Saturday, 11 October 2014

Kindle fatigue, Tim Winton and David Mitchell (not the one that's married to her off Only Connect)

An October week in Crete doing nothing but read, eat, drink swim and bask in the warmth without getting sunburnt. Hint: Ludicrously expensive (and dangerously so, from a skin cancer point of view) sun creams should be avoided. Go for the super-high-factor baby versions at a fraction of the price.

I had loaded the Kindle (Paperwhite) with what I hadn't read of Robert Littell's Cold War oeuvre - Legends, now a TV series starring Sean Bean is brilliant and The Company epic in a Charles McCarry kinda way. However, I stalled on The October Circle and then gave up on Young Philby. Too many repeated motifs and too much overt parading of the same historical detail. You can somehow bear this kind of 'atmosphere surfeit'  with Alan Furst but I've had enough of the Lubyanka dungeons for the moment.

Where we were staying (Artemis Apartments, Stavros, highly recommended, laid back, informal,) had excellent wifi, so, slightly stymied, I downloaded David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks having half remembered one of my sons recommending it. Which, in point of fact, he hadn't. Still, I'd loved Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks is even bettter, ranging across time and genre, emerging into full-on Harry Potter-meets-The-Matrix via the funniest (and probably most bitter) parody of Martin Amis and the Cult of Book Festivals you'll ever read. Brilliant stuff. I then (due to a technical glitch) zappped the same author's Black Swan Green onto the IPad (Kindle app) and enjoyed that (loads more references, from Angela Carter to Salinger and (credited) Stewart Maconie. It brilliantly conjures up that early 80s awfulness and the horrible frustrations of an adolescent summmer.

Reading on the iPad was OK, and I found I preferred it to the Kindle Paperwhite, which frankly I've become rather sick of. It's slow, clunky and to be hhonest, I miss books. I miss paper, the sheer bulk of a book. Also, some works just don't work electronically, I think. When I downloaded Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I found that being unable to feel the actual size of what I'd waded through made me lose heart. Because this a long, long book, and frankly it almost sapped the will to live out of me. Certainly, I lost the desire to keep reading, even though there are fascinating preliminaries to The Bone Clocks in the plot. The endless descriptions of 18th Century Dutch trading practices and Japanese etiquette gradually wore me down, until abandonment ensued. Maybe I was pixellated out of love for it, but I frankly cannot understand the many five star reviews this book has accrued. It seems an awful example of an author's obsessive interest in a place and period overwhelming style, plot and narrative drive.

Kindled and iPaded out, I resorted to the pile of paperbacks left in the Akrotiri bar by previous guests. I'd read Tim Winton's marvellous 'coastal memoir' Land's Edge after hearing it  on BBC Radio Four, but hadn't tackled anything else. The Riders, which is something of a phenomenon in his native Australia, having been turned into an opera, no less, absolutely blew me away. And it was all the better for being on saltwater-soaked, much-thumbed paper.

It's,, on the face of it, a classic thriller plot: Scully, is an Aussie expat drifter/builder/preparing a new life in Ireland for his pregnant wife and young daughter, who are wrapping up their old life  down under and due to join him just before Christmas. The trio have spent the past year travelling throughout Europe - living and working in Greece, Paris, Amsterdam and London. He goes to Shannon  Airport to collect them. Only the daughter is on the flight, and she cannot speak.

Scully and his daughter embark on  a desperate search for the missing wife and mother, revisiting their former European haunts. Nothing is what it seems, old friends turn out to be obscurely treacherous, loved places threatening and as Scully, a tower of physical strength and emotional simplicity, falls apart, his daughter Billie gradually emerges as...

Och, you'll have to read it. It subverts thriller modes to become something much more resonant, and I would say important. The writing at first seems florid and earthily 'literary', but gradually it overwhelms you with its sheer power. It's very disturbing, particularly for a father and husband. I don't want to be pretentious, but it's also a novel about Australia and Europe, really. I loved it. there are scenes in it you will never be able to forget.

And then, as it was a proper book, I gave it to my wife to read, and we talked about it for hours. She brought it back to Scotland, and handed it on to a friend. It will become more and more scuffed, worn and torn, and its power and brilliance will only increase.