After last week’s sprawling, rambling book review, I promise I will try to be more concise this week! And in fact I am going to review two books in one post this week as I didn’t think I’d have enough to say about each to make a whole post. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the two books here; I actually really did. And in fact I would recommend them to you more readily than A Little Life! Just they were easier reads, with less to them. And for that reason, I don’t think they are in contention to win the Booker prize.
The shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, but weirdly Wikipedia has a list already. Is this correct? It seems strange to me as A Little Life isn’t on it. My guess at this point (with two books left to read) is that A Little Life, Did You Have a Family, A Brief History of Seven Killings and Satin Island will definitely make it….. Let’s see if I’m right!
A Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
First of all, I love the author’s name. All those ‘L’s – I just think it sounds great! Secondly, this is a book about the failed Narvárez expedition to Spanish Florida in the mid-16th century. In 1527, Narvárez set out from Spain with a crew of six hundred men, nearly 100 horses, and a goal of conquering the Gulf Coast of the United States, finding gold and becoming as rich and famous as Hernán Cortés.
Obviously, it did not work out quite like that… Within a year or so, there were only four survivors, hopelessly lost and living with indigenous tribes in an effort to survive. The four survivors were the expedition’s Treasurer, a Spanish nobleman, a young explorer, and his slave, known as Estebanico. They eventually stumbled back upon a Spanish settlement, whereupon the three white men had to give full accounts of what happened to them. The African slave never gave an account – his tale was never told – and Lalami’s book is then a re-imagining of what his account may have been.
And it was incredibly interesting. The beginning of the book shifts in time from Estebanico’s back story – his childhood growing up in Africa, how he came to be a slave and how he ended up on the expedition – to the early days of the expedition, landing, fighting, killing indigenous tribes and searching for gold. At this point I preferred the earlier sections as I just enjoyed their story more. I felt that a lot of what was happening in the U.S sections was just too obvious and therefore not particularly clever. For example, musings on how it felt to be a slave, wondering what the Indians thought of him, clearly not a white man but yet fighting on their side.
However, all too soon the expedition runs into difficulties. They lose horses and men in a battle with the Indians. They get horrendously lost and run out of water. And then they start getting sick. Little by little, the expedition disintegrates and with it the social structures that separate master from slave, Treasurer from explorer, white man from Indian. They do all they can to survive and it ends up being a person’s skills that matter rather than the colour of their skin or their social status back home.
They live with Indian tribes, marry Indian women, forge entire lives for themselves. But when there are signs of Spanish in the vicinity, they look to find the camp and are taken back to a Spanish city – and what happens once they are back in civilisation is equally interesting.
It’s a fascinating book and a really enjoyable read. The development of the characters is deftly woven and some of the characters who are the “baddies” at the beginning of the book become more and more sympathetic throughout. Estebanico is brilliantly imagined. There are no literary flourishes or Booker-esque tricks, just a fantastic story. It left me wanting to go away and read the official accounts of what happened, to tie that in with Lalami’s story – it must have been so-well researched and yet it doesn’t feel clogged down in historical detail. Such a great read and if you like historical fiction, you won’t regret picking up this book!
The Chimes – Anna Smaills
And now for something completely different. The Chimes is a dystopian novel set at some unspecified point in the future, in a UK dominated by music, a world where music has replaced the written word. The population is controlled by a huge, beautiful and powerful musical instrument, the Carillion, which sounds across the country throughout the day. The day begins with Matins, in which the music plays onestory – the official version of the Allbreaking – what happened when life as we know it ended and the world of the book began. At the end of the day, there is Chimes. These sound every night at an unbearable pitch and wipe out memory, sometimes leading to physical collapse as well.
At the height of dischord, at Allbreaking, sound became a weapon. In the city, glass shivered out of context, fractured white and peeled away from windows. The buildings rumbled and fell. The mettle was bent and twisted out of tune. The water in the river stood in a single wave that never toppled. What happened to the people? The people were blinded and deafened. The people died. The bridge between Bankside and Paul’s shook and stirred, or so they say. The people ran but never fast enough. After Allbreaking, only the pure of heart and hearing were left. They dwelled in the cities. They waited for order; they waited for a new harmony.
Teenagers are encouraged to start work by joining apprenticeships as soon as possible, as the routine of doing a task daily creates bodymemory. But things from longer ago? Very, very few people are able to remember these. With the loss of memory, comes the loss of writing – and with nothing written down there is no way of knowing what has happened in the past. Most people carry a small bag of objectmemories – important objects from their past. The exact memory may be forgotten, but the existence of these objects bring consolation when nothing else can be remembered.
When my hands takes hold of the right one, a picture will flash up true as a bright note, clear as an unmudded stream. I don’t know how it works. Maybe the object comes first; then the memory follows. Or maybe I choose the memory and my hand finds the right object to match.
The main character, Simon, comes to London after the death of his parents, with a mission. However, he quickly forgets why he arrived in London, and the memories of his parents disappears. He becomes a pactrunner – a small band that search through London’s sewers and canals for the pale lady – palladium – a silvery metal that is illegal to hold unless you are trading it. The ruling order want it all to be found and traded back to them eventually. The leader of Simon’s pact is the blind Lucien, set slightly apart from the others.
Slowly, slowly, through conversations with Lucien, Simon’s memory starts to lengthen, he remembers why he came to London in the first place, and he and Lucien set off on a journey… and there I will stop, in order to not spoil it, other than to say that the book also has the development of a beautiful love story, with some of the most rhythmical, melodious descriptions of love that I’ve read.
It’s not an easy book to get into – the language is very disorientating at the start and there is a lot of musical terminology – “lento”, “subito”, “presto”, “forte” etc but it rewards perseverance and is ultimately a gripping, interesting book.