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June 13, 2003

Time's Arrow - Martin Amis

Clever tale of Nazi butcher's life

Amis has a fairly straightforward tale to tell, of a German doctor who worked in the Nazi death camps of the Second World War. The man escaped with gold stolen from the murdered Jews, changed his identity and lived the rest of his life as a doctor helping the sick in America, and eventually died of old age. There are probably novels that cover this kind of life, and even if there aren't it would be possible to write a good novel with this plot synopsis. But there is a trick Amis wants to play on us - he writes the story completely backwards.

The story begins with the man's death, lets call him Tod Friendly, though this is an alias. The details are related by someone who comes into consciousness at this point in time and lives inside the Tod's head. This unnamed narrator has access to the man's senses, and his feelings, but not to his thoughts. He begins by being pretty bewildered about what is going on, and never understands that his timeline is wrong; for example, he thinks that kind parents see their children crying, and slap them to make them feel better; he thinks taxis are always available, and that grateful passengers wave them goodbye upon exiting. Tod's life runs backwards, but the entity inside lives forwards, and so remembers the man's future as his past. This makes for many interesting and amusing misunderstandings like the ones just mentioned, and is also a clever and unorthodox way to raise the tension. Tod has nightmares, and we can see that this is a precursor to something terrible happening, but we have to guess what that might be. Tod is a very unpleasant man, who didn't need much persuasion to be corrupted by the Nazis, and who spends his whole life mistreating the women in his life. We don't hate him as much as we ought to though, because it's his miserable old age, and years of worry that we first discover, and this skew in our feelings is one of the most remarkable thing about the novel.

It's quite a short book, so there isn't really time to get too irritated by the confusion it causes; conversations are particularly difficult, so sometimes you need to turn the page and actually read the novel backwards. The combined elements of this backwards storytelling, Tod's harrowing life, and the holocaust itself, make this an interesting and thought-provoking read.

AE 2

Posted by se71 at 04:20 PM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2003

Man And Wife - Tony Parsons

Midlife Angst

Harry Silver repeats his performance from Man and Boy. This review could easily stop there, because if you've read the first book, then this sequel will hold no surprises.

Harry is living with new wife Cyd, who is of course very beautiful, and her daughter Peggy. His son Pat, the most beautiful boy in the world, of course, is living with ex-wife Gina and her new beau Richard, and he does the normal weekend father stuff. He also has a good job as a TV producer. But is he happy, no. And then Gina takes their son to live in America. And then his mother gets breast cancer. And then his job starts to fall apart when his only client takes a bit too much cocaine. And then he suspects his wife of having an affair, and begins a mini platonic affair himself. Just what is it he wants from life; he seems to stumble from one disaster to another, wanting the perfect relationship, and then not being happy with it when he gets it. He idolises what he perceives his parent's marriage was, one long love affair with each other.

And then things start to come together again; he stops the affair before it goes too far, his son comes back from America, his mother looks like she is recovering well from her mastectomy. And the final topping on the cake, Cyd becomes pregnant, which will make them a totally blended family.

Harry appears to be a voyeur, looking at his life, but not being able to affect it. And as a reader, you feel that you are watching this with cotton wool in your ears. You feel detached, you know your emotions are being cleverly manipulated, and most of the time you easily resist, but occasionally Parsons manages to get through to you. The characters are one dimensional caricatures, and the situations manufactured for maximum effect. In fact, the whole thing screams "TV movie sequel", from the punch up in the posh restaurant, to the biker's wedding at a service station.

And the book has a fairly unconvincing ending. Harry really is a pretty unpleasant person, selfish and self absorbed, and you just know that this latest attempt at happiness will be spoilt when he next spots a young pretty girl that takes his fancy. Perhaps there will be a trilogy - "Man and Mistress" anybody?

AE 1

Posted by se71 at 02:08 PM | Comments (0)