My Favourite British Novel

My favourite British novel? That’s a tough one. Of course, I’ve made it easier on myself by saying “British,” thus bypassing the Irish and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Many literary historians consider Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding the first British novel. However, there is vociferous debate. Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory sometimes gets the nod. But that doesn’t matter to me. This isn’t a dissertation. It’s my personal choice.

My favourite British novel is …. London Fields by Martin Amis, published in 1989.

You’re kidding me?” I know, many people might not have London Fields on their radar, let alone as their favourite. They favour Nobel-prize winners like William Golding (Lord of the Flies) or Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). They extoll novels by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, or Zadie Smith. That’s quite a list, but give me Martin Amis and London Fields. {I’m not claiming it’s the best. It’s simply my favourite.}

Give me the sheer exuberance of Amis’ prose. Will he go off on tangents about pubs, sex, or the sky over London? You bet he will. If it’s not your cup of British novel, you’ll know within pages. Me, I knew within a page that I’d keep reading. And that I’d laugh and chortle.

Some find London Fields an acquired taste. It’s not politically-correct. It’s misogynistic. Others compare London Fields to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s inventive and discursive. Like Ulysses, it’s been called crass and pornographic. Regardless of labels, London Fields gets under your skin. It’s part noir, part berk realism, part literary fiction. Like a certain beer brewed in Nova Scotia (an IPA), those who like it like it a lot. I’m one of them.

Amis delivers an extended amusement park ride, a rollercoaster of pathos and poignancy. The capers are simultaneously low-brow and high-brow. Think Monty Python on the page. {Not a Python fan? Give London Fields a pass.}

When I want twists, over-the-top characters, and zaniness, I re-read London Fields. I don’t only read it for the singularly inventive prose (no one writes like Martin Amis), but also for the plot itself. It’s a black comic murder mystery, a Brit noir par excellence. Right up my alley.

From the opening of London Fields: “This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. (It had better.) I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive (her motive) and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed. And I couldn’t stop them, I don’t think, even if I wanted to.”

NB: This passage was written in 1989: “America was going insane. In her own way. And why not? Countries go insane like people go insane …. All over the world countries reclined on couches or sat in darkened rooms chewing dihydrocodeine and Temazepam or lay in boiling baths or twisted in straightjackets or stood banging their heads against padded walls. Some had been insane all the lives, and some had gone insane and then got better again and then gone insane again …. America had had her neuroses before, like when she tried giving up drink, like when she started finding enemies within, like when she thought she could rule the world …. In a way she was never like everywhere else. Most places just are something, but America had to mean something too, hence her vulnerability – to make-believe, to false memory, false destiny.”

PS: Sound familiar in 2019?

The heroine, the murderee, on the death of love: [The earth] seemed to have eternal youth but now she’s ageing fast, like an addict …. We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we’re all coterminous. We’re inside history now, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Fields_(novel)

The Best English-Canadian Novel of All Time

What’s the best English-Canadian novel of all time? Admittedly, when speaking of Canadian novels, all time isn’t a very long time, less than 250 years. {BTW, I’m not including French-Canadian novels. I don’t know them well enough.}

The History of Emily Montague (1769) is usually considered the first Canadian novel. Although there were dozens of novels published in the 19th century, CanLit didn’t really get off the ground until the 20th century. But I digress. This isn’t a history lesson.

The best English-Canadian novel is … drumroll please … The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, published in 1996.

I can hear dissent. I don’t mind. When it comes to books, I’m opinionated. As for the dissent, I’ll address some of it. “What about Nobel-prize winner Alice Munro?” Well, Munro wrote one book published as a novel, which is actually a collection of inter-linked short stories, albeit an excellent collection. “What about an Atwood or Lawrence novel?” Worthy of consideration, but I vote for The Englishman’s Boy. “What about novels by Hugh McClelland, Michael Ondaatje, Rudy Wiebe, Lisa Moore, or Miriam Toews?” Again, all worthy, but give me The Englishman’s Boy.

Here’s why. In a nutshell, The Englishman’s Boy delivers the best combination of prose and plot. A literary double play. The writing is masterful. Vanderhaeghe’s painterly descriptions and perfect sentences are somehow direct and poetic at the same time. The storyline is just as masterful. You get a captivating page-turner that spans generations. I won’t elaborate on the plot. Suffice to say that it pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

I’m not the only person who thinks Vanderhaeghe is a master. He’s won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction (one was for The Englishman’s Boy). His prose has been lauded by many. For example, Rick Salutin extolled its virtues in the ‘Globe and Mail,’ claiming that Vanderhaeghe’s sentences were works of art (I’m paraphrasing Salutin). The Englishman’s Boy was turned into a mini-series (which was almost as good as the novel). That is a tribute to the plot, and is a rare thing in itself – see: Are Movies Better Than Books?

