A Reader Reviews: Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s ‘Beyond the Deepwoods’

Chris Riddell Illustration
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

Although fourth in the internal chronology of the series, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s Beyond the Deepwoods was the first novel of The Edge Chronicles to be published. The thirteenth and final instalment of the series, The Descenders, came out earlier this year, an event that reminded me again of how much I loved the world of the Edge when I was a child. Of the many books I read when I was younger, Beyond the Deepwoods was one that completely captured my imagination. To indulge in some nostalgia, I have chosen to return to Beyond the Deepwoods and review a childhood favourite.

Within The Edge Chronicles, Beyond the Deepwoods constitutes the first part of a trilogy that focuses on the character of Twig. We first meet Twig living in the Deepwoods with a family of woodtrolls. After telling Twig the story of his naming, his mother Spelda sends him away to a cousin to keep him safe from sky pirates she fears will try to make him join their crew and reveals before he leaves that she is not his real mother. Soon afterwards, Twig sets out on the journey to his cousin and does the one thing all woodtrolls are warned against from childhood — he strays from the path. Naturally, Twig becomes lost in the Deepwoods and is unable to find his way back. He is forced to cut a path of his own through the heart of the forest and encounters on the way the many beings and creatures that inhabit it, from hover worms and slaughterers to banderbears and gabtrolls.

The narrative moves quickly from scene to scene and gives the impression of two world-builders excitedly exploring the world they have created. Stewart and Riddell have taken great care to ensure that their portrayal of the Deepwoods is governed by principles of nature not so dissimilar from those found in the real world, as we see in the careful delineation of the specific properties of different types of wood (the mournful singing of a lullabee log, for example) and the mutually beneficial relationship between the bloodoak and the tarry vine. Similarly well-developed are the social structures and practices that characterise each of the creatures in the Deepwoods, most notably those of the gyle goblins and the termagant trogs.

The weird and wonderful beings Twig meets in the Deepwoods are brought vividly to life by Riddell’s exquisite illustrations. By turns comedic and grotesque, and exhibiting the influence of steampunk, they give the work a distinctive aesthetic that only improves with each subsequent novel in the series. I have treasured these illustrations since my very first reading of the novel and am fortunate enough to own a few of Riddell’s original drawings, such as the one in the photograph above.

A classic tale about belonging and finding your place in the world, Beyond the Deepwoods is an enthralling introduction to the Edge. Its combination of text and image gives the tale a liveliness that makes Beyond the Deepwoods as instantly recognisable now as it was in 1998 when it first came onto the scene. Children and adults alike with a thirst for flights of fancy will find the Edge a wondrous place of peril and adventure.

A Reader Reviews: Ted Hughes’s ‘The Hawk in the Rain’


The Hawk in the Rain is Ted Hughes’s debut collection of poetry, first published in 1957. I have read various poems in this collection before, such as the title poem and The Thought-Fox, but it was not until I decided to make The Hawk in the Rain the subject of this post that I read the entire collection. Comprising forty poems, The Hawk in the Rain covers themes as wide-ranging as animals, erotic relationships, and war, and constitutes a literary tour de force that leaves one in no doubt of Hughes’s artistry and skill.

The natural world features prominently in the collection, as it does in Hughes’s later work, but what is distinctive in Hughes’s treatment of nature is the equal attention he pays to both the beauty and the power that it exhibits. In The Horses, for example, the speaker describes the magnificent sight of horses standing silently and still in the early morning light. Before the dawn, they are ‘[m]egalith-still’ and ‘[g]rey silent fragments/Of a grey silent world.’ Once the sun begins to rise, they are transformed, ‘steaming and glistening under the flow of light…while all around them/The frost show[s] its fires.’ The beauty and power of the hawk in flight is similarly captured in The Hawk in the Rain, in which the bird ‘[e]ffortlessly at height hangs his still eye’ as everything around him is bombarded by the ‘banging wind’. In spite of the wind’s violence, the hawk’s ‘wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,/Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’, a captivating image that gives expression to the majesty of the bird.

