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Famine, war and love: Bron Sibree talks to Sebastian Barry about his new novel Days Without End

In his new novel Sebastian Barry writes as if galloping with the wind in his hair. By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

 
Days Without EndDays Without End
Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)
****

Sebastian Barry once said that “language is almost not about language, it’s possibly more about music”. And nowhere is this more evident than in this acclaimed Irish novelist’s new and ninth novel, Days Without End.

Narrated by Sligo-born Thomas McNulty, who journeys from Ireland to the New World on a “coffin ship” after the great famine of 1847 leaves him orphaned and starving at 15, it reads as if Barry has ridden those wild “unbroken horses of language” that he has so often spoken about on a surefooted, rhythmic gallop all the way from Ireland to the American Mid-West.

Days Without End is a mesmerising, melodic account of McNulty’s life as he recalls his years fighting in the Indian wars and in the American Civil War alongside the love of his life, John Cole. It is also a deeply affecting, redemptive love story and an unblinkered portrait of what Barry calls “the murderous birth of the young American nation”.

Barry is, of course, as famous for his melodic prose as he is for transforming half-buried family memories and the scraps of long forgotten lives into novels of heart-stopping beauty. Novels that chronicle a forgotten history of Ireland and have won him two Booker nominations, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, to name some.

But it is as if the 61-year-old poet, playwright and novelist has hit a soaring grace note in the writing of Days Without End, which, too, owes its genesis to a scrap of family lore. A scrap divulged to him as a child by his grandfather whose own story Barry told in The Temporary Gentleman.

“He said that his great uncle had gone off to America somewhere in the previous century and had fought in the Indian wars. I don’t think he knew anything more.”

For Barry, that was “an absolute gift. With The Temporary Gentleman I was struggling in a way with knowing too much. With a book like this you can leave yourself completely open to the voice when you’re fortunate enough to start hearing it.”

Barry says “writing is a fatal activity for a writer; seeing and hearing is the thing”. He read extensively about the history of the era for a year (he does this for all his novels), including obscure first-hand accounts of ordinary people who had been alive in the US in the middle decades of the 1800s, “to get a hold of the whistletune of the day”.

He then spent another year waiting on the voice of McNulty and the opening lines of the novel. He describes this as “literally a process of sitting stiller and stiller at my work table in the old rectory in Whitlow, so that he could enter in and prove Einstein’s theory of continuous time to be correct; that we may regard these things as past and ‘the past’, but in a way everything is happening all the time, still. I’ve been a happy person since that day, because it was as if you have received a handshake up through the decades.”

It’s no accident either, that the book is dedicated to his son Toby who three years ago came out as gay at the age of 16, and who “gave me this whole new terrain to think about. And I do feel that this book is kind of my magic spell for Toby and for all people who in their glory have had suggested to them that they’re inglorious, which I think is one of the most disgusting things in our lifetime.”

It’s a novel that, like almost all his novels, reaches into the past, yet somehow posits a way forward. “You’re writing out of the past, but it’s a kind of spell or a secular prayer to play something in a future.”

He is acutely aware too, that books have their own purpose independent of the writer. “Books have their secret undertaking and it intrigued me greatly that this book had its own arguments to make with history and politics and the present.”

Indeed, Days Without End has taken on a contemporary resonance with Donald Trump’s strident US election campaign, in which the note of “exultant hatred” toward immigrants and people of colour — which was so rife in the 1800s world of the novel — resurfaced.

“That’s why I don’t think there’s any such thing as an historical novel as such, there’s only a book that is talking into the present, which of course,” adds Barry, “is shortly to be a history itself.”

Follow @BronSibree

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Men's rage and regret in a cold season of snow: Michele Magwood chats to Fiona Melrose about her debut novel Midwinter

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

MidwinterMidwinter
Fiona Melrose (Little Brown, R295)
*****

It is rare for a debut novel to land with such assurance, with such a distinctive voice and sapient wisdom. South African author Fiona Melrose, pictured, wrote the book while living on a farm in Suffolk. She’d thrown in her job as an emerging markets analyst in London, finding the environment “too aggressive, too hyper-masculine”, and had retreated to her brother’s farm where she lived on her own for some time.

“It was incredibly lonely and isolating. The locals were suspicious of me and the physical work involved was astonishing. I was reading books on stock fencing for beginners and then banging poles into the frozen earth with blistered hands. It was unbelievably difficult physically and emotionally. There was nothing else to do except write a book about it, really.”

