Tag Archives: London

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman certainly has a knack for taking fantasy in titillating new directions. Mixing legend with pop culture, bridging generations and phases of life, his is an impressive improvisational-seeming voice; loose and loud and reasonably sound in its coherence and payoff.

Richard Mayhew, protagonist this time around, is a decent mensch, a modern everyman who seems just as lost in his own world as he will become lost in the underworld he discovers as a result of one decent – and so, uncharacteristic – act. Such a mensch, in fact, that his survival and eventual semi-triumph are a bit implausible, though satisfying nonetheless. The characters who surround him are pleasingly off –beat and appealing and their adventures offer enough cliff-hanging to keep one deeply involved.

Underneath it all, there glimmer a few bits of insight into human frailty, relationships and the failings of society. Just enough to ground this fantasy in reality and assuage the guilt of reading such fluff.

Yes, a pleasure all the way. Well done, Mr. Gaiman, well done.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

If Charles Dickens had been alive in 2002 – and if Charles Dickens were a woman who loves women, or at least an author who wished to appeal to such – this is the book that Charles Dickens might have written. Sarah Waters gives us the dark alleys and stinking gutters, the unrepentant thieves struggling to make a living off of others’ innocence, the crumbling leaky mansion inhabited by an anti-social misanthrope (this one happens to be a scholar of the era’s pornography, soft-core though it would be to us today) and a cast that would warm the heart of any theatrical agent nursing a deep roster of character actors.

The plot too, is Dickensian in its intricacy, incorporating old family lore, false identities, willful deception and several rapid transitions between the world of wealth and that of poverty – not to mention servitude, orphaning, incarceration and consignment to a madhouse. For the most part it all flows and compels, though there are places that would have benefitted from less conversation and more activity. Given that Waters has had significant success, I’d guess her fans will be more comfortable with the blend than I.   They may also forgive several infuriating passages where characters prolong the drama by refusing to speak the obvious, leading this reader to feel manipulated and the tale prolonged beyond its natural scale.

At the heart of the story is the relationship of Susan and Maud, intricately-tied despite being separated until their teens and unaware until the novel’s very end of what those ties really are. Their interaction is told in alternating first person sections and it is to Waters’ credit that there is never any question which of the two we are inhabiting. As to which of these women is laudable and which detestable, that is always in question, again to the author’s credit. Neither is a saint, yet both have been placed by others into situations that make their conduct, if not excusable, at least defensible in a novelistic context. Their love story is handled very carefully it seems, as if aiming for just enough clarity to satisfy readers who seek that aspect, but obliquely enough not to deter those who are indifferent to it. For anyone who brings along an attitude antagonistic to the image of two women in love with one another, the lack of a single admirable male character in this tale will perhaps suggest a reason to consider it more generously.

Getting back to the women, Mrs. Sucksby, the mother and mother-figure who is in one sense the instigator of all the angst, is in another sense as much a victim. Her final act of love and protectiveness seems modelled on that of Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps another nod to the man who wrote that novel, as he might have this.

Thoughtful, empathetic; a rewarding and pleasurable read, though it would have been more so with a few tucks and darts in the right places.

(Fingersmith was adapted into a two part BBC movie, 2005)

Shakespeare’s Pub – A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn

This amusing blend of history and anecdote traces not just the George, but all the coaching inns of Southwick, down through the centuries. Brown, who has made a career of writing about British beers and the people who brew, serve and consume them, has an obvious love of his subject and that translates into an enjoyable read, even with an iconoclastic glass of wine in one’s hand.

Has a decent eye also, for how individual history reflects that of the surrounding economy and culture. One of his revelations concerns the effects which the invention and rapid spread of railroad trains had on a wide range of industries, from the freight wagon trade, to passenger-carrying stagecoaches, stables and liveries, lodges/hotels, the hop trade, ports and the very patterns of settlement geography. Not gradual change either, but rapid and accelerating, able to wipe out an industry in one lifetime. That some of the trades displaced had done similar violence to other, earlier ones, suggests poetic justice when the trains themselves are later displaced by automobile and truck traffic (on roadways which necessarily evolved almost beyond recognition from the muddy and undisciplined things they had once been – ‘imagine, needing to make actual rules for which side of the road to drive on! Imagine!’).  Which reflects nicely on our current fearless leader’s proposal to preserve the coal trade. Really?

Touching on literature, cuisine, habit and morality, Brown suggests that the history of the George is only tenuously concerned with its physical manifestation, examining the existential question, if you replace only one small piece at a time, but eventually have replaced every piece of any object, is it still the original object? A question he answers in the affirmative – as he must, for the book’s topic to have merit…

My favorite bit though, is when a George-lover asserts that the ghost of Same Weller (of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers), has been seen around the place, allowing Brown a wonderful riff on the mental contortions required first to believe in ghosts, then in the ghost of a fictional character who never lived in the first place, and then that said ghost would haunt not the pub which the author named as his character’s locale but the one which some readers like to think the author may have had in mind when he created his fictional location, despite giving it the not-at-all fictional name of another actual pub down the street!

I like the way this author’s mind works, and will be seeking out his other beery books. Not to mention seeking out The George one again, as soon as we return to London-town.