Thursday, February 26, 2015

the last book I read

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

Larry Cook is an Iowa farmer, who's built up and expanded the farm he inherited from his father and grandfather by some shrewd acquisitions of neighbouring farmland from those who didn't share his work ethic or his nose for business.

Needless to say keeping on top of this sort of operation requires day-to-day dedication, and moreover a supporting team who will take care of the administrative duties like washing clothes, keeping the house clean, cooking dinner, looking after the kids, helping out with the harvest when necessary. This duty falls first on the wife and thereafter on the children and their spouses, those who choose to stay in the vicinity anyway.

In Larry's case his wife died 20-odd years ago, nominally of cancer but presumably at least partly of exhaustion. Since then the burden of domestic tasks has fallen mostly to Larry's two oldest daughters Ginny and Rose, and the burden of helping out with farm activities to their respective spouses Ty and Pete, the youngest daughter, Caroline, having escaped to a career as a lawyer in nearby Des Moines.

At a party thrown by a neighbouring farmer, Larry springs a bit of a surprise - he's effectively retiring, and has had legal documents drawn up to transfer ownership of the farm and all its assets jointly to the three sisters. Ginny and Rose, after a bit of thought, accept, while Caroline, possibly suspicious of her father's motives, possibly just reluctant to be drawn back into day-to-day farm business, is a bit more hesitant. At this point Larry impulsively cuts her out of the deal and splits the assets equally between Ginny and Rose instead.

From this point things start to unravel fairly quickly. Larry finds himself a bit aimless without the day-to-day concerns of keeping the farm afloat and quickly enters a spiral of increasingly drunken and eccentric behaviour. Meanwhile Jess Clark, the son of Harold Clark, the farmer next door, returns from a long exile which began when he was drafted into the Vietnam War, and soon embarks on a brief affair with Ginny. Ty, who has shouldered most of the responsibility for the running of the farm, takes out a large and risky loan to finance setting up a pig-breeding operation and doing all the necessary construction.

Things get worse. Larry has a change of mind about the handover, and, with some help from Caroline (with whom he has quickly effected a reconciliation) brings a legal action to try and have the handover annulled. Rose has a heart-to-heart with Ginny wherein she reveals that Larry abused her sexually when she was younger, and she strongly suspects that he abused Ginny as well, though Ginny claims to have no recollection of it. Ginny's involvement with Jess having petered out, Rose starts sleeping with Jess, and Pete, having been clued in by Rose both to the childhood abuse and the present-day affair, drunkenly drives his truck into a lake and drowns. Larry, increasingly mentally unstable, has a very public meltdown at another community gathering, and eventually moves out to go and stay with the Clarks up the road. On returning to her childhood bedroom to do some tidying up after his departure, Ginny experiences a rush of repressed memories and realises that Rose was right and Larry had been abusing her, too.

Ginny finds living with Ty's constant absences on the farm and Rose's relationship with Jess increasingly intolerable, and eventually tensions rise to a point where Ginny decides that she has to get away. She takes a job as a waitress in a nearby town and lives in happy ignorance of events at the farm for a couple of years, until eventually both Ty and Rose call on her, Ty to tell her he's selling up and moving to Texas to start a new life and wants a divorce, and Rose to tell her that her breast cancer has returned and that she's in hospital. By this point Larry has also died of a heart attack.

So Ginny returns to the farm to look after Rose's two daughters while Rose is in hospital, where she eventually dies. The farm and all the buildings and their contents are to be sold to pay off debts, so Caroline and Ginny meet at the farmhouse to attempt to divvy up some family possessions, immediately have an argument and go their separate ways, Caroline back to Des Moines and Ginny back to her waitressing job, this time with Rose's two daughters in tow.

And that's it. Reading that back it all sounds like it's set in Grimsville, Iowa, and I suppose it is in that a whole relentless load of trouble is shovelled onto the central characters, and everyone is left in a state of either death, divorce or exile at the end. That it doesn't feel as depressing as it ought to is a testament to Smiley's skill as a writer - the details of the vastness of the Iowan landscape, the intricate details of family relationships and the interaction with the tight-knit local community where everyone knows everyone else's business are so fascinating that the fact that everyone's lives are going to shit around their ears is almost incidental.