Midwinter is the result, the story of a father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter. They are Suffolk farmers, simple and plain-living whose moroseness hides a simmering rage. Ten years before, their beloved wife and mother, Cecelia, had died in an ill-advised sojourn in Zambia. Neither has come to terms with it, and when Vale is involved in a shocking accident at the beginning of the story, the dam of their anguish rips. Over the course of a bitter winter they clash, but because Melrose writes from their first person viewpoint we feel immense sympathy for them, for their interior wretchedness. Vale seems taciturn, for example, yet he repeatedly tells us “I had nothing I knew how to say.”

“They’re confronted with all kinds of trauma that they hadn’t addressed at the time,” Melrose says. “It suddenly comes into very sharp focus and they try to navigate a way through without completely falling apart.”

Midwinter is as much an examination of masculinity as it is of blame and grief. Melrose presents us with different versions in various characters: some are mute and violent, or gentle and steady, there are heroic soldiers and sage old men and any number of drink-fuelled young bucks. “I met a few of these boys in Suffolk and I thought they seemed so fundamentally unparented, not held in any kind of way. There was no safety net for that kind of chaotic energy.”

There are female characters, too, of course, but for Melrose it is nature itself, the land and animals that provide what she feels is “the feminine aspect, to balance the hyper-masculine energy of the characters”. Of particular importance is a wild fox, which Landyn believes is the familiar of Cecelia, watching over them.

Melrose’s writing is distinguished by striking descriptions: a cold gust “like a witch’s slap”; the air in a funeral service “as black as leprosy”; Landyn carries his regret “like those old harnessed ploughs, taking every last muscle and gritted tooth to get the blades through the clay’.

What distinguishes it too is the rich vernacular of the characters. Landyn calls himself “a duzzy old whoop”, Vale maunders around, lurking “in a constant mubble-tubble”. Cecelia’s hands had the “farn-tickle of the sun’.

Melrose has an acute ear for dialogue, something she attributes to her severe dyslexia and dyscalculia. “I think your brain makes routes around. Strangely enough I have perfect pitch musically, and what I do is write what I hear. The grammar’s probably incorrect and I spell phonetically, so a lot of it is quite intuitive. I rely a lot on rhythm and how a character breathes. So for Landyn I wrote in long breaths, but Vale is constantly on the edge of some kind of outburst so I wrote him in a staccato, short-breathed way.”

Eventually — and only just — will father and son reach some equilibrium.

Teeming with nature, pulsating with rue, Midwinter is evisceratingly emotional. Its sorrow will scrape you to the bone, but ultimately it warms you to the bone, too. It is an astounding debut.

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Listen to Fiona Melrose’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast.

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Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac - recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

Published in the Sunday Times

Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac – recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

 

ZodiacZodiac
Sam Wilson (Penguin Random House)
****

Sam Wilson’s debut novel Zodiac deserves to be a smash hit: set in an alternate universe in San Celeste, a generic US city, the book features a society governed by an absolute belief in astrology, where an individual’s future is predetermined by the date of his birth.

Like most cops in San Celeste detective Jerome Burton is Taurus, and when he starts investigating a series of particularly nasty murders he looks for the killer among the Aries underclass who are responsible for most of the city’s brutal crimes.

Wilson (a dodgy Aries himself) is not a believer. “I read a study that found that your zodiac sign really does match your personality, but only if you already believe in astrology and know what it says you should be, otherwise it’s no better than chance.”

With the help of profiler Lindi Childs (a Leo), Burton discovers – certainly in his own case – that the sign system is flawed, but reason cannot beat belief.

“I made a world in which it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. If enough people believe, then it becomes an unavoidable part of life,” says Wilson.

The victims are born under various signs and are killed in different ways – a chief of police (Taurus) is disembowelled then buried in the ground (the Taurus element), the host of a popular TV show (Leo) is shot and burnt (Leo is one of the fire signs).

Wilson says “beliefs and society shape who we are”, but says he had fun turning Burton into someone who firsts doubts the status quo and then has personal reasons for rejecting it.

The “signism” in Zodiac can be seen as a form of racism or anti-Semitism. However, Wilson says he had no overt political agenda.

“I thought that the zodiac world would be interesting and fun to write, and I came up with a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else.”

In this world a school called the True Signs Academy teaches problem children to embrace their true element; people live in designated areas according to their star sign; and a police “ram squad” (get it?) is tasked with dealing with the notoriously criminal group born in Aries.

