What’s essential? Pandemic reading

July 20, 2020 at 12:27 pm | Posted in Blasket islands, Cli-fi novels, psychopaths | Leave a comment
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Three outstanding books

In the early days of the pandemic a contents box on the front page of a newspaper stated:

‘WHAT’S ESSENTIAL

In France, wine

In the US, guns.’

For me, it’s books. (Hmmmm, maybe the wine comes a close second.)

Some people want to read books like Camus’ The Plague during this pandemic. If you’re the erudite Simon Schama you’ll of course be reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War with its evocative descriptions of plague and the detrimental effect on friendship.

Not me. I don’t want to re-visit those two fine works when it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the number of wonderful new books being published, specially when keeping up with them is done after small writing and editing jobs plus the big one of writing my next novel.

Three recent books, all very different from each other, stand out for me: Bradley J. Edwards’ Relentless Pursuit (co-written with Brittany Henderson), Colly Campbell’s The Capricorn Sky, and Cole Moreton’s The Lightkeeper.

Bradley J. Edwards’ Relentless Pursuit,

Relentless Pursuit (Simon & Schuster, 2020) is the riveting account of Bradley J. Edwards’ pursuit of Jeffrey Epstein. Over the course of about eleven years, Edwards represented more than 30 victims in lawsuits and claims against Epstein. It’s hard to believe this polished tour de force of gripping suspense is Edwards’ first book. He has the gift of writing simply about complex legal matters plus understated empathy for those he represents. The cost to himself of publicly taking on someone who was to become the world’s most famous psychopath is literally jaw-dropping. But Edwards never gives up.

The bottomless power and resources that the clever, charismatic, manipulative Epstein had at his disposal is hard to credit. I was glued to this book, neglecting all else to read how one man could make democratic and legal processes crumble at his whim. The author meets face to face with Epstein several times and we get a fly-on-the-wall seat at an intriguing psychological battle between two bright, gifted men, one of whom uses his gifts for evil and the other for good. Neither will give up.

In spite of the serious topic, Edwards is witty when circumstances allow and it’s a joy to be in the company of this beautiful, succinct writer and idealistic, courageous man. I haven’t been moved by a non-fiction book as much as this since Tom Watson and Martin Hickman’s 2012 Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.

Colly Campbell’s The Capricorn Sky

Now for the two fiction books. Colly Campbell’s The Capricorn Sky (Stringybark Press, 2020) is a cli-fi novel, not my area of expertise, it must be said. It must also be said that I’m a friend of the author. This novel of ecological disaster is set a century in the future. Capricornia is what’s left of Australia after another century of worsening storms and catastrophic sea-level rise.

Capricornia is jointly administered by AuZgov and ASEAN. ‘Half the continent is shared with Indons, Papuans and Timorese who had fled the climate disasters, along with their descendants, 85 million people, stretching from the east to west coast of the continent of Australia.’ The massive influx of climate refugees had created many mouths to feed but also a massive workforce.

World population is 14 billion and a one-child policy rules. The author’s enjoyment of inventing plausible-sounding technological advances and neologisms that have evolved to make sense of this new world is expressed with energy and humour.

Main protagonist Andaman Marko uses his technical knowledge to decode corporate and diplomatic communications and a kind of insider trading to make money and have a lot of fun. Fun seems to be in short supply in this new normal of enforced peace and mass surveillance.

But Andaman’s illegitimate practices come to the attention of AuZgov and apparently some others and soon he is fleeing for his life.

We travel with him on a journey through a world with talking dogs and cats (genetically modified voice boxes) and where people are averse to revealing personal details. ‘Social media was dead. Hardly anyone operated virtually, except for businesses and education. They knew AuZgov could look and listen at all times. The less bait to tantalise the bureaucrats and police, the better. … Silence had become the standard practice for a civilised society.’

One of the striking things about this novel is the description of place. As Andaman travels, trying to find a safe haven, the seascapes and weather conditions unfold for us in clear pictures as if we’re watching a road movie.

