Archive for the ‘Author Profiles’ Category

A new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, came out in 2009. It went immediately to the top of the best seller lists and remained there for several months. But I don’t care how popular it is. I’m not going to read it.

Ok, I read The Da Vinci Code, and Angels and Demons. I thought The Da Vinci Code was an interesting example of the hunt/chase thriller of which John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps remains the best example. The hero inadvertently becomes involved in a hunt for someone or something, and is pursued by both the police and the baddies. The hero is helped by some of the people he meets on the way and is obstructed by others, and has to break a code to reach his goal. Brown came up with a gripping conspiracy theory with real appeal: has the Roman Catholic Church been hiding the truth about Jesus for centuries? It was a much better draw-card than the Angels and Demons Illuminati conspiracy, which didn’t make waves when it was first published, and only piggy-backed on the later book’s popularity.

Descriptions of The Lost Symbol make it sound remarkably like the two previous Robert Langdon stories. This time it’s a Masonic conspiracy he’s called in to deal with, set in Washington DC (no need for all those foreign film locations). How many times can you recycle the same structure and character in a different setting?

But it’s not just because of the apparent plot similarities that I’m not going to read it. It’s because of the terrible prose.

Some people have called me a snob for objecting to the way Brown writes. After all, he’s obviously hugely popular; what can be wrong with how he writes?

I’m indebted to a post about Brown’s prose style on a blog called Language Log for what follows. It takes lines from the opening chapter of The Da Vinci Code and dissects them. For example:

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

The blogger points out that a voice doesn’t speak, a person does. If the curator is frozen, how can his head be turning? How can a silhouette stare? If all the curator can see is a silhouette, how does he know that the attacker’s skin is ghost pale or that his eyes are pink with dark red pupils? If this is just a description for the reader, not something the curator can see, what is the point of him turning his (frozen) head?

In addition to such mangled descriptions, almost every page yields a crop of clichés. In Angels and Demons, Kohler’s eyes sharpen, Langdon feels a wave of apprehension, he fights a wave of nausea and his eyes are riveted on the body, just to take a few random examples. There is nothing wrong with any of these taken alone, but they are Brown’s stock in trade; there is never anything else.

Certainly thrillers need to be fast paced, and the prose style is less important than the story. But does this mean it is OK for them to be badly written? I don’t think so.

The Telegraph came up with Dan Brown’s 20 worst sentences and some of these are pretty funny; check them out here.

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I stand by my comment in a recent post that most formulaic romance fiction deserves its bad name. Novels by writers like Nora Roberts might be a step up from Mills and Boon, but you’d only read them if there weren’t any other books at your holiday house and it was raining.

I do, however, want to make an honourable exception for the work of Georgette Heyer, (1902–1974), Queen of the Regency Romance. Her books remain an enjoyable, if undemanding, read.

While her stories follow the romance structure of boy meets girl, there are obstacles to their romance, which are then resolved, they cannot be called ‘formula’ writing in quite the same way as later romances because Heyer really created the formula. In nearly all her books, the hero and the heroine meet, but do not initially fall in love, for a variety of reasons such as other existing affections, disinclination to marry or even hostility between them. Circumstances throw them together, the obstacles are overcome, and a happy marriage results. If, as in The Convenient Marriage (1934), they are married early in the story, convenience gives way to true love. There is also often an element of mystery in the plot which helps to keep the pages turning.

Heyer was well aware of her debt to the great romance writers, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. The heroine in Regency Buck (1935), Judith Taverner, is actually reading Sense and Sensibility. (Furthermore, the role of Judith’s cousin in the story is remarkably similar to that of Anne Elliot’s cousin in Austen’s Persuasion.) But her greater debt is to Bronte, in particular her hero, Mr Rochester. ‘Charlotte knew, perhaps instinctively, how to create a hero who would appeal to women throughout the ages, and to her must all succeeding romantic novelists acknowledge their indebtedness’, she wrote. ‘For Mr Rochester was the first, and the Nonpareil, of his type. He is the rugged and dominant male, who can yet be handled by quite an ordinary female: as it might be, ‘oneself’.’

Most of Heyer’s heroes are like this, though there are a few meek ones who ‘find themselves’ during the story. They all tend to have excellent taste in clothes, but are not foolish dandies; they are strong and efficient, and have a good sense of humour. Heyer was aware she was creating stock characters. When faced with a plagiariser, she commented to her publisher ‘Fancy taking the Heyer Hero No.1 model, enigmatic, for your model and producing a lifeless puppet! Why, there isn’t a type that is Easier To Do’.

She consciously used other stock characters too – there is a set of heroines who are tall, have a great deal of character and dominate the plot, while another set are quiet girls bullied by their families. As she got older, some of her heroines got older too, and the young girls in these stories are rather silly. There is often a well meaning but foolish brother. However one of the strengths of her stories is that the villain is harder to recognise than in some genre fiction, with the hero sometimes looking for a while like he may have evil intent.

Heyer did a lot of research into the Regency period, largely into things like dress, food, transport, language and manners. She was proud of her ‘special knowledge’ of the period. One critic, she wrote angrily, ‘says my picture of Regency England is no more like the Real Thing than he is like Queen Anne. He best knows whether he is like Queen Anne, but what the hell does he know about the Regency?’ However the critic probably had a point. Heyer looks only at the lives of a tiny section of the community, and makes no reference at all to the poverty and misery of most of the population, or to the fear of revolution, and harsh repression of dissent by members of the tiny class she does write about. Jane Austen doesn’t mention such things either, but her books are much more rooted in everyday realities than are Heyer’s. Austen wrote about what was around her, while Heyer had to imagine the past – and it is a highly imaginary past that results.

Anyone who wrote stories of such freshness and vigour as Heyer presumably enjoyed writing them. However most of her recorded comments about her writing are self critical. She talked about writing a ‘Typical Heyer Romance for instant sale’ when she needed money to pay her tax bill. She described Sprigg Muslin (1956) as ‘another bleeding romance’. She wrote to her publisher concerning the publicity blurb for April Lady (1957) that ‘the way you’ve avoided the use of such works as corny and drivel is just too wonderful’. Of The Nonesuch (1961), ‘I think it stinks’. She admitted to ‘a certain gift for the farcical’, but no more. Yet readers today are more likely to get pleasure from what she did produce than they probably would have from the ‘Real Book’ she yearned to write.

