Category Archives: “Mainstream” fiction

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner

William Jones walks down the streets of Oxford, navigating its shadows, crossing the boundaries of its inner and outer foreignness – the ones that mirror his relationship with his wife. Night is falling, it is the Nineteenth century, stars are falling in the sky, and at home his wife Eleanor is giving birth to Edgar. Edgar is smaller than expected, very healthy, with unnaturally aged skin and a line of hair down his back.

Elizabeth Garner‘s prose is light, taking much prosetic licence – the effect is charming, and very gripping. Within an illustrative, detailed (though incomplete) geography of Oxford, William Jones, porter at an unnamed college, looks at his son as a delightful miniature of himself. Eleanor wanted a girl, and got an “unnatural” boy instead. William is much older than his wife, and spends most of his waking hours in the darkness, at the college gates. Eleanor stays at home, watching over her son. Her only visible contact outside of that home is Mrs. Simm – practical, clear-sighted Mrs. Simm, who assisted at the birth, who gave Eleanor a job as a seamstress, who advises her to accept her son as he is.

While William dreams of the greatness his son will achieve, and Eleanor stitches and dreams of the life she wanted to escape to, Edgar runs literally wild through his home and garden. If Eleanor accepts that her boy is a rambunctious, William, brought up a foundling by the Oxford clergy, is alarmed.  attempts at disciplining Edgar fail only in part to Edgar’s unmalleable incorrigibility – William’s process is didactic, incoherent; Edgar might be dyslexic. William’s growing disillusionment reflects in a waning expressed love for his only son.

Edgar has nothing with which to woo his father save his brilliance and his eagerness to please. Instead of acting out and breaking all his father’s stuff, Edgar goes out into the world and seeks employment. The idea of his son serving an apprenticeship with a blacksmith pleases William even less. William glowers through his nights, Eleanor sews in her private room full of light and colour, and Edgar leaves smoky prints wherever he goes – until he gains the attention of The Professor, who sees in Edgar the small, agile, smart, starved-for-love tool he needs to build his Museum to Biology and Evolution.

In time, William is displeased by this, too. Eleanor is stuck in the middle, playing peacekeeper, but William is not the sort of man who listens, and Edgar still very young. The entire novel is set up in terms of opposition and advancement – the Pagan, the Medieval, the Christian, the Rational, the Academic, and the Desiring all jostling for overlapping spaces within one small household amidst three small people. Oxford and the Jones household lay out the cartography of the human soul – itself liminal, changing, selectively steadfast, and not always in the right contexts.

Edgar has been ruined by the wrong kinds of mentors for years before he finds the perfect fit – unlike Goldilocks, he cannot truly appreciate his third and final helping, since he is so hung up on the first two, and how much he needs them to love him. Mr. Stephens the instrument maker is a lovely man, whose shop is somewhere in between the University and the Jones’ home. (Coincidentally next to Eleanor’s first home in a tavern.)

And then disaster strikes(!). Eleanor learns of the perfidy of mankind, William learns nothing at all, and Edgar loses the little freedoms he has. The novel careens to its inevitable dénouement, and at the closing the three Jones move their separate ways.

That’s not really a spoiler, so I’m leaving it in.

Garner’s prose, as I’ve mentioned, is light and gripping, and she has a knack for saying a great deal without beating the dead donkey over the subject. The novel is descriptive with that hint of enigmatic other-worldliness that we see hints off through out Oxford’s gargoyle-laden streets. What makes this novel less than ideal for me is the ending. Where William goes, well, that is perfect. It fits in neatly with all the facets of his personality, the concrete details of his life as he walks stonily through it. Eleanor and Edgar do not give us the same sort of closure. I would have appreciate a. a sequel or b. more chapters, telling me what the hell happens to them. The Ingenious Edgar Jones reads like incomplete but lovely novels (I’m looking at you, Heyer and Steinbeck!) – lovely, but incomplete. The reader is left hanging, while Eleanor and Edgar move away with no knowledge of each other to do – what? I found it completely unsatisfactory, worse still because I was hooked from the beginning.

You could read it as a way of allowing them their freedom, unfettered by our gazes (gaze, and entrapment within gaze, is a running subtext through the novel), but  that still leaves me hanging. Eleanor and Edgar has a great deal of potential in terms of development and adventure(!!), and I’m basically left with them saying goodbye, this isn’t for you anymore.

All in all? The Ingenious Edgar Jones is a lovely, emotional novel about the boundaries of loyalty, and the damage that a trespass against loyalty can cause – no matter how much love there is to patch up the breaches. It has an ending that will leave you wanting more, with little likelihood that you will get it. It’s an exercise in humanity and frustration. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Ardour by Lily Prior

Spelled "Ardor" here. That's why it's a tiny picture, I don't want to look at it


Spelled "Ardour"

Actually, Ardor: A novel of enchantment according to Prior’s website. Prior lives in London and travels in Italy, apparently, so I do not see why the ‘u’ was so summarily dismissed, unless the publishers thought, ‘Expose our readers to an extra/a missing U? No wai!’ I ought to do more research into this perplexing question, but I want to keep the “wai”, so I won’t.

I might as well start off with the thing I’ve written over and over again in my notes: “The prose! Such lovely prose!” Prior’s language is ornate and light at once, her humour gently raucous. It carries an otherwise not-bad, interesting story and makes it an elegant ode to unrequited passion.

