Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Constant Gardener - John Le Carre

Every man wants to be a hero. That is why we are suckers for Swiss Army Knives and credit card tools that open bottles and cut cheese: it’s about being the man that saves the day.
Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery, British High Commission, Nairobi, hero on page one. He is the man who took the phone call. He is the man who confirmed the details. He is the man who squashed his own feelings to break the bad news to Justin. He is the man! He thinks he is a hero – and thus he is not.
Justin Quayle, “Good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can’t have been pleasant.” - old-school foreign service, never quite lived up to expectations - would have been his wife’s hero, except that she is dead. In le Carré’s Nairobi, foreign service wives have lunch, gossip molehills in to mountains and fawn over their husband’s widowed colleagues to compensate for not being allowed to work. Tessa Abbott, Justin’s wife – an aristocratic, idealistic lawyer who lost her baby and wanted to do more to make the world a better place than let her husband do it – campaigned against illegal medical experiments instead. She named names, she trusted the system, her system, she took on the big boys and she lost.
Losing his wife drove Justin Quayle to apply his skills of selflessness, honed over years of faithful service to queen and country, to becoming his dead wife’s hero. He is quiet, strong, resourceful and clever – he surprises himself, as well as Sandy Woodrow and us.
Le Carré mastered heroes in his day job, when he was a spy. Take away his various superb characters, black and white plots that end-up technicolour, exotic locations, politics and secrets and The Constant Gardener, like all Le Carré, is about truth. Not facts: people - those who are true against those who are weak, and thus dangerous. And Le Carré writes them as elegantly as Peter O’Toole rides a bicycle.
The English Summer can be the enemy of book club – distracting readers with Pimms, picnics and boats, and things. So too are long books, made longer by needing to perform fugacity calculations on your neighbours’ luggage at each tube stop, which is why only three of the six clubbers that turned up had finished the book. But book club’s greatest enemy is a book like this. Excellent books give us nothing to argue about, so we had three people wanting to agree, but not in too much detail in case it spoils it for the others.
A Constant Gardener is about to be released as a film, and one thing that you do not have to finish the book to understand is that it will be a great film. Ralph Feinnes and the flashback, jump cut narrative will work brilliantly on screen.
So: dull club, great book, looking forward to the film.

Who: John Le Carre - Coronet
What: The Constant Gardener
When: July 2005
Where: London
Why: It's superb
Why not: It might spoil the movie for you
How much: £6.99 (paperback)

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Closed Circle - Jonathan Coe

When the Daily Telegraph says “Wonderful, hilarious” I just know it is referring to some sort of fox hunting, or power shower humour that, not being British, I am only going to half get, then disgrace myself by laughing when everybody else says “Very droll Bertie, very droll.” And so it was with The Tele’s endorsement of The Closed Circle, Jonathan Coe’s years-later Rotter’s Club sequel.
Just as British viewers notice a faint shadow as Kath & Kim’s Australian humour sails over their heads, the laughs in The Closed Circle shot past me without even a faint whistling sound. Fortunately the British clubbers chortled their way through the book, loving the carefully crafted characters and Jonathan Coe’s ability to draw every-day chuckles from every-day life.
The Closed Circle picks-up The Rotters’ Club characters 20 years on. If you missed it there is a synopsis if The Rotters’ Club at the back of The Closed Circle which, I think, is the funniest thing in the book. If you remember The Rotters’ Club: Benjamin is an accountant, has been writing a novel for 20 years, is married to Emily and dominated by Cicely, despite her 20 year absence; Paul is a new labour politician; Miriam is still missing; Claire still misses her, is no longer married to Philip chase, and they have a son named Patrick; Doug Anderton is a journalist with a wealthy wife, a family and a house in Chelsea. There is a German industrialist named Gunter, some white supremacists with a witty turn of phrase and a new character – Malvina, a confusing girl with a sexy brain, who keeps the story moving by causing confusion and being sexy.
The characters in The Closed Circle are lovely creations. They all look like typical English stereotypes, as the English do, then refuse to play true to their stereotypes as the English do even better.
While all the clubbers enjoyed The Closed Circle, none would say it rocked their worlds, but it is not that kind of book. If anything, it’s the opposite: the antidote - a book for reading on your summer holiday, or on the tube, or when you need to spend time with friends and there are none to hand.
The Closed Circle set a mellow tone for the debut outing of Book Club Too: the Penguin book club. Perhaps this was aided by London’s explosive return to interesting times on July 7 and the absence of many of the double clubbers – the most ferocious of the bookworms. Whatever the reason for the mellow vibe, I hope it carries into next month when Neil Griffiths, author of Betrayal in Naples will be on hand to defend his work. Will the most vocal clubbers stay true to form when staring into the eyes of one who puts his pen where his mouth is? Stay tuned…

Who: Jonathan Coe - Penguin
What: The Closed Circle
When: July 2005
Where: London
Why: It's the sequel to The Rotter's Club
Why not: It's the sequel to The Rotter's Club
How much: £7.99 (paperback)
(This review was first published in "H" the magazine of The Hospital)