You can find out more about Heyer here. or the fan site here.

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Or maybe just weird. Kate Atkinson burst onto the literary scene in 1995, her first novel, Behind the scenes at the museum, winning the Whitbread Book Award (now the Costa Book Award) which is given to the ‘most enjoyable’ book of the year. It is about a young woman and several generations of her family. This was followed by a couple of other novels about young women growing up, and their family circumstances. But the first of her books I read was Case histories (2004), which is a thoroughly enjoyable detective story. I quickly read the next two – One good turn: a jolly murder mystery (2006) and When will there be good news (2008). These all feature Jackson Brodie, a police inspector turned private detective. Having a detective as the main character may make them genre novels, but they are so well written that they feel like literary fiction that happens to be about crime and detection, amongst other things. There is a new one, Started early, took my dog (2010), but while waiting to get hold of it, I went back to try one of the earlier ones I hadn’t read, Emotionally weird (2000). A mistake.

The book is subtitled ‘a comic novel’. I can see that some people might find it funny. I just don’t.

It is 1972 and Effie and her mother Nora are alone on a tiny windswept island off the coast of Scotland. They tell each other how they came to be there, which Effie hopes will explain her peculiar childhood; always on the move, no father or other relations and a mother who claims to be a virgin. ‘We can be sure of nothing, it seems’, says Effie.

Most of the book is narrated by Effie; Nora is very reluctant to tell her story. Until recently, Effie, who is nearly 21, has been a student doing an English major at Dundee University. In fact the story starts with an extract from a detective story that is part of an assignment for the creative writing course she is doing, and there are further instalments scattered through the book. An essay she is writing about George Eliot gets rather less space. Most of Effie’s story is made up events told from her point of view, though at times Nora interrupts, and even objects to what is going on and demands a different outcome. When she complains about lack of a plot in Effie’s story, Effie replies that plot ‘Is not necessary in this post-modern day and age’. ‘You’ll never make a crime writer’, says Nora. ‘This isn’t a crime story. It’s a comic novel’, says Effie, though of course she is writing a crime story for her assignment. I think it is meant as a joke that a consciously post-modern story that plays with the concept of fiction is consciously presented by the narrator as post-modern. All this sounds promising, and indeed I find it quite diverting.

The problem for me lies in the story Effie is telling about her time at university. Slovenly students, dysfunctional communes, eccentric staff, batty professors and post-modern literary criticism rendered unintelligible – for me, these are simply not funny. They are such easy targets. I feel impatient, not charmed, by the crazy situations Effie finds herself in. There is a plot of sorts, but so meandering that I don’t really care if it gets lost.

Perhaps this says more about my sense of humour (or lack thereof) than it does about the book. I’d be pleased to hear what someone else thinks. In the meantime, I look forward to reading her next crime story, because she certainly can write those.

You can find more about Kate Atkinson here and about the Costa Book Award here.

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Sue Grafton’s alphabet series of Kinsey Milhone detective stories needs no introduction. And yes, we really are up to U, published in 2009. V is expected next year.

I suspect that many readers like the books so much because Kinsey Milhone is such a sympathetic main character. The stories are usually very satisfying, but it’s Kinsey who sets them apart from more run-of-the-mill detective stories.

Kinsey’s life weaves its way through all the books, at least up to the last few, where Grafton takes a slightly different tack. As the series progresses, readers learn that Kinsey was born in 1950 in the fictional Santa Teresa, California. Kinsey’s mother was from a well-to-do family but became estranged from them when she married a postal worker. At the age of five, Kinsey survived an horrific car accident in which both of her parents were killed. She was brought up by an aunt who instilled in her the values of independence and self sufficiency. She knows little about the rest of her family but finds out more in some of the stories. A shy but rebellious child, she hated school, and only completed two semesters of junior college

When she was 20 she was accepted into the police academy, and then joined the Santa Teresa Police Department. She found the restrictions of police work frustrating, and didn’t like the mixture of ‘curiosity and scorn’ with which women police officers were treated. She tried an assortment of other jobs, but found them commonplace beside the ‘adrenal rush’ of police work. So she joined a small firm of private investigators to learn the business, and then went out on her own. Kinsey has had two brief marriages, but no children; both ex-husbands each come into one book. She has various romantic encounters, but only one looks likely to go the distance. Kinsey is 35 at the beginning of the series and does not age much; A is for Alibi takes place in 1985, and U is for Undertow is set in 1988.  

Kinsey uses conventional methods of detection, such as following up phone bills and car registrations. She has some useful contacts with the police, and with a credit agency. There are of course no mobile phones or internet, and Kinsey does not have a computer. Grafton explains that ‘Most of what I talk about in the story doesn’t have anything to do with technology anyway … I think the interesting thing about mysteries is not the technology but the study of human nature — which I think stays the same over time … I’d be willing to bet that much of the crime-solving process still comes down to skill, intuition, and experience’. These are what Kinsey relies on. She is a good observer of people and relationships. She spends a lot of time talking to people, and uses her interpersonal skills much more than threats or violence, though she can use a gun.

The world of Santa Theresa is a normal, every day world, and the crimes Kinsey is hired to solve tend to be ordinary everyday crimes such as finding missing family members or fraud investigations. These may lead to revelations that are violent and nasty but it is not a world of corruption or corporate greed. While not above telling lies in the course of an investigation, or doing a little breaking and entering, Kinsey is essentially a decent and honest person. In Grafton’s view, ‘The mystery novel offers a world in which justice is served. Maybe not in a court of law, but people do get their just desserts’. This is true of all her stories. Kinsey is an instrument of justice. And this is what people love about her.

