Review: Heavyweights return Angel Time by Anne Rice (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (Cape, £18.99) The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
These three new books by bigselling authors each, in their unique way, tackle a variety of experiences that normally lie far outside our own.
Anne Rice in her previous books has mingled Gothic and vampire themes with religious ones. After a period of atheism, she returned to the Catholic Church in 1998, and, in 2004, announced that she would write ‘only for the Lord.’ Her new book, Angel Time, remains fired by passionate belief, but its credibility is tricky.
It opens well, introducing Toby, who, in the first person, reveals that he is a cultured hit-man who plays the lute and kills quietly and effectively at the order of ‘the Right Man.’ The narrative then shifts to the viewpoint of a Seraph called Malchiah, sent to save Toby from himself. This first dislocation is a jolt, but a more severe one follows with a long time-slip to a 15th Century situation, involving identical twins and anti-semitic persecution in Norwich.
Time-slip is a clunky device unless used with great skill; in this book, the plot-driven need to set Toby into a different dimension that will affect his mindset creates more doubts, questions and plot-holes than easy resolutions. But those who accept the book’s supernatural proposition will find
it an enjoyable read.
Audrey Niffenegger, whose The Time Traveler’s Wife sold over five million copies, writes delicious prose. In this latest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, she lays out her story in delectable, textual pictures: a woman dies, and her grieving partner cannot stop thinking about her. Identical twin nieces benefit from her curious bequest, inheriting a beautiful London flat beside Highgate Cemetery. OCD-afflicted Martin, who lives in the building, is distraught when his wife goes back to her native Holland, unable to bear his rigid, irrational routines any longer.
The quality of Niffenegger’s writing is leisured, evocative and impossible to disbelieve – until the dead woman becomes a major player. She drifts through the flat – where the twins grapple with jet lag and perplexity – trying to find a way to make herself felt through poltergeistish means. The growth of her power gradually brings all the others under her control. She kills a kitten, apologetically restores its life, and realises that her own spirit might live again could she but find a newlydead body. From this point on, the story becomes increasingly gripping or utterly preposterous, depending on the reader’s ability
to embrace the paranormal. But for those not tempted by analytical thinking, it’s a powerful, beautifully-written ghost story – and the inside view of Highgate Cemetery is creepily fascinating.
As a writer, Margaret Atwood is in a class by herself, and her tense, unflinching imagination reaches a new level of prediction in this terrifying new book, The Year of the Flood. Arguably the most significant look at the future since Orwell’s 1984, it must surely become a classic.
There is no dislocation from one world to another, as the story is set in a future that has seen the destruction of our planet well underway: the logic is inexorable. The surviving humans are divided, as is our society already, into two groups – but even more extremely. Some continue to depend on technical constructs, while ‘God’s Gardeners’ live harmlessly in a roof garden at the top of a half-derelict tower block.
Atwood’s verbal invention is phenomenal. Pleebrats (street kids) rage in the Sinkhole while the privileged tend their body image with stick-on Bimplants at Blyssplus. The CorpSeCorps, armed with electronic sprayguns, is quick to hurl suspected criminals into the Painball area, (no ‘T’) where the paint is lethal. In
this scenario, two very different women struggle to survive after the Gardeners lose their refuge. They are separated, but both hear in their minds the continuing voice of Adam One, whose gentle sermons as the guru of the Gardeners punctuate the book.
Atwood, despite the bleakness of her vision, holds steadily to the fine moral thread that many of us are already beginning to perceive as the only hope for our future, and the naïve and slightly inept hymns from the God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook become more touching as the plot takes us through to its glimmer of hope. The vulnerability of harmless people is their strength, for to counter-attack is moral death.
This heart-breaking truth lies at the centre of Atwood’s powerful and all-too-probably prophetic book, and disbelief of her scenario is a luxury we would be ill-advised to allow ourselves. Like all great novelists, she maintains a vision of the worth of the human spirit while unleashing all her brilliant inventiveness to lay bare the results of greed and wilful stupidity.
ALISON PRINCE’s books include biographies of Kenneth Grahame and Hans Christian Andersen and two volumes of poetry. She holds an honorary Doctorate from Leicester University for services to children’s literature, and her next novel, The Ant Path, will be published by Walker in 2010.
Literary landmarks Ground-breaking works in the history of women’s literature
52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel (Vintage, £8.99)
Poetry may have affirmed its cool of late in the wake of the BBC’s Poetry Season – judging by the number of open mic nights, performance poetry events and festivals that continue to spring up around the country – but 52
Ways started as an Independent on Sunday column in 1998, early in this poetic renaissance. Then, and to a certain extent today, the genre was facing what has been popularised as an ‘image problem.’ Though Padel asserts here that the health of poetry has been on the up since the 70s, it is her well-informed and expectationbustingly long-running column that helped set the ball rolling for this popular, and continuing, redefinition of poetry.
52 Ways features 52 poems, one for each week of the year, introduced, analysed and discussed by Padel. It treads a fine line between being written for the layperson who has a minimal,
‘…you can hate the tour guide and love the landscape. My readings are there to be argued against. For poetry slips away from rules and bossiness, is bigger than anything anyone can say about it, and is there for everyone. There is always more to find in it and the door is always open.’
[Excerpted from 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem]
or peripheral, interest in poetry, and being useful and relevant to a poetry readership who already have a fair knowledge of what they’re looking at – or for. Because of this, the language used is both descriptive and technical, explained and defined, and there is a well-stocked glossary for easy reference.
Padel makes no intellectual assumptions, but her argument is consistently intelligent and never patronising. The introduction is an incisive and deliciously upbeat description – and defence – of modern poetry that places it firmly on your must-read list, if only to make you reconsider why it is that poetry isn’t for you.
48 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09