‘They were cruising about 400 metres over Hinchinbrook Channel. Were flying low between the island and the mainland, seeing waterfalls emerge from cloud cover in an incredible cascade of wetness as if poured from the grey. Silver against the thick dark green vegetation. To Madrigal it was beautiful. Silver hair wrapping the old country.’

This original and pacey thriller, with its intriguing concepts, appealing protagonist and picaresque plot is available in hard copy and as an E-book from collycampbell.com.au and a sequel, The Kyoto Bell, will be published towards the end of this year.

Cole Moreton’s The Light Keeper

Over ten years ago I read Cole Moreton’s book Hungry for Home (Viking, 2000) about the Blasket Islands, when I was travelling near there. I was leaning on the fence looking at them, only three miles across the water but the weather so wild that no boat could get me across all week. I’ve read all the books about them and those by the inhabitants of those wild Irish western islands (for the PhD I was doing and the novel that came out of that research). Moreton’s book is my favourite. It’s no surprise that he has since won major awards for his journalism. Hungry for Home goes beyond journalism and becomes a work of art. It’s a masterpiece of using fictional techniques to transform the prose without compromising the facts.

More non-fiction books followed. Now, Cole Moreton has written his first fiction, The Light Keeper (Marylebone House, 2019), a literary novel with pace and suspense. It’s set on the East Sussex chalk cliffs where Beachy Head is one of the world’s top three suicide spots. It takes a full five seconds to fall down the 160 metre cliffs there, plenty of time for regret.

A place for the lost and lonely

Like Colly Campbell, Cole Morton’s descriptions of place are filmic in their visual clarity. The landscape contends to be included in the novel’s strong cast of characters. A man called initially just the Keeper is living in the decommissioned, decaying lighthouse. We see the place through his eyes. ‘This is a lonely place in winter, but on spring days like this there is no more beautiful place in the world. The ripped clouds reveal a deep blue sky, the sunlight spills over everything, glittering on the sea or flashing on the bright face of the cliff, and the air is alive with brilliant energy.’

It is a place for the lost and lonely. It speaks to them through its wild beauty and vast sky, the sublime chalk cliffs and the restless sea below. It is a place to run away to but also a place where chance might allow the meeting of someone who can change the course of a life.

The Keeper had originally come to the lighthouse with a woman now gone and sometimes it feels to him like a prison: ‘It’s a strange thing to be, a lighthouse keeper, when nobody is paying you and there is no light to shine. It’s hard to be here without her, but he can’t leave, because she is still here, at least in his head. His heart. Her things in the tower, the art she made. Her voice on the wind.’

The Keeper’s path crosses, at different times, that of Sarah and Jack, a young couple who have come to the end of seven years of IVF. ‘Prodding. Poking. Knives. Drugs. Hope, despair, hope, despair, hope, that is the worst of it. Hope rising when you wish it would not, because you know it will die, more painfully every time.’

Sarah has had enough and has come to the edge. As she puts it, if the IVF process goes on too long. ‘The love gets drowned out.’ But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

The biblical references give resonance for those who can recognise them but the novel will be equally compelling without them. Sarah, like her namesake in the Old Testament, has been desperate to conceive a child. The Keeper’s real name is Gabriel and, despite his misanthropic impulses, it’s hard not to view him as a kind of archangel, albeit a reluctant one, in the evolving dynamic of his and Sarah’s relationship.

The opposing views of Sarah and of Jack about what has happened are written with empathy and without judgement, making the reader wonder whose story is accurate and evoking Rashomon-like reflections on truth.

Moreton threads the history of the area and its lighthouses through the narrative with a light touch and there are some gently funny moments. The minor characters and those who are dead are evoked with compassion and clarity. The sublime beauty of the landscape and the sea seep into every scene of this lyrical exploration of love and loss.

The Light Keeper has an original plot, beautiful descriptions of place and unforgettable characters whose interlinking lives will stay with the reader for a long time.

See colemoreton.com for more information about this writer and his work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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