 In her last three books, S is for Silence, T is for Trespass and U is for Undertow, Grafton has introduced the perspective of other characters, including the villain, into the story. I’m not sure why she thought this innovation necessary; perhaps there was a limit to what further aspects of Kinsey’s life could be injected into the stories. It’s true that knowing other perspectives makes for more suspense; the reader knows things that Kinsey doesn’t – will she find out in time? I’m very happy to read these stories, but if I had to choose a favourite, it would still be the very first one: A is for Alibi, where we first meet Kinsey.

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Childers (1870-1922) was born in England, but lived in Ireland, and though he went to an English boarding school, always said he felt Irish.

After completing a degree at Cambridge, he became a Clerk of the House of Commons and when the Boer War broke out, went to fight in South Africa.  His service in there had two long term results.  First, he began to write for publication.  His sisters had published his letters to them from South Africa, and he then wrote several further books about the campaign.  Second, his experience in South Africa convinced him not only that British imperialism there was ineffective, but that it was also wrong for Ireland, and that Irish self determination was a moral as well as a political necessity.  He began publicly advocating Home Rule for Ireland. 

In addition to his job, his family – he married in 1904 – and his writing, Childers found time to sail small boats.  He first sailed when he was at school, but took it up seriously in 1893 when he bought a boat with his brother, and began exploring the coasts of southern England, France and Holland.  His wife shared his love of sailing, and they got a new boat, the Asgard, as a wedding present from her father. 

Childers had been contemplating writing a ‘yachting story’ for some time, and in 1903 completed The Riddle of the Sands: a record of secret service recently achieved.  The purpose of the story was to alert the British government, and public, to the danger of invasion from Germany, and the lack of preparation for such an eventuality.  The sailing part of the story was based on the logs of a voyage he had made with his brother in 1897 in their boat VixenThe Riddle met with immediate popular success.  It is less clear that it influenced government policy, though from 1903 Britain undertook a program of ship building to match the expansion of the German navy.

The book begins with a preface which suggests that the story is a factual account of a ‘quest’; only the names are changed.  The story is recounted by ‘Carruthers’, a rising young member of the Foreign Office.  He agrees to join ‘Davies’, an acquaintance from university, in a sailing holiday in the Baltic.  Carruthers is horrified to find that the yacht, the Dulcibella (named for one of Childers’ sisters, and based on the Vixen), is not the luxury vessel he was expecting, but he is won over, and agrees to sail back to the North Sea to investigate further some mysterious events that had happened to Davies there.  Together they sail among the islands and sand banks of the Friesian coast to unravel the meaning of these events. 

The book has been called ‘the world’s greatest sailing suspense story’, and while there is quite a lot about sailing in it, I don’t think this detracts from its interest for non-sailors.  This is partly because Carruthers is himself a novice at sailing, so the reader learns with him.  It is also because the two main characters, Carruthers and Davies are so sympathetically drawn.  Davies in particular was created as a rebuke to the naval authorities; though a brilliant small boat sailor, he had been turned down for the navy.  He is used to advocate the development of a naval reserve, made up of ‘chaps like me’.  But he is much more than just a vehicle for Childers’s politics.  The young men’s developing friendship comes across as real and vibrant.  The love interest, introduced at the request of the book’s publishers, is also so well handled that it seems an integral part of the story. 

Both Carruthers and Davies act from motives of patriotism.  Davies sees the quest as ‘a chance of being useful’ to the goal of creating maritime supremacy for England, though he despairs of his country’s politicians – ‘those blockheads of statesmen, as they call themselves’.  Both are respectful of the growing might of the German navy, and the efficiency of the German people; ‘her marvellous awakening in the last generation, under the strength and wisdom of her rulers; her intense patriotic ardour; her seething industrial activity’.  Most of the individual Germans they meet are friendly and helpful; their concern with Germany is at the level of competing great powers, not the personal dislike found in some spy stories.  Any venom is reserved for the traitor who is working for the Germans, though even he is portrayed as tormented by guilt and doubt. 

Writing in 1931, Childers’ widow, Molly, said that in The Riddle of the Sands, Childers had advocated preparedness for war as the best preventative of war.  In the years that followed, she wrote, he had changed his mind about this, coming to the conclusion that preparedness only made war more likely by creating an arms race, and international fear and antagonism.  Whatever the reader’s view on this, it needn’t spoil the story.

Being ‘father to the British spy novel’ was not, however, Childers’ only claim to fame.  Like Davies and Carruthers, (who perhaps represented two sides of his own character) Childers believed in personal responsibility, and the necessity of acting in the light of conviction.  In addition to advocating Home Rule for Ireland, he tried to do something about it.  He stood unsuccessfully for election as a Liberal candidate – the Liberals being in favour of Home Rule.  He then tried direct action.  In 1914 the Ulster Volunteers in the north of Ireland began to arm themselves to fight Home Rule, which seemed imminent.  Childers and his wife joined a small group of activists in buying and shipping guns for the rival Irish Volunteers, who intended to defend Home Rule.  Childers offered his yacht, Asgard, to transport them.  This was a serious business, but was apparently undertaken in a ‘high-hearted innocence’, with ‘amateurish cloak and dagger precautions’.  In a masterly feat of seamanship, they succeeded in landing their cargo successfully on the Irish coast.  They did not know then that some of the guns would be used in the abortive Irish uprising of Easter 1916, or that one of their companions, Sir Roger Casement, would be hanged in England as a German spy after he landed in Ireland from a German submarine, just after the unsuccessful uprising.  (His body was removed to Ireland in 1965, where he was given a State funeral – one country’s spy being another country’s patriot.)

At the outbreak of war, Childers, then 44, joined the British navy.  He worked on a plan for Britain to occupy the very Friesian Islands he had been writing about in The Riddle of the Sands, but it was never acted upon.  He spent time as a Naval Intelligence Officer, a navigational instructor of sea plane crews, and then as a sea plane pilot, winning a Distinguished Service Cross.  He knew nothing of the Easter uprising in 1916 until it had occurred and was opposed to it, though like many others, he was sickened by the brutality with which the uprising was put down.  The war had put plans for Home Rule on hold, much to the frustration of many in Ireland.  The uprising was the work of a few Sinn Fein fanatics, and would never have caught the imagination of the Irish people so fully had not the British acted so harshly in response.