Elsewhere in the collection, war takes centre-stage. Six Young Men is a particularly poignant treatment of war, in which Hughes juxtaposes a photograph of six young men ‘trimmed for a Sunday jaunt’ with the ‘contradictory permanent horrors’ of the war in which they were killed. After eight lines describing the men in the photograph, Hughes ends the first verse of the poem by bluntly telling us ‘[s]ix months after this picture they were all dead’, forcefully driving home the wastefulness of war in cutting short so many lives. Nowhere in the poem is this more skilfully encapsulated, however, than in the first half of the fourth stanza: ‘Here see a man’s photograph,/The locket of a smile, turned overnight/Into the hospital of his mangled last/Agony and hours’.

Erotic relationships are also examined in the collection, often in terms of the potentially destructive nature of love and desire. Parlour-Piece is the shortest poem on love and desire, yet provides a tightly constructed vignette of a couple whose love is so powerful that they are afraid to give it quarter (‘With love so like a flood they dared not/Let out a trickle lest the whole crack,/These two sat speechlessly’). In detailing the restraint of the lovers (and cleverly replicating it in the restrained length of the poem), there emerges a connection with some of the poems of the collection in which animals and entrapment feature, such as The Jaguar, with its caged animals, and A Modest Proposal, with the two wolves imagined by the speaker as they hide from a hunter, and we begin to see in this something of the rationale that lies behind the type of poetry Hughes wrote.

It is little wonder that The Hawk in the Rain won the First Publication Award of the Poetry Center of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association of New York City and met with critical acclaim. Already in this debut collection, Hughes’s poetry is confident and assured, dense with compounds that resist unhindered comprehension (‘hedge-scratched pig-splitting arm’) and masterful in its deployment of the alliterative thud (‘I drown in the drumming ploughland’). Prompting us to make connections between human and animal behaviour and between war and the violence of natural forces, The Hawk in the Rain is the perfect poetry collection to read when night has fallen and a storm is battering the house.

A Reader Reviews: Mitch Albom’s ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’

'The Five People You Meet in Heaven'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

For a number of years, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven has been one of those novels I have been intending to read. It was the title of the novel that first drew me to it in a bookshop (I am generally interested in conceptions of the afterlife), and ever since then I have often taken it down from a shelf in Waterstones, read the first couple of sentences, and put it back in its place. After passing around a list of wanted books in preparation for my birthday this year, I received The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a gift and this month read the novel over a couple of days. The wait was well worth it.

As the title of the novel suggests, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a story of passing from this life to the next. Eddie, an 83-year-old maintenance man at a fairground on Ruby Pier, dies in a tragic accident as he attempts to save the life of a young girl named Amy or Annie. After death, he finds himself in heaven and is told by the Blue Man, a figure from his past, that he will meet five people whose lives on earth were in some way connected to his own, of which the Blue Man is the first. Each of these people has a different lesson to teach Eddie, and after learning from all five of them, he comes to understand the meaning and value of his life.

Albom’s conception of heaven is an interesting one. Rather than the static paradisal garden frequently imagined, Albom’s heaven is a series of progressive stages through which souls must pass in order to appreciate the meaning and significance of their terrestrial lives. In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, souls are not perfected in the course of earthly lives, but instead continue their education in the world that lies beyond. There is something incredibly hopeful in this notion, suggesting as it does that our destination in the afterlife is not a place of reward or punishment determined by the good or bad we do on earth. Rather, heaven is a therapeutic process, a detailed dissection of a life with the goal of revelation.

The visionary power of Albom’s writing is in evidence throughout the novel, most beautifully captured in the colours that accompany the different stages of Eddie’s journey through the afterlife. ‘The sky was a misty pumpkin shade,’ we are told during the initial passage from life to death, ‘then a deep turquoise, then a bright lime’, later changing ‘to grapefruit yellow, then a forest green, then a pink that Eddie momentarily associated with, of all things, cotton candy.’ When Eddie moves to a later stage of heaven, there is at first nothing more than ‘a pure and silent white, as noiseless as the deepest snowfall at the quietest sunrise.’ Descriptions like these serve to jolt the reader from reality and perfectly convey the otherworldliness at work in Eddie’s spiritual progression.

