The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Road'

Giving the ‘Art’ section a rest, and doing a book review instead.

I watched the film of ‘The Road’ a couple of years ago, before reading the book by Cormac McCarthy.  I knew it was bleak but admit that I wasn’t prepared for how unrelentingly bleak it was.  Still, I kept thinking I wanted to read the book.  And finally did, a couple of months ago.  Despite knowing the story, I was still looking forward to reading it.

A father and his young son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast.  Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind.  They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

Cormac McCarthy is not known for writing upbeat, happy stories; instead, isolation and violence are the words that spring to mind.  He doesn’t use much in the way of punctuation.  There are no quotation marks in the book so it isn’t immediately obvious what is direct speech; you'd think it would make for a challenging read, but I found it easy to keep track of who was saying what.

The story isn’t laid out traditionally in that there is no beginning, middle and end.  Neither are any of the characters named.  For me, the book seemed more like diary entries, written by the father.  He remembers the world before the unnamed disaster struck.  Sometimes we get glimpses into his past.  The boy was born into the devastated world; he knows nothing but their bleak existence.  We follow them as they traverse the road, making their way to the coast in the hopes of finding something, anything more than what they’re experiencing.

The world that McCarthy has created is a frightening one, in that it is a world that could, one day, come to be.  Everything that’s not already dead is dying, covered by choking ash.  There seem to be no animals; the few humans that there are, are either little more than dead people walking or cannibals.  

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn.  Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side.  Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind.  A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned.  Farther along were billboards advertising motels.  Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.

This isn’t a story about the end of the world or life in a devastated one.  It is the story of a father and son, the mutual love and, also, dependence between parent and child.  It is about the strength of their bond in a world where it would be just as easy to give up, to abandon, to betray.  For a bottle of water; a can of food.  The father may have no hope left for himself, but he refuses to give up; he carries on for the sake of his son.  It could be said that his son is, literally, his reason for living, for surviving.

He knew only that the child was his warrant.  He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

Although the boy has been raised in this dying world, his father has instilled values in him.  Ironically, it is the boy who becomes the father’s conscience, questioning when the man ignores those in need, when he refuses to share their meagre supplies.

Despite the desolation of the story and sparseness of style, McCarthy still makes magic with his use of words.

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable.  A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.  Often he had to get up.  No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.  He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.  An old chronicle.  To seek out the upright.  No fall but preceded by a declination.  He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return.  Eyes closed, arms oaring.  Upright to what?  Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix.  To which he and the stars were common satellite.  Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

I found the menace they faced more overt in the film, whereas in the book, while still there, it creeps along, just out of sight.  The fear that something might be about to happen to them is palpable even when nothing awful is in sight.  It is a far from happy story.  Yet, despite the harrowing subject, there are moments that uplift, between the father and son.  In my opinion, the book is well worth the emotional ride.  McCarthy’s depiction of the parent/child bond in such an awful setting elevates it above the norm.  He has also given the reader – this reader anyway – food for thought: is there any point in carrying on when there is nothing; no hope, no promise of a better life.  I’d like to say ‘yes’ … but it’s one of those situations – until you’re living it, who truly knows what they’ll do? 

The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'The Enchanted'

This is the debut novel of Rene Denfeld, and what a debut it is.  I’d never heard of her, or her book, but the moment I saw it on the shelf at the bookshop, I was drawn to it. 

At just over 230 pages, it did not take me long to read.  And I can honestly say I have never read anything quite like it.  Ms Denfeld displays superb skill in crafting her story with hauntingly beautiful prose, sparingly used.  Together with 'The Vagrant’, this was my other favourite of 2015.  How coincidental that the ‘protagonists’ in both do not speak.

Monsters aren’t born – they are created.
A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum-security prison.  We don’t know his crime.  We don’t know his name.  But he watches and he listens.
A lady investigator unravels unspeakable crimes.
She does not let men go to their deaths without a fight.
And the prisoner wonders … how do we stop men like me from happening?

The story is told in first person by a nameless, mute prisoner; we are not ‘introduced’ to him by name.  He is on death row, the dungeon, along with the other condemned.  He never sets foot out of his cell, and yet it is he who tells us all that transpires.  Ms Denfeld has handled the magical realism in such a seamless, believable way that at no point was I jolted out of the story.  It’s as if his time in the prison – from being with the ‘general population’ to being shut in the dungeon – has given him the ability to see-all and know-all.  His ‘voice’, although simple, is breathtakingly lyrical …

This is an enchanted place.  Others don’t see it but I do … I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air … I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky … I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs …
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here … I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.