Wilson makes it clear that signism is a bad thing. But despite the parallels a reader might be tempted to draw between the zodiac world and other oppressive regimes, the Cape Town author does not consider himself a political writer.

In fact, his influences are readable, accessible and popular.

“I was inspired by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz for their high-concept thrillers, although I can’t compare my work to theirs,” he says.

“And I loved … some of the great writing on TV shows like Black Mirror and The Wire.”

Wilson is researching another thriller set in the same universe, but with a different situation and characters.

However, his message to those who loved Zodiac is that Burton and Childs may get a cameo. Fingers crossed! — Aubrey Paton

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Jacket Notes: Christa Kuljian talks about her latest book Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins

Published in the Sunday Times

Darwin's Hunch•Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins
Christa Kuljian (Jacana)

When I studied the history of science at university in the ’80s, I learned that science is often shaped by the context of the time. So when I began research for Darwin’s Hunch, I was curious to find out how the changing times had shaped the search for human origins. For over a century, scientists rejected Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa, but today it is widely accepted.

One of the fascinating things I found was that anthropologist Raymond Dart has a lot in his papers that he did not share with the world. Many of his scientific practices were shaped by colonial thinking. Dart collected human skeletons in an effort to understand what he called “race typology”, which he believed held clues to evolution.

Paging through his documents, I learned the disturbing story of how one of those skeletons came into his collection, a story that remained hidden in the archives for 75 years, and which showed how scientific methods at the time treated human beings as specimens.

Phillip Tobias was Dart’s successor as the head of the department of anatomy at Wits Medical School so it was interesting to learn more about his relationship with Dart. I delved into some of Tobias’s papers as well, and it was surprising to see how his thinking on race and human evolution shifted from his youth in the 1940s through to his death in 2012. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was one of Tobias’s colleagues, Hertha de Villiers, who helped to shift scientific thinking away from Dart’s race typology. It was fascinating to learn about this accomplished scientist and her work.

Another of Dart’s theories was that humans are naturally violent. He based this idea on the fact that ancient human ancestors were carnivores and he believed that they used certain bones as weapons to kill their prey. This idea was so popular in the 1960s that it spread to millions of people via Robert Ardrey’s book African Genesis and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Dart’s research inspired another young scientist, Bob Brain, based at the Transvaal Museum. Brain concluded that human ancestors did not choose certain bones as weapons, but that those bones remained in the fossil record because they could not be easily chewed.

By the late ’80s and ’90s, genetics had begun to play a big role in understanding human origins. Research with mitochondrial DNA led to the finding that all living humans had shared a common ancestor in Africa as recently as 200,000 years ago. While the changing science is engrossing, it is often the scientists themselves, and the times in which they live, that are most revealing.

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The long arm of Reacher: Joanne Hichens talks to Lee Child about his latest book Night School

Published in the Sunday Times

Night SchoolNight School
Lee Child (Bantam Press)
****

Lee Child is chatty, generous with his time, this genius author who created Jack Reacher, possibly the most enigmatic series character in contemporary thriller fiction.

For the uninitiated, Jack Reacher is ex-military police; six foot five inches tall, with rugged good looks. He’s now a drifter hitchhiking across the US, inadvertently becoming embroiled in nailbiting life-and-death action.

Men, in fictional and real worlds, respect his innate cunning and the physical agility with which he keeps the bad guys cowering. Women are intrigued by his reserve and fall for his seductive allure, but he remains a loner.

“His most obvious emotional issue,” Child explains, “is the duality between enjoying and needing his solitude but at the same time experiencing heartache and alienation.”

What secret, then, lies in Reacher’s past?

“You can infer he’s been unlucky in love. He’s condemned to a life of loneliness.” But not even Child fully knows Reacher. “I’m not one of those writers who works out a mock biography. I don’t know where Jack went to school. I don’t care what his favourite colour is. I treat him as I would treat a real person. You never know everything about somebody. Even with good friends it may take many, many years before you unravel all the incidents of their past.

“Perversely, a lot of readers would be very pleased if Reacher settled down. Readers worry about him. They’d be gratified if he found happiness but of course it would bring an end to the series.”

What was the catalyst in creating Reacher?

“His experience parallels my own. In the mid-’90s I was fired from my job in television at a time the industry was reorganising. I tried to give the same back story to Reacher. Because of circumstances out of his control he was turned out into the civilian world, and dislocated from what he was used to.

“On the overt level I’m obviously separate from him, but there’s an awful lot of autobiography in a main character, so in a sense Reacher is a little of me, and he does what I would do if I could get away with it. I resist the temptation to make him too good.