In 1917 Childers was seconded to the Irish Convention, through which it was intended that Ireland should work out a new constitution for Home Rule.  By this time, however, a peaceful outcome was not possible, as the Ulster Volunteers refused to be part of an independent Ireland, and Sinn Fein refused to be part of the convention process.  Its military wing, the Irish Republican Army, declared war on the ‘occupying’ British troops.

In 1921, Childers, now living in Dublin, was secretary to Irish delegation that negotiated Irish independence from Britain with the creation of the Irish Free State, but at the cost of the division of Ireland, the six northern counties remaining as part of Britain.  Though part of the delegation, Childers opposed this solution.  He was elected to the new Dail Eireann for Country Wicklow in 1921, but when civil war between the pro and anti Treaty forces broke out, he joined the anti Treaty IRA irregulars, his ‘unflinching dedication’ to Irish independence driving him to a position ‘beyond the politically possible’.  In taking this action, he was regarded by both the British, and the new Irish Free State government as a traitor.  In 1922, he was arrested by Irish Free State soldiers, and on the grounds that he was carrying a small pistol, was court martialled and shot.  Honourable to the last, it is said that he shook hands with each member of the firing squad. 

Knowing the manner of Childers’ life and death adds much to an appreciation of the nature of the patriotism he was writing about in The Riddle of the Sands.  Certainly it was not the cheap and easy virtue that has been described as ‘the last resort of the scoundrel’, and which is found in too much writing about spys and spying.  Childers refined his patriotism from a general British Imperialism, as shown through his volunteering to fight in South Africa, back to a dedication to the freedom and independence of Ireland from the British Empire, and paid for it with his life.  It might have comforted him had he known that his second son, also named Erskine Childers, would become President of the Irish Republic in 1973.

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Graham Swift

Graham Swift (1949- ) was born in London, son of a civil servant.  He was educated at Dulwich College, London, and did a BA in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge. From 1970-73 he attended York University. He then taught English part-time at several London colleges (1974-83), during which time he published his first two novels, and a book of short stories. The success of his third novel, Waterland (1983), enabled him to give up teaching and write full-time. He is married, and lives in London. As well as the Booker Prize, he has received a number of other British and European literary awards. 

Swift accepts, perhaps somewhat unwillingly, that writers must now play a part in the publicity that surrounds bookselling. In a recent interview, he says ‘When I began writing … my sense of the writer then …was essentially of this person you never saw. They might have a photo on the back of the jacket of the book, but they sat somewhere and they wrote …. All that has changed dramatically. And it’s taken some adjusting.’ But even so, he is not interested in revealing much about himself.  In the same interview, there was the following exchange:

 ‘In the end I produce a novel and it is there for the public. It is there for the reader and it’s not part of the package that they should know how it was for me as I wrote it.

Interviewer: But they want to.

Swift: I know they are interested.

Interviewer: They want to know your shoe size.

Swift: But it’s not necessary. Again, it’s not what it’s really all about.’

What it is really all about for Swift is the power of imagination. There is very little autobiographical content in his work. While all writers no doubt draw in some way on their own experience to produce their fiction, some writers, such as John Fowles, draw heavily on specific experience, whilst others, like Swift, write about ideas that are embodied in imagined characters and situations. 

In most of his books, the setting as such is not a particular focus. This is not however true of Waterland, in which the history and presence of the fen country of the east coast of England are central.  But even here Swift says he had no personal connection with the fens, and did little physical research there, only researching the historical background of the region. ‘I don’t like research’, he says, ‘and my general attitude is to minimize it, do it after, rather than before the writing, or avoid it altogether. If this seems to leave something unexplained, then I would say that the imagination is a strange and powerful thing.’ ‘I have enormous faith in the imagination … if your imagination cannot transport you mentally from where you are to somewhere quite different, then don’t be a novelist, be something else’. 

Nor does he choose to talk much about his books. ‘I cannot usefully say more about my novels than they themselves say.’ But he does talk a little about ‘how it was for me as I wrote it’.  He does not write to any schedule; ‘It takes as long as it takes.’  He does not have a clear picture of how the story will develop. ‘I believe it would be a bad day for a writer if he could say, “I know exactly what I’m doing”… and I hope my imagination will always surprise and stretch me and take me along unsuspected paths, just as I hope it will continue to bring me up against certain things which I will have to recognise as my own peculiar territory – though that too is a process of discovery, not of preconception’. And he stresses the importance of revising his work. ‘Another thing that happens is you don’t get it right the first time. You set out and stop and say, “No, that’s not right. I’ll go back to the beginning.” That uses up time. But it’s good time. That can be tough, but I think that one of the ways I have, dare I say it, matured as a writer is in the process of saying to myself, “No that is not good enough.” And rejecting my own work and in some cases starting again.’

So what do his novels themselves say? A number of preoccupations inform Swift’s work – have become his ‘particular territory’ – though in different ways in each book.  He is interested in the interplay between past and present, and how past events influence present actions.  This includes conflict between generations, and how the choices of one generation influence the next.  There is often some mystery about past events that the present day characters are trying to unravel.  He raises the whole issue of the way we construct a view of the past, and how unreliable that view may be, both in terms of personal histories, and public ones.  Because of the interplay between past and present, his books are often not a linear narrative, but move between then and now, gradually providing a fuller picture of events, motivations and emotions.  He often writes about ordinary people and ordinary events, but in a way that shows the importance of the ordinary, for what can be more important than birth, death, family, love and friendship?  ‘I am the kind of writer’ he says, ‘—it should be pretty obvious—who certainly starts with the ordinary world. The world around the corner, the familiar world. And if there is going to be anything extraordinary, I will find it in that. Of course, there is something extraordinary. There are many extraordinary things’.

Because he plays with the idea of narrative, and questions what is ‘real’, Swift is sometimes considered a post-modernist novelist.  However he says he has little interest in or knowledge of literary theory, and his discussions with other writers tend to be about things other than books. 