In the prison, the only ones who have been named are the prisoners and corrupt guards; the other characters are labelled in a general way – ‘the lady’, ‘the priest’, ‘the warden’ – as if they are the ‘unimportant’ ones.  The main story concerns another prisoner, York, who will soon be executed.  Unlike many of the others, he wants to die.  He’s a killer, and he makes no excuses …
He says … he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does … “If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says. “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense.  But it doesn’t.  It never does.”’

The ‘lady’ is a death row investigator, a job similar to Denfeld's, which she explained in an interview – “I dig deep into the histories of men and women facing execution, trying to understand why they did such terrible things."  The character in the book does the same thing, trying to find any shred of evidence that might result in a stay of execution.  But it is more than a mere job to her; she seems to genuinely care for the men awaiting execution, trying her hardest to find that bit of evidence that will commute the death penalty to life imprisonment.

The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious.  Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marvelling at all the beauty and pain in the world.

The horror of prison life is evoked, as is to be expected, but there are no unnecessary, graphic descriptions; Ms Denfeld leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination.  I liked the lack of stereotypical characters; for example, the warden, although a believer in the death penalty, is a compassionate man who treats the inmates with care.

There are other stories that are woven in, about the lady, the priest, the warden, a new inmate, the narrator … Like York’s story, they are all sad.  Yet, despite the bleak subject matter, and overarching sadness, there are moments of hope and salvation, which Denfeld communicates in a way that neither justifies the crimes nor belittles the victims.

To begin with, I found York to be an irritating specimen, but as his story unfolded, I started to see the person behind the criminal, and my heart went out to the little boy he’d been, who had been subjected to undeserving awfulness.

Although the narrator is in prison for doing a ‘bad thing’ – the details of which we are never really told – and he ends up in the dungeons for doing another ‘bad thing’, I found myself caring for this broken soul.  He talks about those who have been violated, who, like him, have had ‘the edges of [their] body blurred’ … ‘When your body stops being corporeal, your soul has no place to go, so it finds the next window to escape. My soul left me when I was six.  It flew away past a flapping curtain over a window.  I ran after it, but it never came back.  It left me alone on wet stinking mattresses.  It left me alone in the choking dark.  It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.

The image of a 6-year-old running after his soul must surely be one of the most distressing thoughts imaginable.

The thing that first drew me to the narrator was his love of books, the written word.  When he’d first entered prison, he did not read well, but, utilising the prison library, he laboured over the words he did know, and gradually improved his reading ability.

When I first started reading, I didn’t know how to sound some words.  I would whisper them inside my head. Sioux, paisley, ruche.  Obsolete, rubric, crux.  How do you say those words?  How do they sound when others say them?  Are they as pretty as they sound inside my head?  … I decided that in the end, it doesn’t matter.  In my mind, the words sound right.  They chase each other around like boats on a lake after dusk …

Now, I am not, for one moment, saying that we have to feel sorry for criminals, especially those guilty of heinous crimes.  Before reading this book, I never spared a thought for the criminal.  But now, while not agreeing with, or condoning crime of any sort, and still firmly believing that criminals get what they deserve in the sentences that are meted out, I find myself wondering why; what happened in their past, especially their growing-up years, that has made them behave as they do?  In my opinion, this intense, intelligent story, makes you think about how monsters are created, and how we – society – could stop it from happening.  How far should we go to step up and take some collective responsibility instead of turning a blind eye?  In Rene Denfeld’s words, “Without empathy, we have no soul.”

The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'My Swordhand Is Singing'

More Marcus Sedgwick, this time in the 17th century realm of vampires … Not only do I love the cover for ‘My Swordhand Is Singing’, the title is one of my favourites.  I also love that he reclaims the vampire from the suave gentleman-like character, and emotional lovelorn creature that sparkles, and returns it to its original, frightening origin.

In the bitter cold of winter Tomas and his son, Peter, arrive in Chust and settle there as woodcutters.  But Tomas is a man with a past; a past that is tracking him with deadly intent.  As surely as the snow falls softly in the forest of one hundred thousand silver birch trees, father and son must face a soulless enemy and a terrifying destiny.

Sedgwick has set his story in ‘ Eastern Europe early 17th century The Land Beyond the Forests’ – in his ‘author’s note’, he explains that Transylvania literally means ‘The Land Beyond the Forest’.  Like I said in my review of ‘ Revolver', Sedgwick has the ability to evoke atmosphere and setting with a few carefully chosen words. You can feel the claustrophobia of what it must have been like to be in a snowed-in ‘ Godforsaken village in the middle of nowhere’; to traverse the eerie forest between Chust and the hut where Tomas and Peter live … ‘Even here among the thickness of the trees [the snow]  lay heavily on the ground, whisked and funnelled by the east wind into strange hills and troughs, like white beasts lurking at the foot of the birches.

