Category Archives: Book Reviews

Raised by ghosts

Nobody Owens is an unlikely name for a protagonist, especially the protagonist of a fantasy story. Doesn’t the last name sound a little mundane, not trip-off-the-tongue friendly like Potter, or gives-you-his-quality Fowl. No, it is stolid, simple ‘Owens’. And to add insult to injury, this child’s first name is ‘Nobody’, or as his friends call him, ‘Bod’.

But if you were to judge this book by the protagonist’s name (like Petunia Dursley judging her nephew by his ‘nasty, common’ one), you would miss out on an amazing read.

I hadn’t read a Neil Gaiman in a while (the last was a very-delayed reading of ‘Neverwhere’, nearly two years ago now), and I know ‘The Graveyard Book’ is not exactly  fly-off-the-shelf new, but it is one his more recent offerings. I hadn’t bought  it earlier, but not because I hadn’t been tempted. Periodically, I would look up the price on Flipkart, always shaking my head when I saw that it hadn’t dropped below 300. One of the first books I located on the Kindle Store was ‘The Graveyard Book’, but here again, the price made me shake my head and remember guiltily that my own device ran on the power of an NRI uncle’s credit card. So it was great pleasure and vindication that I put in some of my hard-won salary and ordered the book, feeling, finally, that I had rightfully earned it.

Gaiman rarely disappoints, so I knew I was in safe hands. My trust turned out to be well-placed. Unlike ‘Neverwhere’, ‘The Graveyard Book’ doesn’t have any ‘eh?’ inducing moments. The story is tightly plotted, the characters well woven, the chills placed in just the right creepy corners. To summarize the book briefly: Nobody Owens is a (live) boy who is being brought up by the (dead) residents of a graveyard. The ghosts look after him, teach him, play with him- provide him with the social structure that any boy needs. He has a rather mysterious guardian, Silas, who strides the borderlands between life and death, disappearing now and again on missions that we can only assume have some dark and deep significance. Bod lacks for nothing, really, except for the fact that his ‘real’ family, the one that bore him, is dead. They were killed at the hands of a man called Jack, who still roves the outside world looking for the boy who got away.

What I loved about this book was the sheer joy of reading it. Gaiman distracted me from the jostles of a crowded metro ride, with all its elbowings and accidental toe stamps. He made me forget the cold wind that cut through the open air platform of the Noida station, almost made me miss my staff bus to my workplace (that last is a true compliment- I am usually very alert and just waiting to get on that bus and off the metro station premises). He actually made my morning commute- something I dread with good reason- enjoyable. And he did this for an entire week, because I made sure to reserve him for those hours.

Seriously, the only thing wrong with this book is how short it is.

There’s something beautiful about ‘The Graveyard Book’. I don’t know if its the simplicity of it, of the lessons that it leaves with you. I don’t know if its the childlike wonder it gives to its readers, the measure of joy it holds even in the boring, adultish hours of a mundane metro jostle. I don’t know if its the opportunity he gives you, of being a kid again, beside Bod as he makes new friends, explores his home, falls into trouble and out of it. I don’t know if it’s the bittersweet end, where he seems to take you by the hand and then lead you, gently, out of his world so that you are standing at its gates, forlorn and wondering when he’s going to invite you in again.

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ cannot come fast enough.   gbook

Bringing up some Bodies, a little late

 I wrote this review of Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’ some months ago. 

Two months ago, I finished a much delayed reading of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize Winner, ‘Wolf Hall’. Two hours ago, I closed the covers of its celebrated and much anticipated sequel, ‘Bring up the Bodies’. I can honestly say that my reaction to both was the same: why do some books have to end?

 In ‘Wolf Hall’, Mantel began a project she claims to have conceived nearly forty years ago: to chronicle the life and times of one of England’s most famously reviled figures, Thomas Cromwell. The first book ends with Anne Boleyn crowned Queen, and Cromwell basking in what seems to be reflected glory. The second book begins with quite the opposite: Anne’s star is falling, but it is clear that Cromwell in no manner intends to be tarnished by this. His own position in court and at the king’s side only gets more strongly cemented while the Queen and her cronies (incidentally the same men who had insulted the memory of Cromwell’s former employer, Cardinal Wolsey) bleed their ‘flat little presence(s)’ out upon freshly erected scaffolds.