The other thing about A Thousand Acres is that it's clearly based on the King Lear story (as in, you know, Shakespeare and that). As this New York Times review says, that poses a difficulty in that you want to acknowledge it, while at the same time not getting into some trainspottery listing of similarities and differences at the expense of just enjoying the novel. As it happens I was in the fairly happy position of not being especially familiar with the play (I don't think I've ever seen it on either stage or screen), so beyond the obvious parallels of the principal characters' names (Larry, Ginny, Rose, Caroline versus Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia) and the knowledge that it's a tragedy (and so things were unlikely to end well for all concerned) I didn't have the background knowledge to do the comparisons and was able to just immerse myself in the story.

A Thousand Acres won two of the heavyweight American fiction awards when it was published in 1991, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. My brief lists for these go: 1953, 1961, 1981, 1985, 1992, 1996, 2003, 2007 and 1991, 2000, 2002 respectively. For what it's worth I thought it was exceptionally good and - just a thought - if you're looking for your Great American Novel you could do worse than start here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

incidental music spot of the day

More Sigur Rós, this time during the opening moments of The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey on BBC Four earlier this evening. Remarkably I was able to pinpoint this one rather more exactly than here, as it's one of their most memorable tunes. I still can't tell you what it's called, as it doesn't officially have a title (unofficially it's called Njósnavélin), but it's the fourth track on their 2002 "brackets" album.

The program itself was an interesting celebration (by travel writer Robert Macfarlane) of the little-known book The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, written in the 1940s but not published until 1977. Not a book I was previously familiar with, but it sounds fascinating from the snippets available to read at the Amazon link. That's not to say I agree unreservedly with all the sentiments expressed in the programme - as much as I advocate and encourage a bit of wandering about, smelling the flowers and looking at the scenery I can't really get behind an approach that "abandons the summit as the organising principle of a mountain". If I'm going up a mountain then the focal point of the day is standing on top of it, whatever other delights might be experienced on the way up and down. No doubt this is reflective of some patriarchal notions of conquest in my irredeemable male psyche, and makes me some sort of nature rapist. Oh well.

So on the one hand some of it sounds a bit hello clouds hello sky for my taste; on the other hand nobody who loves mountains would deny that there's a sort of transcendent thing going on when you're standing on a lofty peak on a clear day with no-one else for miles around. This in turn is probably reflective of some profound misanthropy on my part, something I'll cop to without any protest at all.

headline of the day

Not much to add to this, really:

- except to commend the nice deadpan tone of the article in Wigan Today describing the original incident, especially this bit:
He then began performing a sex act and walked over to the postbox and “started to make sexual advances towards it.”
See, you can't just leap onto a postbox and start humping it, you've got to start by making some "sexual advances" - you know, looking away all bashfully before casting coquettish glances back over your shoulder, that sort of thing. Not an easy thing to do with the required dignity and panache while sitting on a bench with your trousers around your ankles.
A statement read by the prosecution described the defendant as drunk.
Since the police are treating the death as "non-suspicious" I assume that Mr. Bennett failed to be sufficiently chastened by his experiences (or possibly just didn't remember them) to make the lifestyle changes that he needed to make. Or maybe he spoke out of turn in the Chinese restaurant and someone slipped him a tainted spring roll. I do have a recollection of sitting in Mr. Kong's Chinese restaurant off Leicester Square with my friend Tony and some others back in the late 1990s having a competition to see who could say TRIADS the loudest before someone emerged from the kitchen and attacked us with a meat cleaver. Luckily the staff failed to conform to racist stereotype and just ignored us.