An uplifting story with a comforting message at its heart, The Five People You Meet in Heaven offers consolation to those who fear their lives may have no meaning. We see this not only in Albom’s moving and considered treatment of an everyday maintenance man, but also in the care with which he has constructed and revealed the significance of Eddie’s life in the lessons he learns from his spiritual guides. Indeed, Albom writes in the dedication of the novel to his uncle Edward Beitchman that the version of heaven represented in the book is ‘a wish, in some ways, that [his] uncle, and others like him — people who felt unimportant here on earth — realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they were loved.’ Ours is not a world in which everyone does or can feel that their lives are of importance, but anyone who reads The Five People You Meet in Heaven will come to believe that there is always value to be found, however out of sight it might at first appear.

A Reader Reviews: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Refugees’

'The Refugees'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel The Sympathizer in 2016. The Refugees comprises short stories written and published over a number of years before this win, now gathered together with some changes in a collection that gives expression to the experiences of refugees caught between Vietnam and the USA.

Each of the stories in this collection features immigrants whose lives are in a state of great upheaval and Nguyen lays bare the many hardships they have suffered. Black-Eyed Women, the first story in the collection, recounts the experiences of a writer who confronts the ghost of a brother murdered during an attempt to escape Vietnam by boat and in doing so sets the tone of the entire anthology. In The Other Man, young refugee Liem arrives in San Francisco and starts living with his sponsor Parrish Coyne and his lover Marcus Chan, while War Years narrates the persistent attempts of Mrs Hoa to secure a donation from the owners of a convenience store to help fight Communism back in Vietnam. The Transplant sees Arthur Arellano storing counterfeit goods for Louis Vu after a successful transplant of a liver from Louis’s father, and in I’d Love You to Want Me, a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s disease confuses his wife with another woman. In The Americans, a father clashes with his daughter, who is trying to right the wrongs committed by her father in the Vietnam War, and Thomas reconnects with his ex-wife Sam in Someone Else Besides You. The final story in the collection, Fatherland, charts the relationship between two doppelgänger half-sisters and dismantles in the process the idea of the American Dream.

Throughout the collection, Nguyen shows that geographical displacement is not the only dislocation to be experienced by refugees. Familial displacement is ubiquitous in many of the stories and is frequently configured as conflict in relationships between parents and their children. In The Other Man, for example, we are told that Marcus’s father disowned him after a spiteful ex sent him one of Marcus’s love letters with some ‘candid pictures’, while in The Americans, Claire tells her father that she has a Vietnamese soul and that by teaching English to poor Vietnamese children she thinks she can ‘“…make up…”’ for his bombing of Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Geographical displacement in Nguyen’s stories leads to familial displacement simply by the separation of physical borders, but Nguyen demonstrates that this physical distance goes hand in hand with emotional alienation, whether out of necessity or because of irreconcilable lifestyles and perspectives.

Repressed memories also feature prominently in The Refugees, from the unnamed writer’s initial reluctance to remember the story of her brother’s death in Black-Eyed Women to Phuong’s burning of photographs to eradicate the memory of her identically named half-sister and her visit in Fatherland. For many of the refugees in this collection, remembering the past is a source of pain, and though suppressing it may bring temporary relief, it is only by expressing memories and telling tales that the characters begin to deal with the trauma they are experiencing. This is especially encapsulated in Black-Eyed Women, in which the act of storytelling is presented as a form of exorcism. As the writer narrator of Black-Eyed Women tells us, ‘[s]tories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.’

Written with compassion and an eye for mental turmoil, Nguyen’s collection suggests that the only way for us to understand the lives of refugees is for their stories to be told and disseminated. Although Nguyen’s stories were written years before they were published together in The Refugees and focus on Vietnam and the USA, their resonance can still be keenly heard in recent reports of migrants desperately trying to find sanctuary from war-torn countries such as Syria. Stories like those of Nguyen are needed now more than ever, for they give humanity and personality to refugees and are an effective antidote to depictions of migrants in the media as faceless and unknown.