When I want to read a Canadian classic that delivers both excellent prose and plotting, I open the The Englishman’s Boy.

Yorkshire Noir – The Inspector Banks Series

English-born Peter Robinson crossed the pond for a new life in Canada. However, his Inspector Alan Banks novels are set in the UK. The police procedural and forensic details turn on detective work in the Yorkshire Dales. And those details are spot on.

As the series opens, Banks has recently left London Metropolitan Police and the big city, seeking a quieter life in Yorkshire. He doesn’t find it. The Dales may be a long way from London (by English standards, not Canadian), but they are teeming with fictional murder and mayhem. Banks is a busy sleuth, a divorcee who loves women, but has no luck finding true love.

Robinson deploys multiple narrative points-of-view, featuring criminals plus various detectives, mainly Alan Banks, Annie Cabbot (a former Banks love interest) and Winsome Jackman. The novels are expertly plotted and delivered with a descriptive eye. The early books in the series are cozier in tone, while the later books are harder, an Eight out of Ten on the Noir Scale, with Ian Rankin being a Nine-point-Five.

Although Robinson is known for his police procedural details, if you dig deeper, the main element in his writing is human psychology (cop and criminal). As an aside, I’d say that psychology is the main element in most crime writing, if not all. The difference between the crime subgenres is mainly due to the way that characters are portrayed – both cops and criminals – as well as the bloodiness of the killings. A cozy is soft and humane, and, at the other end of the subgenre spectrum, a black crime novel is at times almost inhuman.

Robinson doesn’t shy away from literary prose. His plots are firmly set in place and time. The descriptive veracity makes his fiction appear to be fact, which is what all crime novels need.

When I want a winning combination of police procedural details, detective personality, and descriptive prose, I turn to Peter Robinson. As alluded to above, he’s not as noir as Ian Rankin. Nor is he as cozy as Agatha Christie or P.D. James. He hits a sweet spot in between.

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Banks novels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Robinson_(novelist)

A few excerpts from the Banks opus ….

On the optimum time window to solve a murder:

Traditional police wisdom is that if a case doesn’t yield leads in the first 24 hours, everyone is in for a long haul. That time period could run to 30, 36 or 48 hours. That’s the problem. When do you scale down your efforts? The answer: You don’t.

A short “history lesson,” delivered by an ex-copper Banks knows [I’ve shortened the quote]:

“The first detectives came from the criminal classes. They were equally at home on either side of the law. Jonathan Wild, the famous thief-taker, for example. Half the time he set up the blokes he fingered. And back then, the days you’re asking about, I think we were a bit closer to our prototypes than the office boys we seem to have on the force today, if you’ll pardon my criticism. Now, I’m not saying that I was ever a crimo myself, but I lived close enough to the line at times to know what a thin line it is, and I was also close enough to know how they thought. I could think like them. I could’ve easily used my street smarts for criminal purposes ….” He let the sentence trail.

Style AND Substance: Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

It’s worth revisiting the cliché all style and no substance. It refers to an overstated buildup that proves to be unwarranted. Steven Heighton’s fourth novel is anything but. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep builds organically, to a multi-faceted and authentic climax.

Heighton is a Governor General Award-winning poet, a word master par excellence, yet his prose style doesn’t eclipse the storyline. On the contrary, it serves it.

The setting is exotic – an abandoned no-man’s land in contemporary Cyprus – without being distant in space and time. The storyline is compelling. Elias, a Greek-Canadian soldier suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan, appears to have found a home in a ruined demilitarized zone, a locale frozen in time since 1974. The DMZ is not empty. It hosts a band of outliers as fascinating as any found in CanLit, including The English Patient or A Discovery of Strangers.

The DMZ is a fecund setting, pregnant with promise yet also loss – in a sense, a Garden of Eden. Dislocation and the threat of eviction coexist with human warmth and beautifully simple food. Despite the temptations, the garden does not hold Elias. Or, rather, circumstances do not allow him to be held. He must depart. His gift – and the reader’s boon – is what transpires between his arrival and departure. At novel’s end, he is a changed man, occasionally conflicted, but able to move forward.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Heighton

A few descriptive excerpts from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

He wakes in the dark. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Then he spies through a gap in the curtains a row of three clear stars, Orion’s belt.

The moon, a few days beyond full, is blistering up out of the sea.