Bennett was also obliged to sign the Sex Offenders register as a result of the postbox incident, which seems fair enough for an incident in a public place bookended by a lot of other trousers-down public exposing behaviour. The 2007 case of the Scottish man who attempted to have sex with a bicycle seems a bit less clear-cut to me, since he was in the relative privacy of his room at the time. This follow-up article mentions another man who was nicked for two separate incidents involving a shoe and a traffic cone. There's really no accounting for taste.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

knocked out in the semi-vinyls

Tonight's randomly-inspired music list of the day goes a little bit like this: the CD format gives recording companies a nice round blank canvas to work with, which you can fill in a whole variety of different ways. Back in the early days nobody really made the effort, since the little silver disc with just a bald track listing on it was novelty enough, but lately people have started trying to fill the space with something a bit more interesting.

So here's a couple of entries for a sub-genre of the CD decoration genre: CDs mocked up to look like LPs, or vinyl records more generally. I'm not going to claim that I've exhaustively scoured my own collection for every single example I own, but these three presented themselves, so they'll do for starters:

Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams:

Superunknown by Soundgarden:

Deep Fried Fanclub by Teenage Fanclub:

I think, strictly speaking, judging by the size at which the central labels are rendered, the first and last are meant to be 7" singles and the middle one is meant to be an LP. You're probably not going to shell out for an album just because the CD looks like a vinyl record, so the potted reviews are, respectively: one of his best recent albums, one of the great rock albums of the 1990s, a fairly inessential B-sides and odds & sods collection.

I invite further nominations (with photographic proof, of course).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

the last book I read

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but: Harry Hole is an uncompromising maverick Norwegian cop. Han spiller ikke etter boka, men av Gud han får resultater.

So, the checklist. Recovering (and occasionally relapsing) alcoholic? Check. Broken marriage and strained relationship with ex-spouse and child? Check. Succession of police partners getting offed messily in the course of investigations? Check. Vexed relationship with more "orthodox" police superiors? Check. But, dammit, results, etc.? You betcha.

So when Robert Karlsen, a senior Salvation Army officer and pillar of the Oslo community, is executed in a very public way by a mysterious assassin at a pre-Christmas carol singalong and heroin addict soup handout, it's Harry Hole who gets the job of investigating. One of the first things he discovers is that despite the gunman having been in the plain view of several people, no-one seems to be able to remember or agree what his face looks like.

Things soon get a lot more complicated: it soon transpires that a) the actual target of the hit was Robert's brother Jon Karlsen and b) the killer has worked out he's shot the wrong man and is sticking around to try to finish the job. So Harry has to simultaneously protect Jon from being bumped off and find out who the killer is and why he's got it in for the Karlsen brothers, on the face of it both paragons of religiously-inspired moral rectitude and charitable selflessness.

Oh, come off it, you'll be saying at this point: we all know that religious sects, even one as apparently upstanding as the Sally Army, are hotbeds of repressed (and not-so-repressed) sexual perversity and operate an internal code of silence to keep their nasty little secrets from ever seeing the light of day. So it's only a matter of time before some unspeakable shit comes floating to the surface. And, to be fair, we already know this, as there was a sort of flashback prologue featuring an un-named 14-year-old girl at a Salvation Army retreat being raped in an outside toilet by an un-named man, but, we're invited to infer, someone who we've probably already met in the "present day" part of the narrative.

Harry tracks down the hitman's boss (who also turns out to be his mother) to Zagreb, where she reveals that the person she was engaged by to organise the hit was (drum roll) Robert Karlsen himself. But why would Robert want to have Jon killed? Cherchez la femme, perhaps? Is it something to do with Jon's girlfriend Thea? Or fellow Salvation Army officer (and possible love interest for Harry) Martine? Or is it something to do with Sofia, the young Croatian girl who lives in the block of flats that's the subject of a complex (and quite possibly crooked) property deal involving Jon Karlsen?

Well, I won't lay out the full plot details here, not least because I'm not entirely sure I understood them myself. The very basic version is: Jon Karlsen posed as Robert Karlsen in order to go to Zagreb to take out a hit on Jon Karlsen (i.e. himself) in order to then swap soup-ladling shifts with Robert and engineer his killing in his (Jon's) place. It turns out being a high-ranking Salvation Army officer doesn't stop you from being a psychopathic serial rapist and cop-murderer with an interesting sideline in sucking people's eyes out with a hoover attachment. Needless to say our elusive Croatian friend is a multiple killer as well, but given the choice of sparing his life or Jon's at Oslo airport Harry decides to let him go.