A Reader Reviews: ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’

'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

Having specialised in Old and Middle English at university, it was with great excitement that I saw the British Library’s announcement of its major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon period: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. Earlier this month, I travelled down to London and spent a little time poring over some of the most beautiful material objects to have survived from the period.

The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts from the fifth century to the eleventh. Boasting a number of big hitters, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Domesday Book, the Spong Man to the Alfred Jewel, alongside other wonders perhaps less well-known among the public, such as the enormous Codex Amiatinus, an eighth-century Northumbrian Bible that has not been back in Britain for 1300 years, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is an exhibition on an epic scale and one that numbers among the largest I have seen.

In spite of countless other priceless objects, I was mainly there to see the four major manuscripts preserving Anglo-Saxon poetry: the Beowulf manuscript, the Exeter Book, the Vercelli Book, and the Junius manuscript. Without these four manuscripts, we would have no record of works as monumental as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood, and our canon would be greatly impoverished without them. I have fond memories of these poems from my time as a student and have wanted to see the manuscripts containing them for many years. I had expected them to occupy a prime position in the midst of all the other items on display, but they were rather unassumingly assembled against a wall of a room in which a replica of the Ruthwell Cross took centre stage.

I have seen many photographs and illustrations of the Ruthwell Cross (which features lines from the Vercelli Book’s The Dream of the Rood carved in runes), but until I saw the replica at the exhibition, I had no accurate conception of its scale. Standing at more than five metres tall, it dominated the room in which it stood, and I was forced to linger there a while to fully take it in. It was only when I turned that I realised my four must-see manuscripts were gathered right behind me.

As a graduate student a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see the Vercelli Book in its usual home at the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, Italy, to handle it with my bare hands and transcribe from its pages a homily on Saint Guthlac (a favourite holy man of mine who also features in two poems in the Exeter Book and in illustrations on the Guthlac Roll, yet another item present at the British Library’s exhibition). To have seen the book again, albeit this time covered by a case, would have been delight enough, but to see it with its peers was an awe-inspiring treat. The four manuscripts are rather plain and nothing like the ostentatious pages of the specimens featured elsewhere in the exhibition. The illustrations of Adam and Eve in the Junius manuscript, for example, are very simply drawn, while the damaged leaves preserving Beowulf seem a far cry from the poem’s status as the greatest work of Anglo-Saxon literature. In these manuscripts, it seems that the text is more important than the look, and I could not help but admire the understated nature of their design and presentation. They are not the most exquisite books to be found within the British Library, but they have still managed to cement themselves as major players in the material culture of the Anglo-Saxon period.

A vast and sprawling exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms needs a good few hours to make the most of viewing all its treasures. I had only a couple of hours to spare, and there were so many items to look at in that time — many more than I can mention in this brief review — that I found the exhibition overwhelming. I generally prefer a much more focused exhibition, allowing as it does a much more leisurely experience and ample time to appreciate completely every object on display. That being said, it was a privilege to see so many important manuscripts and artefacts in a single place, and I will not forget the sight of the four major codices preserving Anglo-Saxon poetry sitting humbly side-by-side.

For more information about the exhibition, which runs until Tuesday 19th February 2019, visit the exhibition website at https://www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms.

A Reader Reviews: Lucy Jones’s ‘Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain’

'foxes unearthed'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

As the Christmas decorations went up this year, the vulpine gentleman in the photograph above reclaimed his usual position on the hearth. Named Sebastian Foxworthy by my good self, he reminded me of yet another book I stowed away and then forgot about in my eagerness to buy the next: Lucy Jones’s Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain. I read very little in the way of non-fiction, preferring to immerse myself in alternate realities, but I have always loved the natural world and have wanted for some time now to engage with the nature writing that has proliferated in recent years. In the interests of finally taking the plunge, I decided to make the book the subject of my December post.

