in small Irish towns, and both eventually becomes teachers. And yet, they couldn’t be more different. Their attitudes to life, learning and their students are worlds apart. As their lives slowly intertwine and interact, there is no doubt about the effect each will have on the other – this is a make or break relationship.

What is it about the Irish that makes them write depressing, dark novels? The weather? Needless to day, McCabe follows in the grand Irish tradition, and gives us two main characters who find themselves in a world for which they are thoroughly unsuited, though in completely different ways.

I found Raphael less likeable, but in the end, a far more fascinating character. A perfect young child grows up into a perfect young man, and eventually grows into an outdated dinosaur, scared off by the feminist movement. His inability to see that his own living in the past – listening to hymns on the radio on a Saturday afternoon with his perfect housewife, caring for his students through corporal punishment – is causing his own insanity is quite fascinating.

Malachy is a whole separate kettle of fish. While it is built up that Raphael is almost destined from birth to be a perfect boarding school headmaster, Malachy seems to fall into becoming a teacher. He treats his teaching college days as a joke, and when he finally becomes a teacher, it is clear he has no idea what he’s doing. But his desire to prove to Raphael that he’s not an idiot – driven by either fear or anger, we’re never really sure – causes him to place pressure on himself, though this only helps in making his personal life a living hell. Having grown up with teachers all around me, I can’t help but understand the pressures of being a teacher. It’s hard work. And that many, many people are unsuited to it. Malachy is one of them.

In the end, though, there doesn’t seem to be hope for either of these characters. Raphael is driven to insanity by being forced to leave the school – his entire life’s work gone. And Malachy is so obviously a bad teacher, we can’t help but agree that people like him – people who want to be best friends with their students are clearly never going to make it. Their descents into loopiness are well drawn, and their worlds becoming increasingly bizarre, with Raphael in particular becomingn certifiable. He takes to teaching drunk classes in his own apartment, filled with boys who don’t even exist. And as Malachy is eaten up with guilt, he too turns to drink. Perhaps this is an Irish thing?

A word on women. This book is depressingly, relentlessly misogynistic. All the women here are presented in less than glorious terms: loose wives, who spend their time sleeping around with everyone except their husbands; “feminazi” style women (some of who have !shock! had abortions) who want to change everything that good society stands for; or the meek, supplicant housewife, who always has a warm dinner on the table when the husband gets home. Do not read this book if you want to feel good about the position of women in society.

There’s a lot of stuff going on in The Dead School, but what struck me most about the whole thing was the question of generations, and the way old and young people interact with each other. By giving us two teacher who have similar spatial backgrounds, but different temporal ones – and who work with yet another generation every day –  McCabe is able to show us how Ireland has changed over the last fifty or so years, and how it is continuing to do so. Neither side comes off better – instead of resorting to attacking the “youth of today”, McCabe provides a far more balanced, and therefore interesting, piece of work.

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This is How (2009) – M.J. HYLAND

Despite Di Morrissey’s weird objections to this book on her appearance at the First Tuesday Book Club, the fact that the other four members were raving about his book gave me enough justification to pick it up from work. I should mention that I have read Hyland’s earlier novel, Carry Me Down, and it left me cold. But what of this new one?

Patrick Oxtoby has left the big city in which he grew up to find solace and solitude in a small seaside village. He takes up in a boarding house with two other young men, and sets to work at a small mechanics. But his mother comes down to interfere, and as his temper rises, so too does the danger to those around him.

Moral ambiguity is something that is dealt with a lot in literary fiction – questions of right and wrong; of good and evil, and all these kinds of things make for excellent discussions about the human psyche. And Patrick is certainly not a bad person – and definitely not evil. Yet the act he commits (I’m going to spoil it for you, otherwise I can’t talk about the novel properly – he kills someone) is evil. Or, at the very least, morally wrong. There is no real reason for why Patrick takes a heavy spanner to his fellow boarder’s head, or none that I, as an outside reader, can see. All it seems to have taken is a little bit of constant niggling from his mother (something I personally identified with very strongly), and some weird altercations with some people in a bar. Is this really enough for someone to snap? Maybe for most of us, the answer is no. But at this time, in this situation, with these two people, it is enough for Patrick to snap.

It is clear from the outset that there is something not quite right with Patrick. Granted, he has just been through a breakup with a woman who had planned on marrying him, yet despite this, there is a deeper and greater sense of unease with patrick as our main character. He is very particular about certain things, he is definitely inclined to overthink every act (both his own and others’), and even though he protests to just wanting a friend to talk to, every time someone tries to connect with him, he is quick to anger, and simply becomes more grumpy. It is no surprise, then, that he should be so enamoured with the mechanic trade – a trade in which he can fix things, things that have a defined problem and solution. If I didn’t know any better, I would suggest that there is more than a hint of Asperger’s Syndrome in Patrick’s activities, and this is perhaps the closest explanation we have to understanding his actions. This is, of course, no excuse for the spanner incident, but his lack of understanding of social interactions makes him arguably more susceptible to breaking them in a more obvious way than simply not smiling at someone across the street.