The Redeemer is the sixth novel to feature detective Harry Hole, but there's no particular need to have read its predecessors (I certainly haven't) to "get" this one. It's very much in the Scandi-noir genre which also features Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in the book genre and things like The Killing on TV, and is still clearly big business judging by the amount of hype and the stellar cast lavished on the current Sky Atlantic offering Fortitude. Concentrating on the books, since I haven't seen any of the TV stuff, I think The Redeemer is probably more exciting than Faceless Killers, and better-written and less silly than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its successors. That said, it's 562 pages long, and some of the sub-plot about Jon's property dealings could probably have been left out without detracting from the overall effect very much (a bit like all that stuff about toilets in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest). It's good, though: I'm not about to rush out and buy all of them, but I wouldn't rule out dipping in again in future. The bottom line is that I wanted to find out what was going to happen next, which is the highest compliment available in the thriller genre.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

language, timothy

I'm a sucker for a book list, as you know, so when I came across this list of foreign novels YOU MUST READ in the Independent this week (I have read one, Norwegian Wood, and own another, Foucault's Pendulum) and spotted a link to a story about a woman who'd set herself the task of reading a book from every country in the world, I was intrigued. Needless to say this was a stunt itself designed to generate a book (and here it is) but it's quite interesting nonetheless.

Slightly frustratingly, there isn't just a list of what she read, but you can get it from here since the relevant book from each country is the hyperlinked one. There aren't many places where the list coincides with stuff I've read, but it does happen occasionally, specifically for Australia, Norway and Russia.

A quick and very unscientific scan of my bookshelves for novels originally written in foreign yields the following list of authors, in no particular order:
Plenty of gaps to be filled in there, even just in Europe: Polish, Greek, Finnish, Dutch. There are a couple of authors who you assume might generate some entries on this list, but who turn out to have actually written most of their novels in English, like Chinua Achebe and Vladimir Nabokov.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

capital gains

As anyone who knows me will be tired of hearing by now, my daughter is utterly amazing and captivating and a joy to spend time with, not to mention being a frickin' genius. Nonetheless it is true that the freedom for Hazel and me to just take off and go away somewhere for the weekend is a bit constrained these days, partly because we just can't afford it any more, but partly because of the logistical challenges of finding somewhere to deposit the bairn.

So it was a pleasant change to be able to make a couple of trips up to London in late January and early February, one a flying visit just for a few hours and one for a couple of child-free days. The flying visit a couple of weeks ago was to pick up a new car, one of the perks of Hazel's "other" job as a distributor for Utility Warehouse. You might have seen the odd UW Mini around the place; well, distributors of a certain level of seniority are eligible to have one - not for free, but as part of a leasing package whose rates are quite good, and since we wanted to get rid of the old Focus the timing was pretty much ideal. Here's Hazel getting the official ceremonial key handover from Network Director Wayne Coupland outside UW Network HQ on the Edgware Road.

Another UW jolly a couple of weeks later, this one being the equivalent of the Paris trip last year. In theory this was supposed to be a trip to another European destination, but since Hazel's now 7 months pregnant and would have been ineligible to fly at the time of the trip we persuaded the company to give us a personal jaunt to London instead, which they kindly agreed to.

Our last proper trip to London was in June 2011, a few weeks before we got married, and we replicated part of that trip by having a jaunt on the London Eye. It was worth the repeat trip because the London skyline has been changing a bit lately, what with the appearance of the Shard, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie-Talkie.

We also took a trip to the theatre to see The Book Of Mormon, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's satirical musical. I have a bit of a problem with musicals in general, and it's a fundamental structural problem: we're meant to suspend disbelief in the usual way and engage with the drama in the non-musical bits, accepting that these are real people doing real-people stuff, but then also somehow accept that some of the principal people are going to occasionally burst into song with full orchestral/rock band (delete as applicable) backing, in a way that real people, in my experience at least, just don't tend to do. And then, worse still, drop straight back into the drama without any of the other protagonists going: erm, wait a minute, what was all that singing about just then? The more po-faced and gritty the drama (think Les Miserables, for instance) the more grating and ridiculous the effect.

