‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ by Claire North ****

The message at the heart of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is this: ‘some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime’.  The novel has been incredibly well received since its publication earlier this year, and it has been selected as part of the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.

The protagonist of North’s novel is, unsurprisingly, a man named Harry August.  The aim for the author is to show the way in which Harry ‘tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow’, thus creating an interesting alternative history of sorts.  Each time Harry dies, North tells us, he returns to his childhood, ‘with all the knowledge of a life lived a dozen times before’.  His life – and deaths – have all been dark, and ‘none peaceful’.

We first meet Harry in the following manner: ‘The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.  I was dying my usual death, slipping away in a warm morphine haze, which she interrupted like an ice cube down my spine’.  At this point in time, Harry is seventy eight, and the girl of whom he speaks is seven.  This element of the story, for me, provides a definite echo of Audrey Niffenegger’s stunning The Time Traveller’s Wife.

The novel’s introduction draws the reader into Harry’s story immediately: ‘I am writing this for you. / My enemy. / My friend. / You know, already, you must know. / You have lost.’  The structure which North has used, and the way in which she writes, provides a great way of spanning important historic events – for example, Harry tells us, ‘I am of a good age to be enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War…  In my first life I enlisted of my own volition, genuinely believing the three great fallacies of the time – that the war would be brief, that the war would be patriotic and that the war would advance me in my skills’.  It also allows North to create a highly complex being as her protagonist.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is engaging from the outset.  Its plot is cleverly thought out, and there are certainly some unpredictable moments within it.  North is a gifted author, who has created here a creative, striking and eminently memorable novel.

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‘The Poetic Edda’ – translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love. Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

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Booker Prize Winners (Part Two)

Here is the second half of my Booker Prize list.

6. The Bone People by Keri Hulme (winner, 1985)
“At once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, Booker Prize-winning novel “The Bone People” is a powerful and unsettling tale saturated with violence and Maori spirituality.”

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7. Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris (shortlisted, 1985)
“Visiting this imaginary place, somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, is Jan Morris, commissioned by an American magazine to write letters from Hav. Under her gaze, sometimes baffled, always sharp, Hav and its bizarre inhabitants spring to life in this narrative.”

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8. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (winner, 1988)
“Oscar Hopkins is an Oxford seminarian with a passion for gambling. Lucinda Leplastrier is a Sydney heiress with a fascination for glass. The year is 1864. When they meet on the boat to Australia their lives will be forever changed …Daring, rich, intense and bizarre, Peter Carey’s Booker prize-winning novel is a brilliant achievement – a moving love story and a historical tour de force that is also powerfully contemporary.”

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9. The Lost Father by Marina Warner (shortlisted, 1988)
“Like Visconti’s film The Leopard, this magnificent novel paints in sensuous colours the story of a family. It brings to new life the ancient disparaged south of the Italian peninsula, weakened by emigration, silenced by fascism. According to family legend, David Pittagora died as a result of a duel. His death is the mysterious pivot around which his grand-daughter, an independent modern woman, constructs an imaginary memoir of her mother’s background and life. She follows the family as they emigrate to New York – where they find only humiliation and poverty – and after their return to Italy in the early 1920’s. As she is drawn by the passions and prejudices of her own imagination, we see how family memory, like folk memory, weaves its own dreams.”

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10. The Map of Love by Adhaf Souief (shortlisted, 1999)
“In 1900 Lady Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt where she falls in love with Sharif, and Egyptian Nationalist utterly committed to his country’s cause. A hundred years later, Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee and a descendant of Anna and Sharif, goes to Egypt, taking with her an old family trunk, inside which are found notebooks and journals which reveal Anna and Sharif’s secret.”

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Which novels from the Booker Prize list do you most want to read?


Short Book Recommendations (Part One)

Today I shall be recommending eight short books – both fiction and non-fiction – all of which can be read in a single sitting.  Part two will be posted next week, so stay tuned!

1. This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle
“This should be written in the present tense. But it isn’t. Dorte should be at uni in Copenhagen. But she’s not. She should probably put some curtains up in her new place. And maybe stop sleeping with her neighbour’s boyfriend. Perhaps things don’t always work out the way they should.”


2. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe
“Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother’s New York apartment. In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door. He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it. Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant – superbly naive.”


3. Under a Glass Bell by Anais Nin
“It was in these stories that Nin’s artistic and emotional vision took shape. This edition includes a highly informative and insightful foreword by Gunther Stuhlmann that places the collection in its historical context as well as illuminates the sequence of events and persons recorded in the diary that served as its inspiration.”


4. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The Double “is a surprisingly modern hallucinatory nightmare-foreshadowing Kafka and Sartre-in which a minor official named Goliadkin becomes aware of a mysterious doppelganger, a man who has his name and his face and who gradually and relentlessly begins to displace him with his friends and colleagues.”


5. Thoughts on Peace in an Air-Raid by Virginia Woolf
“‘The Germans were over this house last night and the night before that. Here they are again. It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any moment sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a sound – far more than prayers and anthems – that should compel one to think about peace. Unless we can think peace into existence we – not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born – will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead.’ Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.”


6. Mrs Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf
“Written in the same period as Mrs Dalloway these seven short stories show the author’s fascination with parties and with all the excitement, the fluctuations of mood and temper and the heightened emotions which surround these social occasions. “Mrs Dalloway’s Party” is enchanting piece of work by one of our most acclaimed twentieth century writers.”


7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, with its intricate plot of enchantment and betrayal is probably the most skilfully told story in the whole of the English Arthurian cycle. Originating from the north-west midlands of England, it is based on two separate and very ancient Celtic motifs of the Beheading and the Exchange of Winnings, brought together by the anonymous 14th century poet.”


8. Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote
“‘…We were sitting on the porch, tutti-frutti melting on our plates, when suddenly, just as we were wishing that something would happen, something did; for out of the red road dust appeared Miss Bobbit.’ Truman Capote’s bewitching short stories, many of which were set in the Deep South of his youth, are among his finest works. Perceptive, sensitive and eloquent, filled with brooding atmosphere and gorgeous description, these three stories tell of genteel eccentrics, evocative childhood memories and a malevolent nocturnal meeting. This book includes: “Children on Their Birthdays”, “A Christmas Memory”, and “A Tree of Night”.”

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