“In my new book he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s got to deliver for the organisation and faces a situation that’s extremely serious.”

If Child recognises himself in Reacher, equally then, he recognises a little of himself in all the bad guys he’s ever dreamed up. “Although,” he’s quick to add, “I prefer writing about Reacher doing the right thing rather than the bad guys doing the bad thing.”

Certainly a cast of ruthless criminals appear in Child’s hard-hitting thriller, Night School. Stolen nuclear warheads, sold on the black market to unscrupulous Saudis, are a threat to millions.

“I wanted to explore the pre-millennium years. The Cold War was over – this is only 20 years ago. The threat of nuclear war was replaced by a new threat. A sense of fluidity, improvisation, and panic became fertile. I’ve revisited the roots of what we’re dealing with now, the terrorism factor.”

I ask about biographer Andy Martin’s description of Child as “an evil mastermind bastard”. He laughs. “I took that as meaning I supply really good gut-wrenching plot twists. I was pleased. There’s nothing better in a book than when you’re following it along eagerly and then you say, ‘Wow, this is something else!’”

No Lee Child interview is complete without referring to the casting of Tom Cruise in the movie series – an actor about 10 inches shorter than the character. Child is forthright: “No actors look like Reacher, none at all. Here’s a guy,” he says of Cruise, “who gets the inside of Reacher on screen. I’m thrilled and delighted that people would be so concerned about who’d play Reacher. I see it as a badge of honour.”

Ex-Major Reacher, highly decorated himself, will remain forever the wanderer, so unencumbered that he has no suitcase (although he clearly has baggage), buys clothes on a need-to-change basis, and carries only his toothbrush and credit card in his pocket.

Follow Joanne Hichens on Twitter @JoanneHichens

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Book Bites: 11 December 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

Minds of WinterMinds of Winter
Ed O’Loughlin (Quercus)
*****
Book buff
A novel as wide and daring in its execution as its subject – centuries of mystery, horror and human courage in polar exploration. It opens in a tiny town on the edge of the Arctic Circle in present day Canada. Two lost souls, Fay and Nelson, searching separately for some evidence of their lost relatives, find each other by accident. Fumbling towards some sort of meaning, both in their searches and in their growing intimacy, they lead the reader into a grand adventure that stretches across time and the vast, white, howling geography of the North. This rollicking, beautifully written tale ranges from the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 – with its promise of British heroism mingled with hints of cannibalism – to the expeditions of Roald Amundsen both to the South Pole and the Northwest Passage, with a fascinating dose of Nazi U-boats and Cold War spying. The stories fade out, like so many lives lost in blinding snowdrifts, leaving the mysteries to echo hauntingly in readers’ minds, hoping always for a little more. – Hamilton Wende @HamiltonWende

Tannie Maria and the Satanic MechanicTannie Maria & The Satanic Mechanic
Sally Andrew (Umuzi)
****
Book mystery
Rippling with humour and affection, salted with violence and dark themes, leavened by “moan-out-loud” food: Sally Andrew’s second book in the Tannie Maria series hits the spot for her devotees. When a San activist is murdered at the KKNK Festival in Oudtshoorn – poisoned by a sosatie – Tannie Maria is once again catapulted into an investigation. But there’s a lot more going on here: in an effort to resolve her problems of intimacy with her suitor, the beeswaxed-mustachioed Henk, she joins a PTSD counselling group run by Ricus, the satanic mechanic of the title, who fixes people as well as cars. A comforting, cosy whodunnit set in the magical Klein Karoo, and imbued with gentle wisdom and a longing for small communities. And cheesecake. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Last Time We SpokeThe Last Time We Spoke
Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby Ltd)
***
Book buff
Sussman’s gritty novel was catalysed by a real-life home invasion on a New Zealand family farm. Both the stunned and bereaved mother who was celebrating a special anniversary, and the young gang member whose hopeless, squalid circumstances have now led him to prison, must navigate their respective changed realities, and find new ways to rebuild shattered lives. As counterpoint, an ancestral voice, personified as “Beyond”, details the richness of precolonial Maori society and laments the marginalisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. “Time stacks each generation upon the one that has gone before, just like layers of rock.” Sussman unerringly focuses on the nexus of race and poverty, and the distance between the landed and the landless, echoing the postcolonial power dynamics of both her adopted home, and those of her native South Africa. A reminder that we cannot escape history, even as the choices we make today shape tomorrow’s history. – Ayesha Kajee @ayeshakajee

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