So the only sort of musical that works (in my head, anyway) is one that subverts the ludicrous campery of the musical genre by being ludicrously camp and knowing throughout, not just in the musical bits. In other words, what I suppose I'm saying is that it's really only comedy that works in musicals, but, paradoxically, it only works because it's got a long history of serious drama being delivered in the same format to satirise. Book Of Mormon certainly delivers on the comedy front, as well as delivering, as you'd expect, some general mockery of religion in general and Mormonism in particular. Basically if you liked the South Park movie, which was, despite all the Saddam-Hussein-bumming-Satan stuff, itself basically a musical, you'll like this.

Just as an aside, there's an argument that Mormonism is just Scientology plus nearly 200 years of normalising, the underlying space-based nonsense being very nearly as wacky as Scientology. It's just gained a thin veneer of respectability because the loony that made the whole thing up in his head died in 1844, not 1986.

Anyway, back to London: we had originally intended to go and have a look round the Natural History Museum, but as you might (in hindsight) have expected on a rather wet Saturday afternoon there was a queue a gazillion miles long and an apparent wait time of about an hour and a half, so we decided to go to the pub instead and have a rethink. What we ended up doing was going to the much more sparsely attended Hunterian Museum just round the corner from Holborn tube station in Lincoln's Inn Fields (the largest public square in London: FACT) - the "secret London" article we looked up on the internet that recommended this described it as "The Museum Of Body Parts", which is a bit lurid, but, as it turns out, pretty accurate. As long as you aren't squeamish about seeing cocks in jars then this is a fascinating place.

One of the most celebrated exhibits is of the startling skeleton of the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose corpse John Hunter allegedly acquired in slightly dubious circumstances and then boiled the flesh off. No word on what he did with the resulting meaty soup, but, you know, it would have been a shame to waste it. A loosely fictionalised version of Byrne features in Hilary Mantel's 1998 novel The Giant, O'Brien.

After a hilarious failure of research resulted in our attempting to visit Borough Market on the Sunday only to find it's closed on Sundays, we instead did some rather more touristy stuff, including walking across Tower Bridge, which I don't think I'd done before. We also passed the Monument, which I was unable to resist the temptation to climb (311 steps!) to the top of, just so I could say I'd done it.

One of the great joys of London is just wandering around and occasionally nipping off down a side-street and encountering an interesting pub or restaurant. Here's a couple we popped into:
  • Shaws Booksellers, just round the corner from St. Paul's Cathedral. Nice little pub, draught London Pride, bish bosh, sorted. It turns out it's also just round the corner from the London HQ of the Church of Scientology.
  • The Hoop & Toy, round the back of South Kensington tube station. This is the pub we adjourned to after the abortive attempt to get into the Natural History Museum. London Pride again. 
  • Beirut Express just a couple of minutes away down Old Brompton Road, where we went for a Lebanese lunch. Nice lamb-y bread-y things, free olives, vast bowl of houmous. 
  • Cabana just a few minutes from Tottenham Court Road tube station. Great Brazilian grub including possibly the rarest steak I've ever eaten. Not quite as epic, I'd have to say, as the Brazilian food we had at Bem Brasil when we were up in Liverpool back in July (and which I seem to have forgotten to mention at the time), but pretty good. 
  • We did attempt a nostalgic re-visit to Ye Olde Mitre in Holborn after visiting the Hunterian Museum, just to sluice away the memory of the Bishop of Durham's diseased rectum, but unfortunately (and slightly bizarrely) it's closed at weekends.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

got tweets if you want it; don't sound like no sonnet

How many of you have browsed my Twitter timeline and thought to yourselves: hey, this is a bit like bloody poetry or something? That's right, none of you. But rest assured that isn't going to stop me from making use of the new Poetweet facility to turn random lines from recent-ish tweets into poetry. Here are three examples, entitled, respectively, Get out, June 2001 and Was open. Note that you're not constrained to generating poems from your own Twitter feed, you can use any Twitter handle you like.

pages through the ages

A couple of follow-up notes about that last book review: firstly I should point out the odd coincidence whereby the narratives of both Birdsong and its predecessor The Birthday Boys begin in the same year, 1910. The business of tunneling towards the enemy from your First World War trench to plant explosives was also touched upon, more briefly, in Waiting For Sunrise.