The book begins with an examination of the fox as it appears in history and culture. Jones reviews such famous foxes as the medieval Reynard and the hero of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox and charts the rehabilitation of the fox in popular culture from villainous vermin to amiable hero, a ‘cult icon’ whose image features prominently on merchandise and is more likely to be ‘a benign force, a friend, a support’ in contemporary literature. In spite of increasingly positive representations of the fox in recent treatments of the animal, subsequent chapters of the book explore the fraught relationship between the fox and humans and the seemingly eternal strife between the many human factions with a vested interest in the fox, whether supportive, antagonistic, or somewhere in the middle. Among the topics discussed are the predatory behaviour of the fox, wildlife management and pest control, hunting foxes with dogs, hunt sabotage, and the rise of the urban fox, all of which combine to produce a comprehensive picture of this fascinating mammal.

Although Jones appears to be generally in favour of the fox, her account of one of Britain’s most divisive animals is not a biased or one-sided study. Fair coverage is afforded to a range of different voices, from naturalists and hunt saboteurs to farmers and the pro-hunt lobby, and Jones sincerely seeks to understand what lies behind the strongly held perceptions of the many different people who are in some way impacted by the fox. What comes across throughout the book is how emotive foxes are and how their very existence tends to polarise opinion among so many disparate groups.

The people interviewed by Jones are as intriguing as the fox itself, not least because of the well-observed vignettes Jones writes about them: the South Devon sheep farmer who is happy to have foxes on her land and includes the animal in the logo for her farm; the ex-serviceman now sabotaging hunts as a means of fighting the establishment that failed him after injury; and the seasoned huntswoman who looks at Jones with disdain and moves away from her when she dares to call the hounds ‘dogs’. Where Jones is to be especially applauded is in her willingness to witness people at both ends of the spectrum in the act of their relationship with foxes, accompanying as she did in the course of her research a fell pack on a drag hunt (a hunt in which hounds follow a scent, rather than a fox) and a group of saboteurs intent on thwarting the activity of ‘cubbing’ (teaching hounds how to hunt young foxes).

In Foxes Unearthed, Jones untangles some of the complexities surrounding attitudes to foxes and ably demonstrates that much of what we love and loathe about foxes is constructed and determined by humans. From our tendency to ascribe human characteristics and intention to animal behaviour to the encroachment of urban areas on the countryside, the way we think of foxes tells us more about ourselves than it does about the fox. Whether you are pro- or anti-fox, you will find something of interest in the many stories of human interaction with foxes in Jones’s book, but given that the conflict between opposing sides in the debate is still as fresh as ever it was (see, for example, reports of clashes at the annual Tredegar Farmers’ Boxing Day Hunt in Newport, Wales this year), it seems unlikely that a single book will have the power to reconcile the views of all the parties with unwavering beliefs about the status of the fox.

A Reader Reviews: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu’

Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu was published in the UK by Oneworld this year. It was purchased by the library in which I worked as book buyer shortly afterwards, and I happened to be the person who processed it for the shelves. Whenever I was fortunate enough to process novels (sadly, it seemed as though we ordered far more soulless business textbooks than anything else), I would read their first paragraphs in the hope of finding something I might like to read in full. I made a note of every novel that gripped me with its opening and kept my list of titles safely stowed inside a drawer. Kintu was one of those novels.

After beginning with a prologue set in Uganda in 2004, Makumbi takes us back to eighteenth-century Buganda and introduces us to Kintu Kidda, the Ppookino of Buddu province. A new king has recently acquired the throne by violent means and Kintu must now travel to his palace and pay homage. Along with his followers, Kintu takes his fostered son Kalema on the journey and intends to help him find a job in the king’s court, but circumstances take a turn for the worst when Kalema breaks a taboo by drinking from Kintu’s gourd. Kintu strikes Kalema’s face to punish him and unwittingly brings about his death. Burying Kalema’s body on the road, Kintu and his band continue with their journey. On their return to Buddu province, Kintu keeps Kalema’s death to himself and attempts to suppress the guilt he feels for the young boy’s killing. When Kalema’s biological father Ntwire discovers that his son is dead, he curses Kintu and his family and establishes a burden that the clan will bear for centuries, as Makumbi shows us in the subsequent sections of the novel.

