Rising Damp Leads to Growing Wrath
Some interesting-looking new books, and an extended review of a recent, rather soggy, favourite.
Issue #20, Sunday 17 April, 2022
New and Forthcoming Books
Daughters of Eve by Nina D. Campbell
Another debut crime novel by an Australian author! This one looks promising.
In Sydney one bright clear day, a high-profile barrister is publicly gunned down on the courthouse steps. Not long after, another bloke in Melbourne suffers the same fate, and then another in Sydney. Before long, the violence escalates across Australia and more blokes are dead. Yeah, that’s right, the victims are all men.
…Emilia Hart, a seasoned investigator of family and gendered violence, witnesses the first death, and is quick to find the link between all the victims: all are perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence. The culprits dishing out this natural justice (or feminist revenge) is the elusive group Daughters of Eve, but with so many victims, panic ensues, and the police commissioners are quick to turn to the army for help. The irony is not lost on our intelligent protagonist: the army isn’t brought in to combat domestic violence despite there being substantially more victims.
The Devil's Bargain by Stella Rimington
Stella Rimington was the Director General of MI5 for four years in the 1990s. She’s pretty well placed, then, to write spy thrillers. I read a number of Rimington’s earlier books, and enjoyed them, but for whatever reason haven’t kept up with her writing. This is her eleventh novel, which rather tempts me to rediscover her.
In 1988 Harry made one mistake: he took a bribe, letting a man he knew as Igor into Britain - and he’s regretted it ever since. So when he recognises ‘Igor’ fifteen years later as his newly-elected MP, he knows he has to come clean. But the MP recognises him too - and Harry fears what he might do next.
By the way, I’m struck by the similarities between the covers of these two books—which are by different publishers in different countries—in terms of the teal, red and black colour palette and the central silhouetted female figure. I guess there are trends in book cover design as there are in many other areas of culture.
Lark Ascending by Silas House
This looks like an interesting piece of dystopian science fiction.
A riveting story of survival and hope, set in the not-too-distant future, about a young man forced to flee the United States and seek refuge across the Atlantic.
As fires devastate most of the United States, Lark and his family secure a place on a refugee boat headed to Ireland, the last country not yet overrun by extremists and rumored to be accepting American refugees. But Lark is the only one to survive the trip, and once ashore, he doesn't find the safe haven he'd hoped for.
Completed Since Last Issue
Well, for the first time since I started publishing Through the Biblioscope, I haven’t completed several books since the last issue. In large part this is because I’ve been continuing to read The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope, which is a very long book and slow to get through because I’m producing it for Standard Ebooks which requires careful proofreading (in raw HTML format) and the formatting and semantic tagging of such material as letters. And I haven’t finished that yet.
However, I did finish reading…
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey
…but on the other hand, I don’t have a great deal to say about it as yet. Like the others in the series, it’s very engaging science fiction which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Once I’ve completed the whole series by reading the final book, Leviathan Falls, and perhaps also the collection of shorter fiction set in the same universe and timeline, Memory’s Legion, I will try to do a longish article about the entire series.
My Brilliant Friend (La mia amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante
I finally managed to start reading this, the first of Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet. This volume deals with the childhood of the first-person narrator Elena and her brilliant but wayward friend Lila growing up in a poor quarter of Naples. I’m only about six chapters into this, but enjoying it a lot so far.
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
As mentioned last issue and above, I’m working my way slowly through this as a production for Standard Ebooks, but it’s taking a while, I’m still only about a third of the way through. The cover shown above will now be the actual one we use. It’s “Wigmore Church, near Ludlow, 1880” by Samuel Henry Baker.
Waiting on the Shelf
Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey. I’m finally ready to tackle this, the last book in The Expanse series. Can’t wait!
The City and the City by China Miéville. I’ve been meaning to start reading Miéville’s adult novels for years (after I read his juvenile, Railsea). Hope to get to this soon.
All’s Well by Mona Awad. I mentioned this as a new release I was interested in last issue and lo and behold! my library had it on its Recent Acquisitions shelf. But I’m going to be racing to get it read before it has to go back. Story of my life.
An Old(-ish) Favourite
Occasionally I’ll re-publish older reviews here (from before when I started publishing this newsletter). Here’s a book I loved in late 2020, then read for a second time in early 2021. I would still be happy to read it one more time.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison
It’s really hard to know how to begin to describe or discuss this book. Though I enjoyed it greatly, there’s a great deal in it which remains baffling even after a second read, and I think that’s by design.
We can start with the basics. It’s a novel set in modern-day England, with two primary characters who are fairly ordinary middle-aged people, each going through a kind of crisis or inflection point in their life.