And so, while the court case and eventual gaoling of Patrick goes on around him, he maintains his innocence. He didn’t mean to do it, so why should he be punished? His actions were not premeditated, so he isn’t really a killer, right? This question becomes less and less important as Patrick begins to realise the magnitude of his actions, and as he attempts to deal with his life in prison. The prison scenes are pretty interesting, with Hyland clearly (I hope) having done a lot of research into what makes these people tick. Having lived in a university college for the last three years, I can see similarities here. Put hundreds of people in a confined building, and social strata and systems form themselves, and Patrick must learn to fit in with the already established order.

The way he does this is most fascinating. His own preconceptions about criminals come into play, and while he spends time trying to distance himself from his cellmate – a convicted sex offender (who, I must add, is perfectly drawn) – he also begins to find friendship in the most unlikely of places in the most unlikely of ways. This ties into the ending of the novel, which is actually one of the best endings I have read in a long time. Patrick finally begins to accept his new life conditions, and while clearly still uncomfortable, he does manage to find solace in a person society deems to be similar to him, despite sharing little.

What is it that makes us so fascinated with the minds of killers? Certainly, from the popularity of Dexter (a brilliant television show, I should add), there is a market for this kind of exploratory fiction. But just as Dexter is wry and, in the end, a loveable kind of killer, Patrick Oxtoby is not. He is distant, cold, and impenetrable. This is How is a subtle novel that is hard to pin down at first, but it certainly provides some interesting food for thought for the enquiring mind.

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The Sea, The Sea (1978) – Iris MURDOCH

Another review so soon?! Clearly I have nothing better to do than avoid studying for exams – reading is definitely the best way to do this. I picked this up based solely on the fact that it was a pretty Vintage Classic, and it had won the Man Booker Prize. That, and it had been sitting on my shelf for an age. Is that a good way to choose? I don’t know…

Charles Arrowby, that famous playwright, has finally retired, and to celebrate, he’s moved into a dilapidated cottage on the coast of England. Even though he wants a quiet, peaceful time, writing his novel-memoir, a series of events are about to change that. When he meets his first love – his lost love – in the village nearby, his actions thereafter will have consequences not even he could dream of.

The word ‘odious’ does not, I think, get the credit it should these days. For if there is one word to describe Charles Arrowby, this is it. It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a narrator this much. Seriously, this man is an insufferable, pretentious bore, and misogynistic to boot. And yet, you just have to keep reading. Because, as a reader, it’s pretty clearly signposted that Charles’ actions are wrong, and his friends surrounding him keep telling him. You keep reading to see the spectacular fall, to see this man kicked to the ground for being such a douche.

‘Obsession’ is another good word. Charles has retired, so he’s not young. And yet, for the last forty years or so, he has been pining for a girl he went out with for a few years as a teenager, hoping that she would one day return to him, and sweep him away. This image of their relationship in his head drives him to kidnap her, and lock her away in his tower, in the hope that she will eventually come around to his way of thinking, even though she is going through her own stuff. Hartley – the woman in question – has been married to an ex-soldier, Ben, for a long time, and together, they have adopted a son, Titus. This family, while clearly dysfunctional, has somehow managed to survive, and yet Charles is so blinded by his obsession for a memory of something that happened forty years ago, that he cannot see Hartley as anything other than the battered wife, who needs rescuing by a knight-errant. And he thinks he is that knight. He is not.

This question of memory and history, together with obsession, formes the backbone for the novel, with Charles’ past coming to haunt him again and again. When his ‘old crowd’ from London come down to visit him – it seems, at first, a giant coincidence that they manage to arrive together – to see what he has done to himself, he cannot shake his memories of the past to see that people might have changed from what he once knew. He cannot see that Lizzie, for example, might still love him, despite having broken her heart years ago; that Peregrine might still blame him for his marriage’s disintegration’ or that James, his cousin, might actually be a much better person than he once thought. His relationships with women define Charles, and the three or four that are vital to this novel show him to be someone that does just use them for his own purposes, and then never thinks of them again. Unless, of course, they are Hartley.

Of course, everything has its time, and when the kidnapping incident is finally over, Charles finally begins to question his values and his lifestyle. Granted, the murders of a few people, and his own near death experience bring this somewhat to a head, but when he accepts that he must let Hartley go, things begin to turn in his head. Apparently Murdoch was heavily influenced at this time by Buddhist ideals, and this is very clear in the latter parts of the novel. And it’s not subtle, I should warn you – the Buddhist messages are rather like being hit over the head with a baseball bat. And for a while, you wonder where on Earth this has come from. And then, it begins to make sense – questions of reincarnation, of renewal, of moving forward, are very important in this conclusion, and I do think that, in the end Charles has learnt something from his experiences. But is this enough at this late stage? Personally, I don’t think so. But we’ll never know.

The Sea, The Sea, I must warn you, does have the most irritating narrator known to man. He’s not exactly unreliable, but after a while, you know exactly what is actually going on, and what he’s trying to tell you. This interplay alone makes for fascinating reading, but on the whole, this is an excellent novel that does deal with a lot, for the most part, quite successfully.

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