In presenting twenty-first century Uganda, Makumbi does not reject the past or traditional ways of life. Rather, new and old are brought together in a bold configuration. Depicted in the novel is a seemingly comprehensive cross-section of Ugandan society — educated and uneducated, rich and poor, religious and scientific, real and supernatural — and it feels as though Makumbi here encapsulates the hybrid nature of Uganda and its people in the present day, especially when the various characters in the novel are brought together in its final book. Complementing this is her insistence that the history of a place and people is as important as their present in creating their identity, suggested not only by the multi-generational impact of the curse, but also by the frequent interpolation of Uganda’s past, from the warring kings of Buganda to the regime of Idi Amin.

Particularly intriguing in the novel is the portrayal of mental illness and its relation to the supernatural. The lines between mental illness and supernatural influence are at all times blurred and permeable. Suubi Nnakintu’s illness, for example, appears to be a form of schizophrenia, yet is understood to be a sign of her possession by the spirit of her dead twin sister Ssanyu. Makumbi never once unveils the truth of Suubi’s suffering, preferring a suggestive mix of modern diagnosis and traditional belief, of social and historical circumstance and personal inclination, to definitive statements on cause and effect. At the end of the novel, the reader is none the wiser. The afflictions of the characters can be attributed to medical or social causes or to the operation of the spirit world in the lives of Kintu’s family. Makumbi’s refusal to determine the cause of these afflictions one way or another, to state categorically that the curse is or is not responsible, is a far more tantalising choice than open revelation.

A sweeping epic dealing with family ties and kinship, Kintu is a skilful blend of past and present, history and legend, tradition and modernity. Makumbi’s treatment of her characters is compassionate and not judgemental, even when their actions are deserving of some censure, and the way in which she draws them all together is both masterful and enigmatic. Kintu is an impressive debut novel from a writer with a distinctive voice. I look forward to encountering this voice again in Makumbi’s Manchester Happened, a collection of short stories due to be published next year.

A Reader Reviews: Italo Calvino’s ‘The Nonexistent Knight’ and ‘The Cloven Viscount’

'The Nonexistent Knight' and 'The Cloven Viscount'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

For my thirtieth birthday in February this year, a friend of mine originally from Rome bought me a book containing English translations of two novellas by Italian writer Italo Calvino: The Nonexistent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente) and The Cloven Viscount (Il visconte dimezzato). As she recently read John Williams’s Stoner on the basis of my review of it in July (click here to read it), I felt it only right to finally repay her and read a recommendation of her own.

Told by Sister Theodora, a nun of the order of St Colomba, The Nonexistent Knight recounts the story of Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern, a knight in the service of Charlemagne who is the perfect embodiment of chivalry, despite having no body of his own inside his armour. At a banquet, Charlemagne’s assembled knights begin to boast of their heroic deeds, but each in turn is undermined by Agilulf, who happily points out the wild exaggeration and deceit in every claim. Agilulf himself, however, who was knighted for saving the King of Scotland’s virgin daughter Sophronia from rape, is certain of his worthiness, or at least until a young warrior named Torrismund calls into question Sophronia’s virgin status by revealing himself to be her son. To cast doubt on Sophronia’s virginity is to cast doubt on Agilulf’s knighthood, a state of affairs that Agilulf simply cannot allow to stand. To prove the truth of Sophronia’s virginity and the validity of his knighthood, Agilulf sets off with his companion Gurduloo to find Sophronia and affirm his chivalric station.

The Cloven Viscount is a gruesome tale and one that made good reading for a grisly Hallowe’en. Shortly after arriving on the plain of Bohemia to fight the Turks, Viscount Medardo of Terralba is hit by a cannonball at short range and severed in two from head to toe. Half of his body is carried away from the battlefield and its life preserved by doctors. This half of Medardo returns to Terralba, and with the Viscount’s newfound penchant for cutting plants and animals in half and his eagerness to hang the people he rules, it soon becomes apparent that it is the wicked half of Medardo that now holds sway in the region. Following a period in which the bad Medardo terrorises the inhabitants of Terralba, rumours begin to circulate that he has changed his ways and is performing charitable deeds. It turns out that the other half of Medardo — the good half — has also returned to Terralba and its citizens must somehow navigate the crimes of bad Medardo and the overzealous altruism of the good.