Secondly, and more importantly, Birdsong is the 200th book to appear in this list since it started in September 2006. This review in September 2010 marked book number 100, and included a few selected statistical delights, so let's see how the second hundred compares:
  • 28 of the second 100 were by women, compared with 25 of the first 100;
  • 100 novels in 1580 days is a slightly slower pace than 1475 days for the first 100, but to be fair I didn't have any children back then. Split the 200 into four blocks of 50 and the first three blocks occupy 780, 683 and 564 days respectively, and the fourth, which starts almost exactly at the time Nia was born in April 2012, occupies 1002 days;
  • Another explanation for the delay is that the second 100 books comprise 30,761 pages, compared with 28,398 for the first 100. If you do the maths you'll find that that actually works out at 19.47 pages per day, fractionally faster than the first 100 at 19.25;
  • The greater page count is partly explained by the presence of Until I Find You, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest and Infinite Jest, which at 924, 746 and 1079 pages respectively are all longer than the 653 pages of The Corrections, the longest book in the first 100;
  • The only authors to appear more than once in the second 100 books are: Beryl Bainbridge, Iain Banks (once with the M, once without), Ian McEwan, Lawrence Durrell, Patricia Highsmith, Russell Hoban, Stieg Larsson and William Boyd. Highsmith, Hoban and Boyd feature three times each, all the others twice. So that means the 100 books featured 89 different authors, a slightly less diverse bunch than the first 100 which featured 93;
  • Conversely, 44 of the 100 were by authors who were new to me, compared with 42 last time.
It's going terribly well, so let's press on. See you again some time in 2019.

Monday, February 02, 2015

the last book I read

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

Stephen Wraysford is a bit of a typical English cold fish, but he's been given an ideal opportunity to loosen up and broaden his horizons a bit, as he's been sent on an industrial fact-finding mission to France (Amiens in particular) by his employers at the textile company he works for in England. Not a bad gig for a 20-year-old, as he's being accommodated by the owner of the French textile company, René Azaire, in his own house.

Stephen's loosening-up process extends way beyond learning to quaff red wine at lunchtimes and shrug Gallicly, though, as he's soon (page 57 in my version) getting better acquainted with Mrs. Azaire by going down on her comme une tonne de briques while René is out of the house. The affair gets serious enough for Stephen and Isabelle (aka Mrs. Azaire) to run away to start a new life together, but Isabelle is wracked by guilt and eventually returns to seek forgiveness from René, leaving Stephen bereft. She also neglects to inform him that, after many years of failed attempts to conceive with René, she is pregnant.

That initial scene-setting action takes place in 1910, so you can probably guess roughly what's going to happen next. Sure enough, we leap forward to 1916 and the horrific realities of trench warfare: shrapnel, gas gangrene, people's faces getting blown off and landing on your shoes, that sort of thing. Stephen is now an army officer commanding a trench-full of men, including some whose job is to tunnel into the face of the trench towards the enemy - a horrendously dangerous undertaking, to be sure, what with the constant danger of the whole thing falling in on your head, in addition to the possibility of the enemy tunneling under you and blowing you up. Nonetheless in strict percentage terms it's still probably a better bet than climbing out and going over the top. Just to prove the point, Stephen's company are required to take part in the barely-believable slaughter of the Battle of the Somme, which Stephen somehow manages to survive despite going over the top and seeing most of his men blown into tiny fragments around him.