His ultimate interest is in getting the story to express what he wants to say. Though the voice or voices in the story are appropriate to the character – university academic, school teacher, car salesman, butcher, detective – he uses simple and direct language.  ‘Another way in which I hope I have progressed as a writer’, he says, ‘is in the direction of economy and concision in the direction of saying quite a lot in a few words and even then saying it with quite simple words’. But even more than this, he wants to give a sense of ‘what lies beyond the word’. People – characters – may not be particularly articulate, but they have inner thoughts and perceptions that are valuable. ‘The words themselves are not the be all and end all of writing. They are only there to give something, to transmit something. And that’s why often the best words are the least noticeable words, because they are transparent. The feeling comes through. So, in that sense my novels have reduced, fewer words, simpler words. But I hope what lies beyond is always expanding, if I can put it like that.’

Swift’s books are:

The Sweet Shop Owner (1980)

Shuttlecock (1981)

Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982)

Waterland (1983)

Out of this World (1988)

Ever After (1992)

Last Orders (1996)

The Light of Day (2003)

Tomorrow (2007)

 He has also produced The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of Fishing in Literature (co-editor with David Profumo) (1985).  Fishing is his main hobby.

The Sweetshop Owner concerns the memories and opinions of a shopkeeper in his final hours, and while he looks back over forty years of lack of fulfillment, there is ‘hidden poetry’ in his apparently insignificant life.  Shuttlecock is about the search by a former police department archivist for the truth about his father’s life: was he really the World War II hero that he presented himself as?  Both these books were well received, and Swift was named one of the 20 best young British authors in 1983.

But it was Waterland that made him really well known. It is a first-person account of the central events of the life of Tom Crick, a history teacher who has been offered early retirement. He interrupts his final classes to deliver a rambling memoir about his youth in the fens, going back before WWI and interspersing his recollections with historical and philosophical comment about the fens and their inhabitants, past and present. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in 1992, made into a film staring Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack. 

It was followed by Out of this World (1988), the story, told as two interlocking monologues, of a photojournalist and his estranged daughter.  Then came Ever After (1992), in which a university academic reflects on his life, and his failure to complete the task of editing the papers of a nineteenth century ancestor.  Neither of these books was considered to be as good as Waterland, not quite reaching the heights he had previously achieved.

Last Orders (1996) was, however, a worthy successor.  Four aging men drive from London to Margate to fulfill the request of their dead friend, Jack Dodds, that his ashes be scattered in the sea off Margate Pier.  His wife Amy doesn’t come; she has a different journey to make.  With several detours on the way, they spend a day carrying the jar with Jack’s ashes in it to the sea.  During the course of the day, the reader comes to understand the friendships and tensions between each of the men, and something of their relationships with their own families, and with Amy.  The chief spokesman is Ray, but all the others, including Jack and Amy, are given a voice, and these interweaving voices gradually build up a picture of their own lives and interactions with the others.  Some describe events as they happen, some is told as recollection of the past, and some as flashback to past events.  By the end of the day, decisions have been made that may take the characters to a better future.

The prose is simple and colloquial.  The lives of the characters are ordinary and their past experiences unremarkable, (though in some ways they are representative of aspects of post war British society and the economic realities of Thatcher’s England in which the story is set).  But Swift succeeds brilliantly in his aim of revealing the thoughts and feelings behind the inarticulate voices of the characters – the love, the loss, the frustrations, the guilt and betrayals, the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people trying to cope with life and death in lives that yet contain, as Swift says, moments that are extraordinary.  ‘It is an emotionally charged and technically suburb example’, wrote one critic, ‘of the novel’s power to resolve the wavering meanings of life we all share into a definite focus, one where the clarity with which things are seen renders them precious’.  There was general agreement that Swift deserved the Booker Prize he won for this novel.

Swift’s next novel is The Light of Day (2003). Again the action takes place over one day.  George Webb, former policeman and now private detective, goes to the office, meets his daughter, goes to visit a former client, now in goal for the murder of her husband, and goes back to the office.  But in the course of the day, George realises that he has found what he thought he lacked – a reason for living.  So it is again from the ordinary that the extraordinary emerges. 

His most recent novel is Tomorrow (2007). A woman is lying awake, sleepless because tomorrow she has to tell her sixteen year old twins something she worries will completely change their family life. I didn’t find this short book to be one of his great ones.

 His most recent work is a collection of non-fiction pieces called Making an Elephant (2009). This has some autobiographical elements, which is as much as reader is likely to find out about him. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have a web site.

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Elizabeth Goudge

The other day, while looking for something else, I stumbled across a reference to ‘The Mystery of Moonacre’. Moonacre? That is the name of the secluded valley where my very favourite children’s book, The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge is set. My first reaction was ‘They can’t do this’, but of course they can and indeed they have. I looked further. And yes, they have made a film called The Mystery of Moonacre, which is based roughly – very roughly – on the book. And as far as I can see from the trailer, they’ve ruined it.

Elizabeth Goudge is a writer scarcely heard of today. Yet The Little White Horse, winner of the Carnegie Prize for children’s literature in 1948, is a book many people, including, apparently, J.K. Rowling, remember from childhood with great pleasure.

Goudge was born in 1900 in Wells, in southern England and died in 1984. She led a sheltered, even secluded life. A child of the vicarage – and an only child at that – she turned first to make believe, and then to writing. There seems to be something about vicarage life that fosters a desire to write; think of Jane Austen, the Brontes, or in more modern times, Dorothy Sayers, or Noel Streatfeild. Goudge’s books were based on more overtly Anglican values than those of any of these other vicarage children, but while they inform her writing, they don’t dominate it.

The Goudge family moved fairly frequently as her father climbed up the ecclesiastical career ladder, ending in Oxford, where he became the Regius Professor of Divinity. After he died, Gouge looked after her ailing mother in a cottage in Devon, and after her mother’s death, moved to Oxfordshire. She had a strong sense of place, and this is reflected in her work, so that setting of her books largely matches places she had lived in. ‘It is impossible to live in an old city’, she writes, ‘ and not ask oneself continually, what was it like years ago? What were the men and women and children like who lived in my home centuries ago, and what were their thoughts and their action as they lived out their lives day by day in the place where I live mine now?’