As much as The Nonexistent Knight is playful, its focus on the unstable nature of identity is entirely serious. The ease with which Agilulf’s confidence in his own identity as perfect knight is shaken clearly demonstrates how fragile an identity can be, a point accentuated by the many other characters in the story for whom identity is permeable, from the fearsome female knight Bradamante, at first mistaken for a man by the young warrior Raimbaut, to the foolish Gurduloo, who has a different name in every town. Keeping track of all these characters and their shifting personalities is initially rather challenging, but it does not take long to figure out that this is all part of Calvino’s greater purpose. The plot is similarly difficult to follow and plainly serves to complement the confusion of identities and events so central to the novella. Sister Theodora herself seems to be confused by her own narrative, calling into question her reliability as narrator and the truth of the tale she tells. The ultimate effect of this uncertainty is to jolt the reader from any security that might otherwise pertain to the interpretation of the story and to show that pure and unassailable identity does not exist.

The Cloven Viscount is much less confusing than The Nonexistent Knight and its narrative more coherent, but Calvino’s interest in the blurring of identities is still in evidence. This time, confusion comes in the form of good and bad halves of the same person operating in the same place, exposing the constant strife that humans face in trying to balance the two competing halves of their own nature. By literally separating Medardo’s halves, Calvino brings into sharp relief the kind of moral conflict that is normally internal and suggests that being wholly good can be as dreadful as being wholly bad — a fusion of the two is what makes us whole and human.

Clearly indebted to medieval European romance, which frequently destabilises notions of identity, The Nonexistent Knight is a whimsical and strange delight that puzzles and unsettles, while The Cloven Viscount is a macabre fable that is sure to both repulse and leave you questioning the truth of human nature. As my first experience of Calvino, these two novellas have been a jarring introduction to the abnormal and bizarre, and both have left me wanting to read more of his work. My only regret is that I cannot read his work in the original Italian.

A Reader Reviews: Alice Broadway’s ‘Ink’

Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

Ever a thieving magpie, it was a glint of burning copper that attracted me to Alice Broadway’s Ink. Intricately woven foliage and feathers shone out from the cover in a delightful Warwick bookshop and I knew without question that I simply had to buy it. The recently published sequel Spark is similarly shiny, with birds and branches picked out this time in a deep metallic red. When I came across it a few months ago (and bought it, of course), the book reminded me of Ink and prompted me to move it to the top of my reading pile.

Broadway’s debut novel introduces us to the brave Leora Flint, a talented artist who lives in a place called Saintstone. She belongs to a community in which every detail of a person’s life — the good and the bad — is tattooed on the skin for all to see, making privacy impossible and deception easily uncovered. After death, the body is flayed and the skin turned into a book that functions as both afterlife and soul. The book is weighed so that its fitness for remembrance can be judged — if it is deemed to tell the story of a worthy life, the deceased will be remembered through the preservation of the book, but if the pages show instead a life of wickedness and evil, the book will be incinerated and the life and soul forgotten.

Saintstone’s customs and traditions are under threat from a group of exiles known as blanks, whose skin is empty and unmarked and therefore hides what can only be the grievous sins they have committed. The idea of blankness draws revulsion from the people of Leora’s home and especially from their charismatic leader Mayor Longsight, who is convinced that the blanks are plotting war against Saintstone and that there are traitors in their midst who must be rooted out and punished. It is in these circumstances that Leora must come to terms with the death of her father. Initially believing him to have been a good and honest man, she comes to learn that he was keeping secrets and that his book now runs the risk of being destroyed. Leora must work quickly to exonerate her father and ensure that he is not consigned to the oblivion of being forgotten.

In this first novel of an already successful series, Broadway skilfully establishes the world of Saintstone and its systems of belief. She raises important questions about the stories through which belief is formulated and expressed, both those that seek to capture something of our own identities and those that claim to have the measure of our neighbours. The narrative itself is interspersed with stories that are used by the authorities of Saintstone to uphold the central tenets of its creed — the inked are good; the blanks are bad. By displaying these stories against narration of Leora’s growing struggle with her faith, Broadway encourages us to question the moral certainty that often blinds us when it comes to hearing other versions of a story. How can we be sure that the stories we believe in are a fair and balanced record of our lives and our society? Might there be other ways of telling them that make the villains look like heroes?