Trees stretched off into the distance in every direction, becoming grey ghosts and then no more than suggestions of ghosts.

Being newcomers, father and son are looked on with suspicion by the villagers; Tomas doesn’t help matters with his excessive drinking.  For reasons known only to him, he has chosen to live outside the village.  Attracted to Agnes, a young girl who lives in Chust, Peter is more than a little embarrassed by his father’s behaviour.  But there is no denying that there is something inexplicably strange happening in and around the village.  Livestock is being killed, and it is obvious that wolves are not responsible; there are reports that the dead are visiting their still-living family.  Yet, the surly, unfriendly villagers are at pains to ‘normalise’ what are obviously not normal events.  The arrival of gypsies does nothing to alleviate the tension.

As the truth of the situation gradually stares Peter in the face, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hang on to the ‘familiar’.  More and more, he finds himself wondering about the long, wooden box that has always been in his father’s possession, that goes everywhere with them, but that Peter is forbidden to open. 

The box was like his life, as far as Peter could see; something he had no control over, something shut away, not to be talked about, full of secrets and riches he must not explore.

Despite Tomas belittling the villagers’ superstitious fears and beliefs, Peter begins to suspect that his father knows more about events than he is letting on.  Although he has no love for the villagers, Peter is still willing to do all he can to help them, even though he does not understand what is happening.  And he is helped by one of the gypsies, a young girl, Sofia.

There is a hint of a traditional love story here, but the main one is between father and son, and I applaud Sedgwick for making that the focus.  Peter cares for his father, and it is obvious Tomas loves his son, but what has happened to make him crawl into the bottle time and again instead of facing his son, to refuse to speak of his life before he met his wife, Peter’s mother?  Sedgwick handles both characters with consummate care, gradually revealing the reason for Tomas’ silence and denial.

I liked Peter as the hero, a young man who is honourable, kind, caring and brave, despite being genuinely frightened by the inexplicable events.  Tomas is a very believable drunk, struggling between wanting to step up and do the right thing, but holding back in a misguided attempt to protect his son.  

Despite the vampire theme, the story isn’t fast-paced; there isn’t a great deal of action.  It is more unnerving than that, giving a sense of what it must have been like, battling something so unnatural, so appalling with nothing more deadly than farming implements, and folkloric beliefs.  I deliberately say ‘must have been’ because Sedgwick has taken as his inspiration, tales and reports of vampirism from eastern European countries; well-known reports like the Shoemaker of Silesia (1591), and Peter Plogojowitz (1725). 

These vampires were never aristocratic, but always of peasant stock, and were never pale but had a ruddy complexion; they were bloated, dirty, ragged creatures with blood on their lips.  And they went by many names, like vukodlakmoroiistrigoiivrykolakoiupir,  nachzehrer to name but a few; and one we’re most familiar with, nosferatu.

Sedgwick also weaves in other eastern European stories, like the Shadow Queen, and the Miorita, an old Romanian ballad, considered to be an important part of their folklore; and ceremonies, like the Wedding of the Dead – a symbolic marriage between a dead, unmarried man and a young, living woman so that he does not go to his grave a bachelor.  This way he fulfils the 3 stages of life – birth, marriage and death.  The bride is usually dressed in a white wedding dress – in the novel, Sedgwick has the bride in black to add to the haunting imagery – but the wedding guests are all dressed in black for the funeral.

There is one final ‘character’, and that is the sword …

‘… as foreign as the sun in winter.  Its slim but lethal blade curved back halfway along from the hilt, widened out for its last third, before tapering to a fearsome point.  The hilt itself was sheathed in horn; glossy, grey and mottled, and the crosspiece was an elegant brass creation.

I think the sword would make an interesting story in its own right, where it came from before Tomas found it 30 years ago when he was a different man, fighting alongside his king in Turkey.

I do have a couple of quibbles.  Sofia, who is a great character – feisty, brave and honourable – comes across as a touch underdeveloped; personally, I wanted to read and know more about her.  And the final fight with the undead of the Shadow Queen, and others she’d succeeded in turning – I found it was over too quickly.  The story had been building up to this showdown, and it was almost a ‘blink and miss it’ ending.  Then again, I’m not the target audience, this being a ‘young adult’ novel.  Still, I do enjoy the story – in my opinion, one of the best vampire stories of recent times.