She never married. In her autobiography, Joy of the Snow (1974), there is a hint of a romance when she was living in Ely, but it came to nothing. After her mother died, she agreed to the presence of a companion, Jessie Monroe, to help her through this difficult period. Jessie stayed with her for the rest of her life.

Goudge suffered from bouts of depression. In her later years she was often in poor health. Her last novel, The Child From the Sea, was published in 1970. Yet between 1934 and 1970 she was prolific, producing fifteen major novels, plus twelve children’s books, a number of short stories and some religious non-fiction works.

Some of her books are historical. The Child From the Sea, for example, is about Lucy Walters, in real life the mistress, or possibly the wife, of Charles II, though she died before he was restored to the throne. Lucy was the mother of the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth. Towers in the Mist (1938) deals with Oxford in Elizabethan times. Indeed it is a hymn to Oxford, its colleges and churches, and its surrounding countryside, in the early days of the reign of Elizabeth I, with only a slight, though pleasant, story line.

But most of her books deal with contemporary individuals and families dealing with the stresses of life in England before, during and after World War II. It is here that her Anglicanism shows through. Some of her characters are flawed almost to the point of breakdown, but they are restored through selfless love and support. The capacity for this selflessness is sometimes a quality a character is born with, but it can also be inculcated through prayer and humility, and the determination to live for others.

Such a description makes her books sound sickly and sentimental, but I don’t find that true of the ones I’ve read. This may be because Goudge had suffered her own dark night of the soul, and could write realistically of the experience. The books I know best are the three that concern the Eliots of Damerosehay, and I find them full of compassion and love. The middle book, The Herb of Grace, is my favourite. The ‘herb’ of the title is rue, known in Ophelia’s words as the ‘herb-grace o’ Sundays’, an astringent presence throughout the story. Certainly the characters are mostly middle class, and their dilemmas are existential rather than practical, but this is true of much of British fiction of the time, and their struggles are no less absorbing for that.

And what of The Little White Horse? It is the story of the orphaned Maria Merryweather, who goes to live with her unknown uncle at Moonacre Manor n the West Country. To get what she wants and save Moonacre, Maria has to learn to control her temper and her impatience, and to be brave and truthful. Certainly there is magic – the little white horse proves to be a unicorn, and there is the dog Wrolf who is really a lion, and the ghosts of Merryweathers past hover nearby. But the real magic is in the delight the reader shares with Maria as she discovers the joys of Moonacre, and overcomes the perils. In the film, it seems that the magic has been reduced to a modern preoccupation with witches and elves, and the rightness and symmetry of the story has been lost.

I haven’t seen the film advertised in Australia so far, but I think my best bet would be to stay away if it ever comes here. There was also a TV series made of the book in the 1990s; this may be more faithful to the original. 

If you would like to know more about Elizabeth Goudge, there is an Elizabeth Gouge Society in England.  This lists her books, and gives more information about her life. Unfortunately most of her work is out of print, though some may be available in libraries or through second hand book shops or websites.

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Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930- ) writes a range of different crime stories, but she began with Inspector Reg Wexford, and the Wexford stories remain her most popluar.

Rendell is reticent about her personal history. Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers. Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man. She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’. After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times. She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950. They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later. They have one son. She wrote six books before she approached a publisher. When she did, her books were instantly successful. From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories. In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and now continues to produce books in all three categories. In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government. Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her recent (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor

In 1996, in an interview in The Irish Times, Rendell commented that ‘I would think that the old-fashioned detective story which is so much a matter of clues and puzzles is certainly on the way out, if not already gone. Crime novels now are much more novels of character, and novels which look at the world we live in’. This is certainly true of her own work. However it is equally true that the character of Inspector Reg Wexford has developed a lot since she began the series. In the early books, Wexford’s role was basically to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret. Now, he is a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. It has been suggested that Wexford was modelled on her father, and she says in response ‘Wexford has a very dry sense of wit, he is liberal, literate, but he can get quite exasperated and hot-tempered and he quotes a lot from literature. All these things are true of myself and my father’. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like – I’ve done that more and more’.

Inspector Wexford, later Detective Chief Inspector, does not have a fully fleshed out biography as do some fictional detectives. He is middle aged, tall and broad and inclined to put on too much weight if he doesn’t watch what he eats, which he hates doing. Though he didn’t go to university, and is somewhat abashed by the new young breed of university-educated detectives, personified by his nephew, Superintendent Howard Fortune, he is self educated and very well read.  He is shrewd in his judgements of people. He is also compassionate, often in contrast to his assistant, Inspector Mike Burdon, who can be rather narrow and rigid. He is married to Dora and has two grown up daughters. His family life is stable, and his professional life not in danger from jealous colleagues or hated superiors, as is sometimes the case with other detectives. He can become obsessed with an investigation, to the frustration of both his wife and his boss. 

The Wexford books are:

From Doon with Death (1964)

A New Lease of Death (1967)

Wolf to the Slaughter (1967)

The Best Man to Die (1969)

A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)

No More Dying Then (1971)

Murder Being Once Done (1972)

Some Lie and Some Die (1973)

Shake Hands Forever (1975)

A Sleeping Life (1978)

Sins of the Fathers (1980)

Put on the Cunning (1981)

Death Notes (1981)

Speaker of Mandarin (1983)

An Unkindness of Ravens (1985)

The Veiled One (1988)

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992)

Simisola (1995)

Road Rage (1997)

Harm Done (1999)

Babes in the Wood (2002)

End in Tears (2005)

Not in the Flesh (2007)

The Monster in the Box (2009)

In 1987, a TV series entitled Inspector Wexford and based on the books was begun. It starred George Baker as DCI Reg Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft as DI Mike Burden. Now many people, Ruth Rendell amongst them, can’t think of Wexford without seeing Baker. He, in return, says in his memoirs how much he likes and admires Wexford, and enjoyed playing him. The series ended in 2000, and unfortunately there are no plans to film the more recent books.