During brief periods of leave from the relentless bombardment and dismemberment at the Somme and, later, at the Battle of Messines (or the "Battle of Messiness" as I would have called it if I'd been there, hahaha), Stephen makes a nostalgic return to Amiens and has a chance meeting with Jeanne, Isabelle's sister. Jeanne is initially reluctant to divulge any information, but eventually relents and tells him that Isabelle is alive and shortly to leave town to be with her German fiancé, Max, but would like to see Stephen before she leaves. When Stephen and Isabelle meet (chaperoned by Jeanne) it is revealed that Isabelle has been quite severely injured in a shell blast and has suffered injuries and scarring to her arm and face. Stephen and Isabelle part on affectionate terms, although she does once again forget to mention the pregnancy and subsequent birth of their child, now about five years old. Well, it's easy for things to slip your mind.

So far, so linear. But come on, this is a work of 1990s literary fiction, so bring on the fractured timeline shit already. Wait, here it is: interwoven with all the World War I stuff is a jump forward to 1978, where Stephen's grand-daughter Elizabeth Benson is doing a bit of research into her grandfather's old diaries, while simultaneously running her own clothing company and also conducting a clandestine affair with a bloke called Robert who works in Europe and makes regular unfulfilled promises to leave his wife during his brief trysts with Elizabeth. Elizabeth has come across some of Stephen's old diaries and starts to decode them, with the help of the husband of a colleague who has some code-breaking expertise. As she reads Elizabeth starts to gradually take more of an interest in the project, to the extent of making a trip to France (with the added ulterior motive of dropping in on Robert for a quick bunk-up) to look at the battlefield and the Thiepval Memorial.

We return to France for Stephen's final wartime moments, and it looks as if his luck has finally run out as he is trapped underground after a German mine explodes and collapses the tunnels behind him. With the help of Jack Firebrace, one of the British tunnelers, he manages to unearth a cache of explosives and rig it up to blow a hole in the earth above them. Obviously the problem with this is that it's as likely to bury them as it is to free them, but they've got no other options. Sure enough Stephen and Jack are buried, but some German soldiers from a nearby trench dig them out - too late for Jack, but Stephen survives, and without having to engage in any hand-to-hand combat with any Germans, as the war is pretty much over and no-one wants to fight any more.

Back in the "present", Elizabeth has discovered that she is pregnant with Robert's child, and, slightly irrationally, decides that the two of them should slope off to a nice cottage in the middle of nowhere for the last week or so before the due date. Needless to say the inevitable happens, and Robert finds himself doing the old hot-water-and-towels routine while he waits for the local doctor to arrive. By the time the doctor turns up Elizabeth has popped out a healthy baby boy, which she names John after Jack Firebrace's dead son in accordance with Stephen's promise while the two of them were entombed.

My Vintage Future Classics edition of Birdsong has - in addition to some rather bossy "reading notes" at the end - an introduction by the author in which he reveals that the book was written at what sounds like breakneck speed between June 1992 and January 1993. He admits to the speed of composition resulting in a few loose ends, and there are a couple which just grate slightly: the appearance of Stuart as a possible suitor for Elizabeth and rival to Robert is presented as building up to something important, and indeed he ends up proposing to her, in a roundabout sort of way. Once he's left Elizabeth thinking about it and sloped off into the night, we never hear from him again, though, nor is he or his proposal even mentioned, which is a bit odd. The other more glaring omission is any explanation for Stephen's slightly odd phobia about birds. Since it's relevant to a couple of key passages in the book, and was important enough to be alluded to in the book's title, for goodness' sake, it might have been nice to have had some insight into what was going on.

These are minor quibbles about a book I enjoyed greatly, far more than I was expecting to in fact. The grim realities of trench warfare aren't perhaps the most promising raw ingredients for entertainment, but the accounts of the grinding tedium mixed with occasional unimaginable horror and (in the moments before going over the top to attack) the opportunity to contemplate your own almost certain painful death are riveting. It's clearly a struggle not to have the sections featuring Elizabeth seem a bit drab in comparison, and the framing device teeters on the edge of being a drag on the plot rather than augmenting it, but it just about works, even though all the new life/new beginnings stuff at the end is laying the symbolism on a bit thick. I'd have been sure to mention these concerns to Sebastian Faulks when I met him, but unfortunately he hadn't yet written Birdsong at the time, so I couldn't.