Broadway offers us in Ink an astute examination of the socially constructed nature of morality and the way in which the border separating right from wrong is blurred and open to abuse. She creates in Leora Flint a timely model of the citizen who is jolted from the certainty of childhood and comes to learn that we must always question what society has told us to be true. For the young adult audience of Ink, who may well have started to interrogate the stories they themselves believe in, this is a crucially important lesson, but it is arguably even more important for any older readers who have forgotten how to challenge the accepted wisdom and instead preserve it as the only form of truth.

A Reader Reviews: ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth’

'Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

On Friday 1st June 2018, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth exhibition opened at the Weston Library in Oxford, UK. Curated by Bodleian Libraries Tolkien Archivist Catherine McIlwaine, the exhibition brings together manuscripts and illustrations by the legendary author and Oxford academic J. R. R. Tolkien and is described on its website as being ‘once-in-a-generation’. After visiting the exhibition earlier this month, I can honestly say that that is no exaggeration, and I doubt that I will ever see again so many priceless Tolkien treasures gathered in one room.

As I walked upon a map of Middle-Earth projected on the floor, the Doors of Durin shining out ahead, anticipation of what lay in store could not have been much greater. Once through into the exhibition proper, I was overwhelmed by the extent of the collection on display. Alongside handwritten pages of The Hobbit full of changes and corrections, intricate doodles drawn on sheets of newspaper, and stained and dog-eared leaves from the Book of Mazarbul were photographs from Tolkien’s childhood, the cap he wore at school, and the write-up of his father’s early death in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Abstract and garishly-coloured paintings from Tolkien’s undergraduate days sat side-by-side with maps of Middle-Earth and Wilderland by Pauline Baynes, most famous for her iconic illustrations in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, while editions of Tolkien’s work in every conceivable language were artfully arranged with fan mail from his readers, including a letter from one star-struck Terence Pratchett. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is as expansive as its subject’s creativity, and McIlwaine has expertly captured not only the entire range of Tolkien’s interests as philologist and storyteller, artist and poet, but also something of his private self, a Tolkien who was man as much as myth.

What surprised me most about the exhibition was that the item on display that moved me above all else was not what I expected it to be. It was not the original watercolour ‘Bilbo Woke Up with the Early Sun in his Eyes’, always my favourite illustration in The Hobbit, nor was it Tolkien’s working map of Middle-Earth, complete with burn hole from the author’s errant pipe. It was, in fact, a rather understated drawing of a tree whose branches bore the weight of many fruits and flowers, each a different colour and variety. Done primarily in coloured pencil, Tolkien called this tree the Tree of Amalion and it stood for the enormous scope of his legendarium, with every fruit and flower representing a tale he one day hoped to tell.

Those of you familiar with the work of Tolkien beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings will see parallels between the Tree of Amalion and two other trees in Tolkien’s work: the Tree of Tales in the essay On Fairy-Stories and the tree that Niggle struggles to paint in Leaf by Niggle. This last example, in particular, encapsulates the multitudinousness of Tolkien’s mythopoeic work in the same way as the fruits and flowers growing on the Tree of Amalion:

‘It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots.’

What both the Tree of Amalion and the tree in Leaf by Niggle demonstrate is fundamentally bittersweet, for while they offered Tolkien the means of documenting the expansiveness of his plans, it is clear that they also gave expression to his underlying fear that a large proportion of his work would never be completely realised. Indeed, Tolkien drew multiple versions of the Tree of Amalion throughout his life, showing just how much this fear preoccupied his mind.

Expertly assembled and dazzling in its breadth, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is a monumental achievement. Ardent fans of Tolkien will fall in love with Middle-Earth all over again, while those whose tastes are for the less fantastical will leave at least with an appreciation of the scale of Tolkien’s work. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to a man whose vision was too great and will leave you wondering how much more he might have written had he been immortal like the elves.

For more information about the exhibition, which runs until Sunday 28th October 2018, visit the exhibition website at https://tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.