When Rendell talks about looking at ‘the world we live in’, she means not only the physical setting of the story, but also its social and moral setting. Wexford operates in the imaginary town of Kingsmarkham, set somewhere south of London. The crimes he investigates are those of ordinary people, who faced with some challenge or choice, reveal a capacity for violence which is inherent in everyone under certain circumstances. In her work as Ruth Rendell Mark II and Barbara Vine, the psychological impulse to crime and violence is much more fully explored. But it is also present in the Wexford books.

Rendell describes most of her recent Wexford stories as more ‘political’ than the earlier ones. They deal with racism, environmental issues, and child abuse. Rendell has always held left of centre views, and has been active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was then new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show the world as it is has led her to tackle issues she thinks are important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond the ordinary police procedural.

 More information about Ruth Rendell can be found here.

 More information about the TV series can be found here.

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It was with regret that I learned in February 2010 that the great story teller Dick Francis had died, aged 89.  Francis wrote the kind of crime story that takes an ordinary person and throws  them in a situation involving criminal activity. All had something to do with horse racing, a reflection of the fact that Francis had once been a champion jockey. A few of the books featured Syd Halley, jockey turned private detective, but by far the majority had as their hero someone normally quite unconnected with crime and its detection. Most of the stories were clever, and gave fascinating insights into varied aspects of the world of horse racing.

But one of the main mysteries was just how much of the regular flow of a book every year Francis himself was responsible for. It was openly acknowledged that his wife did the research for the books, but did she do more that that? After she died in 2000, no further titles were forthcoming for six years.  Since then there has been one recycling the Syd  Halley character, Under Orders (2006)  and then three which included Francis’s son, Felix, as joint writer: Dead Heat (2007), Silks (2008) and Even Money (2009). A final joint book, Crossfire, will be published in 2010. Now that Dick Francis is dead, it seems that Felix Francis will continue to produce the Francis product alone.

This further exploitation of a well known brand is nothing new – the various James Bond stories that have appeared since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 attest to this.

But isn’t this turning a book into nothing but a commodity? Can someone else really capture the vividness of detail that made the Francis books so distinctive?  I think that the later Dick Francis stories were already beginning to get a bit tired. I find the new ones by Felix to be quite formulaic and completely lacking in the verve of his father’s work (or possibly his mother’s, as well as his father’s work).

No doubt the crime story reading public will make their judgement, but for me, there’s something of the uniformity and blandness of the Big Mac about the new books. If you want my advice, read the earlier ones. Some of my favourites are Nerve, Odds Against, Forfeit, Enquiry, Reflex, Banker, The Danger and Straight.

A tribute to Dick Francis from the New York Times can be found here.  

The Dick Francis website is here.

What do you think of the new Dick Francis stories?

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The immense and I think on the whole well deserved popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy made me want to read some more Scandinavian crime stories. Larsson’s work deserves greater space than I can give it here, so this will just be a brief outline of some other crime writers from Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

Next in popularity outside Scandinavia to Larsson is the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell. His books have been given a boost by the creation of a BBC TV series starring Kenneth Branagh as Inspector Wallander. Filmed in Sweden with Swedish and English actors, the series has the same dour quality as the books. Inspector Wallander is a dogged policeman, but has otherwise a dysfunctional life – divorced, difficult relationship with his daughter, too much booze and junk food and not enough exercise. There is a somewhat neurotic quality to Wallander; he is always going on about how he is not getting anywhere with his investigation, but without much result. His cases always involve murder; a bit too often there is a serial killer. They are big on atmosphere rather than motive, though the resolution is usually satisfactory. I most recently read The Man Who Smiled (2005), but I can’t get excited about it. To me, the denouement was unsatisfactory; at the end villain reveals all to detective when he could easily just have killed him – a device I particularly dislike. Overall, however, the Wallander books are well worth reading.

Karin Fossum has a series featuring Norwegian policeman Inspector Konrad Sejer. I read Calling Out For You (2005) a title which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story. An Indian woman is brutally killed in a small town. Anyone could have done it. There are lots of points of view given, some of which are silly. Overall I didn’t like it much because I found the structure self-indulgent. It does hide who is the criminal – but then just about anyone could have been, for all the motive that was established. I got no real sense of it being set in Norway, rather than anywhere else. The writing is adequate but not compelling. I’d certainly read another of her books if I came across it, but I probably won’t seek one out.

Karin Alvtegen has won prizes for her crime stores in both Denmark and Sweden. I read Shadow, (2009), a psychological thriller rather than a detective story, set in Sweden. It is about the unravelling of a family secret – a crime whose existence is gradually revealed after the death of the family’s housekeeper. The family is already full of dysfunctional people who become more so as what really happened emerges. Because it is relating the past to the present, there is quite a lot of back story to be told. This is done through the recollection of characters – and, as is often the case, the past is remembered with unrealistic clarity – even when it has been suppressed by the person. The plot fairly predictable – though I didn’t see all of it coming. The story relies on the writer presenting a realistic and/or engaging picture of the characters in the drama but I found them a bit too simplistic. And as almost none of them is likeable, I didn’t much care what happened to them. Just as well, as it isn’t really made clear in the end. I found some of the motivation – for both action and inaction – quite unconvincing. And why should the person who caused it all get a vision of paradise when he dies? Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine writes similar stories – but to my mind she does it better.

I also read Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia (2009), a story set in Iceland, featuring Detective Erlunder. He has misgivings about a death that looks like suicide, and undertakes his own unofficial investigation. Along side this he obsesses about the fate of two young people who simply disappeared some years earlier. His own brother had also disappeared in a storm, and this seems to be the cause of his obsession. He is another gloomy character with a failed marriage and dysfunctional children. The reader is privy to more of what happened than the detective through flash backs giving the view of the dead woman, which I found a bit artificial. The idea for what actually happened is quite clever, but again, I found the way the story unfolded unconvincing; most of the denouement is told to him by characters who would have had every reason to stay silent. Also, he is told exactly what he needs to piece the story together, and only that, so it all seems a bit convenient. The link he finds between the suicide case and the missing persons case is also pretty tenuous. As for the setting, the landscape and the weather are important to the story, and I got some sense of the beauty and the bleakness of Iceland.

