To preface this belated follow-up to my Boyd post: I did of course promise to offer my thoughts on Ordinary Thunderstorms about a month ago, but I’m both forgetful and busy, for which I make no apologies. I’ve just finished a trio of books that all happen to be set in London, so I figured it would thematically make sense to bash out my opinions in one go.
I love reading about places that I can relate to (one of my favourite books when I lived in Cardiff for four years was Cardiff Dead by John Williams – go figure). It’s always nice to have been to the places where your characters are going; you feel closer to their journey. Contemporary events set in London appeal to me even more – especially when they’re accompanied by the ‘character’ of London (the location as a standalone character – very Thomas Hardy).
Here are three very different stories, all set in our glorious capital:
Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd
Closest to Boyd’s Armadillo in terms of style (and of course location), Ordinary Thunderstorms is about going off the radar in an uncaring city. Set up for a murder he didn’t commit and unintentionally embroiled in a huge unethical pharmaceutical cover-up, Adam Kindred is forced to go underground and forge a new existence for himself, whilst being relentlessly chased by a sadistic hitman.
Each character is awarded a chapter, and gradually their lives begin to intertwine (an ever-so slightly contrived method of storytelling, but it didn’t offend me too much). Kindred is highly likeable, and you can’t help but feel desperately sorry for him (the scene where he is forced to catch, cook and eat a seagull by the side of the Thames is particularly bleak).
Cheery it ain’t, and much like an episode of Eastenders (urgh), you’re not rewarded with the happy resolutions you might crave. Instead, you get a gritty cat-and-mouse chase through the most undesirable locations imaginable, a well-meaning prostitute tattooing her child, and hushed-up clinical trials in questionable hospitals resulting in dead children.
It’s enough to make you not only reassess the morals of this city, but also your own morals, which, of course, it’s meant to. Suddenly, the thousands of unknown faces that blend into London’s streets begin to scratch at your conscience. The fact that Kindred makes more money begging than from a minimum wage paying job is a not-so-subtle poke in the ribs at how inexpertly this country deals with the poorer factions of society. It’s edifying, and somewhat uncomfortable.
If I were to be pedantic, I would say that the pace sometimes falters (especially during the board meetings within the pharmaceutical company), while the character of Rita, the ‘attractive’ river policewoman, is a bit uninspired.
Sometimes a book can redeem any failings within it last chapter or even page (The Picture of Dorian Gray), or even summarise its genius within the very last sentence (American Psycho), and I think that the final chapter of Ordinary Thunderstorms does that particularly well. In true Boyd fashion, the reader isn’t presented with any sort of resolution (let alone a happy one); rather, a sense that the story has moved along and flung you forward, whether you like it or not. Just another classic Boyd, then…
A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks
Having read the first half of Birdsong (the love story), and given up on the second half (the war story), I’m perhaps not the best placed to have a strong opinion on Faulks. I’ve read Charlotte Gray, and found it to be quite a slog, but ultimately a well-spun story. After reading A Week in December, my opinion on Faulks hasn’t really changed.
The premise is great: seven characters, seven days til Christmas – each must deal with their own personal demons and their ever-loosening grip on reality. As their lives intertwine (on a much more confusing level than in Ordinary Thunderstorms), you begin to understand why each of them is fading into disillusionment (a tube driver who’s just had someone jump in front of her train, a Muslim man who gets led astray by a terrorist faction, a heartless city trader, a Polish footballer, a doped-up, paranoid teenager…and various others I don’t remember or care about). Because actually, there are many, many more than seven characters, and at times it gets wildly confusing.
Faulks is undoubtedly an expert in his craft. Technically, everything fits. The story’s just not as gripping or the characters as relatable as I would like them to be. In particular, I’m referring to the trader, Veals, who epitomises the cold financial heart of the city. All very well, but it would’ve been nice to see a glimmer of something human in him, or at least a hint of redemption. And yes, I know that’s the point, but when you compare Veals to American Psycho’s Bateman, you’re left feeling that a bit of humour around Veals (or his equally clinical wife) wouldn’t have gone amiss.
To Faulks’s credit, the presentation of modern-day British Islam and its often misguided association with terrorism is risky and brave. The character of Hassan is the most developed and prompts the most empathy, particularly when he has his ‘moment of revelation’ in the final few chapters.
A Week in December is described on its back cover as “Dickensian in scope”, which isn’t exactly true. In fact, London itself plays a very small part in the action, with almost no reference to the city in the run-up to Christmas. Odd.
Without the ‘character of London’ appearing much in the story, I was left a little frustrated on completion. Don’t get me wrong – it was readable, but not a patch on Charlotte Gray (or the first half of Birsdong, for that matter).
Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger
Proximity-wise, this book was never going to fail. Not only is it set in North London (which side of the North-South London fence argument do you think I’m on?!), a lot of the action occurs in or overlooking Highgate Cemetery.
The following statement might make me sound quite strange, but as a child, I spent a lot of time tailing my Dad around cemeteries (he was into genealogy before it was popularised through Who Do You Think You Are?). I like cemeteries. I find them interesting, peaceful, and not all creepy. On a recent walk with my parents around Highgate, I happened to walk past this particular cemetery and was informed by my Dad that it was famous (or some of its inhabitants are). It definitely looked like an atmospheric setting for a story. Which must have been just what Niffenegger thought (quite annoyingly, she got there first)!
While I wasn’t a great fan of her first offering, The Time Traveller’s Wife, I can safely say that I have completely changed my opinion. Her Fearful Symmetry is a love story, a ghost story, and a family story. The ‘haunting’ is believable, as is the fractured relationship between the American twins forced to move to the UK and inhabit the flat beside Highgate Cemetery at their dead aunt’s will. Introduce a couple of older men (one OCD, one cemetery tour guide and bereaved boyfriend) living above and below the girls, and you get a very claustrophobic haunting – from characters both alive and dead.
My only small qualm with the story is the ultimate resolution of Valentina (one half of the twins) – there are obvious story arcs concerning her virginity, her jealousy, and her revenge on the women in her life, that Niffenegger chooses to ignore.
Thankfully, London’s appearance is ever-present and very pertinent to the theme of ‘otherness’ – the twins are disenchanted with the city and want desperately to escape, while the Obsessive Compulsive upstairs can’t leave.
Unlike Ordinary Thunderstorms, the ending isn’t massively impactful, but I did feel like I wanted to go right back to the beginning and devour it again. Which is surely the mark of a great book. Oh, and did I mention I read it in a single day? Striking, original, romantic and disturbing, this is truly unputtdownable stuff.