Alex Shaw is in his fifties and going through what he calls “a rough patch”. He is now unemployed and living in a cheap rented room in suburban London. He strikes up a relationship with Victoria (whose surname he mishears and gets wrong throughout the book), a 40 year-old woman who announces that she works in a morgue and saw her first corpse at the age of 14. It’s not clear whether this is true or just her ploy to open up a conversation.
These are the two people whose lives we follow in interleaved segments of the novel. The relationship between Shaw and Victoria is a fairly lukewarm affair, and they drop in and out of contact.
Victoria moves out of her suburban house near London to live in and renovate her mother’s house in a small town on the banks of the Severn in Shropshire. Her mother died recently of some strange illness, before which she had been exhibiting signs of mental illness including paranoia. Shaw’s mother, by contrast, is still alive in a nursing home with a form of dementia which makes her treat Shaw with total scorn and always fail to remember his name. His visits to her are amusing records of deep frustration.
So far so ordinary. But extraordinary things begin to occur to both of them. Throughout the book we’re made aware of the strong and increasing presence of water. The rivers Thames and Severn; frequent downpours of rain; ponds and gardens flooding. Water is everywhere. It’s not so much the sunken land starting to rise as the waters rising and bringing with them... strange things. Such as reports of embryonic forms floating in toilet bowls; shadowy pale people seen running and diving into the rivers at night, greenish body parts washed up on shore.
One night Shaw meets a man called Tim who is scooping murky water from a pool into bottles. Tim offers him a job, which involves working in an office on a moored barge, and also frequently making trips with Tim to deliver mysterious boxes which sometimes contain bottles of the murky water and sometimes books titled The Journey of Our Genes. Tim seems to be running a conspiracy-theory website, among other things obsessed with the Aquatic Theory of human evolution, which proposes that humans passed through a phase where they lived largely in the water, like seals. Are there still such humans? Are they returning?
Meanwhile Victoria is finding her neighbours in Shropshire very odd, and keeps emailing Shaw about her experiences. Why does almost everyone who Victoria meets keep trying to foist a copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies on her?
She befriends Pearl, the waitress of a coffee shop, and then is stunned to find that Pearl claims she knew Victoria’s mother well, but describes her in terms Victoria cannot recognise. Pearl bathes naked in a pool in a field and keeps trying to entice Victoria to join her. Finally, Victoria follows Pearl unobserved and watches her descend into the pool “as if descending a short, invisible flight of stairs” until her head is underwater. She does not re-emerge. Panicked, Victoria rushes into the pool to find it only a few inches deep. Pearl is nowhere to be found.
Increasingly incomprehensible events occur to both Shaw and Victoria. They never fully understand what is going on, and neither do we, and that’s definitely the author’s intention. Throughout there’s a sense that the world (or certainly contemporary Britain), has escaped our understanding, that we are being drawn in by events we can’t quite grasp and certainly can’t personally control. There’s not so much a feeling of dread as one of bewilderment and impotence.
It’s definitely no coincidence that one of the books owned by Shaw, mentioned several times, is William Golding’s 1956 novel Pincher Martin, about a naval officer whose ship has been sunk by a destroyer and who manages to cling to life on a tiny piece of land in the middle of the ocean, though he starts to hallucinate. Here’s a relevant quote: later in the book Martin says “There is a pattern emerging. I do not know what the pattern is but even my dim guess at it makes my reason falter.” That’s the situation exactly with the characters in Harrison’s book. And for the same reason? In Golding’s book, we eventually discover that Martin drowned when his ship went down and all of the book has been an exploration of his increasingly bizzare close-to-death experiences.
It’s also worth thinking about the relevance of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, the book everyone keeps forcing on Victoria. In this Victorian-era children’s story, Tom, a boy chimneysweep, falls into a river and drowns and then is changed into an aquatic creature, a water-baby, and begins a new life underwater.
Surely it’s significant that late in Sunken Land, Victoria hears someone loudly shout angrily right outside her window: “You’re dead, you’re fucking dead!” So is Victoria dead when she hears that? That seems too trite a reading, and doesn’t appear to apply to Shaw. But both are certainly in a very strange state of mind by the end of the novel.
This is a fascinating book, written in a clear, pellucid prose which makes the bizarre events observed by Shaw and Victoria all the more extraordinary by contrast. We grasp for a pattern but either we are too stupid to find it, or there is no pattern there. I couldn’t put it down, even on a second read.
And that’s it for another issue of Through the Biblioscope. I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to comment and to let your friends know about it.