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The Dampening Seams

19/08/2006
Another Book Festival excursion yesterday evening. This time, it was to hear James Lasdun and Michael Symmons Roberts read from and discuss their second and first novels respectively.
Typical Book Festival weather is either warm and sunny, with festival-goers spread over the lawn of Charlotte Square, or tipping it down. Last night was the latter. Audience and speakers huddled in the tents and on the covered duckboards. Books in the book pavilions began to feel the damp. The rain cycled through crescendoes and diminuendoes on the roof of the Writer’s* Retreat, bringing memories of camping back for more than just Michael Symmons Roberts.
I know of but haven’t read Lasdun’s poetry and fiction, which might well change. His second novel, Seven Lies, has just been longlisted for the Booker. It is set partly in Cold-War Berlin and partly in New York, where he lives. Having spent a seminal year and eight months in Berlin, I’m especially interested in versions of that singular city and its tortured history. And Lasdun’s reading left the unacquainted hearer dying to know what happened next.
Michael’s Patrick’s Alphabet I have read. It’s a gripping, dark, nuanced read. There is some wonderful description of the “edgelands” where much of the action takes place. I also noted a couple echoes of poems from his second collection Raising Sparks: the narrator runs into a dog whose coat is described in terms that echo “Sun Dogs”; a thermometer breaks in the narrator’s darkroom (he is an ambulance-chasing photographer), as in the opening of the poem “Stills”; and St Patrick’s use of the alphabet is mentioned in “First Things”.
For me, a slight weakness of Patrick’s Alphabet is the trajectory of the character Calladine, who ends up blowing up himself and a shopping centre. It doesn’t quite convince me; it feels a little too obviously like a plot device. This character’s descent into violence could perhaps have done with further exploration and explication. But then, the novel’s primary concern is the narrator, the barriers he has built up and what it takes to break them down. He is a strongly written character, who carries the book well to the redemptive twists of its ending.
*Who is the one writer allowed to retreat to this venue?
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