It starts, as stories sometimes do, when Francesca Ponderosa leaves her home, to find her sister’s and maybe reconcile with her. In Norcia, Arcadio Carnabuci is deep, unattractive and lonely. From a randomly helpful gypsy (someone had not read his fairy tales!), Arcadio (note that name!) buys magic seeds for love, and plants them. They grow, and in due course become proper plants and bring forth flowers and then fruit. All of them smell of love and lust, and everyone breathes in this air of love – but Francesca Ponderosa barely notices Arcadio, caught up in her own loves, and her own agenda. Instead, Arcadio has the heart of Gezebel, the gentle, observant, caring, helpful mule.

Yeah. She’s the narrator. Ardor is 200-odd pages of unrequited love narrated by a donkey. She’s very eloquent.

Ardor is a novel about unrequited love, about passion and lust. Love hnags in the air in the summer-heated months. And incidentally, just incidentally, magic is here, there and everywhere.

As the town falls more and more under the spell of Arcadio’s fruit, the people there move inevtiably forward, towards or away from each other. (One of the subplots involve a doctor and nurse who have loved each other for years without approaching each other. Their narrative thread is melancholic gold, gold I tell you!) Some of them love, more of them lust – and of course, some of them make war. The same impetus drives people to very different things, the same madness expresses itself in very different ways. There’s something very unworldly about this kind of created inner fire.

After a summer of sometimes literally operatic farce comes to its climax, well, life moves on.

This is a very sort review, for a very short book. It is lively and graceful, and does not hide from the distresses of love, and the beauties nonetheless. It reminds me, and market-wise probably actually is, of one of those surreally magical-realist novels that tend to hide murky sociopoliticing under their zany, otherwordly plots. I wouldn’t, myself, look any deeper for that here. There’s more than enough fevered layers to explore as it is.

Ardor is a sweetly short read, rude and funny and sad and lovely. If you find the time, and it’s around, you must read it.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

In Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. (truly, I hate that Kafka-reminiscent thing where a surname gets compressed down to initials in a Western setting. It’s a South Indian norm, and not quite as dehumanising or alienating or marginalising or off-balancing as it probably is to a Western reader, so I always forget that it means something when I read it) is a “carer”, coming to the end of her days in that near-professional capacity. (Precisely what the “carer” does is not made clear, though it obviously is something akin to what nurses do, albeit in a very specific area.) Kathy is thirty-one years old, and as she wraps up her last year as a carer she looks back on her life, at the people she’s known, the people she grew up with, in a tidy-minded attempt to make her facts clear to us, and to herself. 
This meticulous tidying makes Kathy’s first-person narrative a gem of restrained passion – different from but still akin to Stevens‘ or Masuji Ono‘s own still-smoking embers – but it also allows her to get away with what runs through her story as a recurring theme: Kathy and her peers are told what they need to know about themselves obliquely, subtly, so that they can dance around the subject of themselves without using the brutally honest terminology that would pain them, and pain us readers, and perhaps encourage them to protest against the lives they live, and the people who make them live that way.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Self-consciously, as honestly as possible, Kathy H. reminisces about her life growing up at Hailsham, an institute for children like herself; her friend Ruth, her involvement with the sociocultural activities at Hailsham, her misfit friend Tommy. Hailsham is apparently a place of some stature, amongst the people Kathy lives and works with – Kathy is, in her own estimation, a child of privilege, both institutional and through her friendship with Ruth social. The people she cares for, the “donors”, become her wards not just in that she nurses them but also in that she has this superior standing, one from which she condescends to connect with them.
So much is clear from the first few pages. Ishiguro’s prose, via Kathy, is always restrained, always hinting at the truths beneath the polite phrasing. Through Kathy’s sensible eye we see the difficulty of growing up different, perhaps superior, yet without full knowledge of what one is or isn’t – a typical childhood state, stretched to an around-the-edges-chilly degree.
Kathy traces both her changing relationship with Ruth as well as her growing, never blatantly spoken place in society – how she is both unique and outcast, and how in the insular institution of Hailsham she is marginalised entirely from the nation in which she ostensibly lives. As the children assimilate the dribbles of information handed out to them and finally leave Hailsham, they are still sequestered away from “normal” society, looking to root themselves in status, privilege or debased reality – they are rootless and searching.
As Kathy becomes a carer, and a successful one, she meets Ruth and Tommy again, to build relationships with them that transcend or build on their childhood bonds and conflicts. Together they can try to better their lives, defer the inevitable.
Never Let Me Go is not a novel about the power of the masses to better their lives, nor is it really an exploration of the rights and concerns of an enslaved class of people. Rather, through the multifaceted lens of these seemingly larger concerns we are forced – through Kathy’s own delicate refusal to speak in brutal honesty – to deal with the conceptions of ageing, of death, of constantly being managed by people whose only purpose in life is to ameliorate the sufferings of others. An entire language of sensitivity grows up around these issues, in our own world as much as in Kathy’s own rather inhumane insensitive one – not that Kathy ever acknowledges it as such. Kathy’s narrative is that of acceptance, of resignation to what she must face and what she might suffer, and what was kept from her was not just that she must face and suffer these things, but that she would not be allowed to lay bare these sufferings except to readers completely displaced from the people she is meant to benefit.
Never Let Me Go is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read this year, and it stayed with me for hours after I put it down. It’s not a novel that raises questions or solves them, instead simply reminding us of similar restraints, and shadings, that we can see in the world around us – I for one will not be able to walk into a hospital or a school without some trepidation for a while.
So. This isn’t an airport novel, or a novel for the adrenaline junkie. It’s a quiet compeller, and it will leave you sombre and haunted. It’s one of the better things I’ve read this month, this year, and almost in a while. I recommend it.