 All of these books are of course translated, and I wonder if it is this that sometimes makes the writing seem a bit thin, or lacking in resonance. I read that Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, objected to the most recent translation of his work, giving the following example. One of the main characters, Blomkvist, has been wrongly convicted of defamation and someone asks him how he feels. ‘This is the worst day of my life’ he replies. In the original Swedish, he said ‘Like a sack of shit’. Gabrielsson says that ‘the sound, the essence, the colour, the character of the dialogue’ have all been changed. And maybe some of the life has gone out of these other stories too.

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A.S. Byatt

Antonia Susan Byatt (1936- ) was born in Sheffield, England, eldest of three children in a scholarly, middle class family. Her father, John Drabble, a barrister and later a county court judge, wrote novels in his spare time. Her younger sister Margaret Drabble is also a successful writer. They both went to the Mount School, York, a Quaker boarding-school, and both went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to study English literature. Antonia graduated in 1957, and did two years of postgraduate study at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, and at Oxford. In 1959, she married Ian Byatt, and they had two children, one of whom died in a road accident aged eleven. They divorced in 1969, and she married Peter Duffy; they had two more children.  During these years, she worked as a part-time lecturer at the University of London and the Central School of Art and Design, teaching English and Liberal Studies. In 1972 she became a tenured lecturer in English and American Literature, later senior lecturer at University College, London and remained there until 1983, when she left to write full-time.

Throughout the early years of motherhood and part-time teaching, Byatt had also been writing.  In 1964 her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, was published.  It is a story about a young woman who struggles to discover and develop her own personality in the shadow of her father, a renowned British novelist. Writing about writing and writers is one of the ongoing themes of her work. Her second book, The Game (1967) established a second common theme – the relationship between sisters. In this case one is an Oxford academic, and the other a best-selling novelist, and their relationship leads to violence and death.  By 1967, her sister Margaret had published three books, A Summer Bird Cage (1964), The Garrick Year (1964) The Millstone (1965), a fourth, Jerusalem the Golden appearing in 1967. The sisters’ relationship was never close; ‘There was too much competition,’ Byatt says of their childhood. ‘We didn’t get on’. Drabble explains the continuing rift as beginning when Byatt’s son was killed – and the ‘unassuageable guilt’ she, Margaret, experienced knowing that her own children were safe. Byatt has also said she was angered at Drabble’s treatment of a character who was clearly based on their mother in one of her books.  (Some sources say that the two are half sisters, but others make no mention of this.  Biographical details appear to show them as having the same parents, and neither of them has commented publicly on the matter.) 

There was a gap of some years until her next novel, though she published a number of academic studies in literature in these years. Juggling work and family led her, like many others, to feel ‘when you’re a woman, that you start with one hand tied behind your back’.

In 1978, The Virgin in the Garden was published, and again takes up the theme of family – and sisters’ – relationships. This time another young girl, Frederica Potter, is seeking to find her own identity. This is the first of four novels about Frederica and her family, spread over the next twenty-five years. Frederica’s relationship with her sister is much more accepting, but in the second of the series, Still Life (1985) the sister dies in a domestic accident. The effects of this on Frederica’s life are explored, among other things, in Babel Tower (1996), and, The Whistling Woman (2002) follows Frederica into her thirties. These are dense and complex books, in which Byatt’s interest in ideas, particularly ideas about the role of art and literature in people’s lives, are fully explored. The early books were well received by critics, but didn’t make her widely known.

The book that established her fame was Possession: A Romance (1990). This is a book about two romances, a twentieth century one, and a nineteenth century one. Roland is a young research associate working on the life and writing of a nineteenth century poet, Randolph Ash.  He finds a fragment of a letter from Ash which suggests the beginnings of a previously unknown relationship between him and a female poet, who Ronald soon discovers to be Cristobel La Motte.  He meets Maud Bailey, a feminist academic who is working on La Motte, and together they set out to discover what happened. Interspersed with the modern account of discovery and the development of the relationship between Roland and Maude, we find out some of what actually took place between Ash and La Motte.

The book is often called a ‘pastiche’; it contains a mixture of ordinary modern narrative, mostly from Roland’s point of view, nineteenth century style narrative, letters, journal entries, a fairy story, poetry and chunks of feminist literary criticism and theory.  Most readers feel the other different and add to the pleasure of the book.  

 Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990.

Byatt’s most recent novel is The Children’s Book, which explores the lives of the family and friends of Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s stories. Set in the years leading up to the First World War, the ‘golden age’ of Edwardian England has a decidedly leaden touch to it. Hugely detailed, it perhaps lacks the lightness of Possession, but is a must read for fans of Byatt’s other novels.

Byatt does not shy away from the fact that she loves ideas; ‘intellectual passions are as vibrant and consuming as emotional ones’, she says. One critic said of Possession that is ‘teeming with more ideas that a year’s worth of ordinary novels’. The characters think hard about some serious issues. ‘Perhaps the most important thing to say about my books’ says Byatt, ‘is that they try to be about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people … I see writing and thinking as a passionate activity, like any other’. Some of her later books seem to have taken her fascination with ideas to an extreme, so that they dominate the story. Byatt is very aware – even if her writing sometimes suggests otherwise – that ‘Art does not exist for politics, or for instruction – it exists primarily for pleasure’. 

Byatt’s novels are:

The Shadow of the Sun (1964)

The Game (1967)

The Virgin in the Garden (1978)

Still Life (1985)

Possession: A Romance (1990)

Angels and Insects (1992)

The Matisse Stories (1993)

Babel Tower (1996)

The Biographer’s Tale (2000)

The Whistling Woman (2002)

The Children’s Book (2009)

Visit Byatt’s website here.

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