 ‘Bring up the Bodies’ charts what an enthusiastic blurb writer has called ‘the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days’, drawing in its full complexity the role assumed by Cromwell in the execution and disposal of the king’s one time sweetheart. Mantel’s greatest achievement is the humanization of this political genius, a figure who has all too often been viewed as nothing more (and nothing less) than the epitome of the Renaissance Machiavel. Cromwell, in Mantel’s hands, loves and incites love; loses and grieves for those lost; feels anger, betrayal, fear, but also pride, loyalty, pity. With a sure, delicate hand, Mantel weaves the portrait of a man who fashioned his daughter a pair of peacock feather wings, but never ceases to remind us that it is the same man who witnessed, indeed, orchestrated, the perhaps undeserved and innocent death of a Queen of England.

 Though she is the pivotal point about which events in the book turn, Anne Boleyn herself has very little screen time. She is reported on, spied on, eavesdropped upon and repeated in third person, her words filtered through a number of (not entirely impartial) speakers before they are fed into Cromwell’s and the readers’ ears. In contrast to this stands Jane Seymour, who speaks considerably more, but is spoken of less. Jane, for all her quiet sharpness, remains an enigma, as mysterious and difficult to pin down as her unfortunate predecessor. Does she play a willing game with Henry, or is she a mere pawn in a political ploy much larger than herself? Much like the truth of Anne Boleyn’s crimes, the answer is what the reader chooses to make of it.

 It’s not every day that a writer can take an event that is so celebrated and investigated and hold it up to flash an entirely new light. Mantel takes over the history, takes over the once-living characters and gives them a verve and vitality that is all her own. It takes magic to make a reader sit on the edge of their seat in suspense when he or she knows (or is a mere Wikipedia page away from knowing) how the ‘story’ will end. For all the background reading I had done, all the pages of Anne Boleyn related text I had read, I was still waiting, breathless, for the sword to swing, hoping against hope, like Anne herself, that I would be mistaken: that history would rewrite itself in Mantel’s flowing language and that she would be saved.

 Alas, that did not happen. But it is a mark of Mantel’s genius that for a few moments, I forgot the bloody tracks of history.

 ‘Bring up the Bodies’ resounds with creative energy, its language compressing deeper allusions and metaphors that spangle out of the readers’ grasp just when focus is brought to bear upon them. The best way, I believe, to describe Mantel’s style is to quote Mantel herself. Here, Cromwell reflects on the work of Thomas Wyatt:

 When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute it written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will.

 The inability to grasp and pin down meaning is exactly what the reader encounters in Mantel’s language. The narrative seems to skim the surface of a wealth of emotion and intrigue, dipping daintily into this swelter in order to paint a quaint picture of a bygone time. Beneath the words and the half-glimpsed gestures lies the morass of desire and danger that laces this court, a morass that Cromwell, like his creator, negotiates with grace and ease, giving hardly a hint of the scum his finely tailored robes have brushed through.

 Mantel seems to strive to be impartial, privileging neither Jane Seymour nor Anne in her novel, not making it clear whether she herself believes Anne to be guilty as fearfully charged. This is no easy feat- scores of novels and films have been built around this fantastic episode, each weighted either with blind admiration or withering disgust for the executed queen. Anne is passionate, but given to childish outbursts, admirably courageous but stupid and (at the close) self defeating. Jane is plain, quiet, but strangely acerbic. Her intelligence, cloaked for the most part behind placid boredom, is revealed in razor sharp repartee with Cromwell and her brothers. Witness this exchange:

 ‘My belief is,’ Edward says, ‘this modesty could pall. Look up at me, Jane. I want to see your expression.’

 ‘But what makes you think,’ Jane murmurs, ‘that I want to see yours?’

 I am a woman who wholeheartedly loves reading about and celebrating Anne Boleyn, and would throw my support behind the contemporary move to absolve her of all allegations (for more details, read Alison Weir’s excellent chronicle of Anne’s final days, ‘The Lady in the Tower’). And yet, even I could not hate Jane in this novel. I found myself admiring her, rather grudgingly, true, but admiring her nonetheless.

 One closes ‘Bring up the Bodies’ with a sense of having run a lengthy, tiring race. Your brain has been spinning alongside Cromwell’s for four hundred pages, watching its ceaseless convolutions as it churns out a plan to depose one queen and raise another. Your emotions have ravelled and unravelled through complicated skeins as you watch Henry and Anne pull together and then pull away from each other, a six year long courtship soured in what seems an instant of marriage. It is an exercise well worth undertaking, and one that I cannot wait to repeat when the third and (alas) final instalment of the Cromwell trilogy arrives.

 Until then, it’s back to the History books for me.