Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson
a sad fact for us fiction writers that fiction can’t always compete
with life, and this book of Madeleine’s choosing suffered in this
There must be few groups of ‘non-literary’ people as dedicated to
reading fiction as those in our book group, and Sarah must be one
of the most devoted to reading, but now, she says, juggling her
job as a doctor with having a baby means she has to schedule reading,
and not always successfully: she came to this meeting having only
read half the book. As for me, meant to be a literary type: since
I was busy rehearsing my one-woman show,
I ended up reading the book in a great rush at the eleventh hour,
and only finished it as Doug drove a group of us up the dual carriageway
to Madeleine’s for the meeting, trying not be diverted by the interesting
conversation Doug and John and Trevor were having around me.
It’ a month and the run of my play since then - for the first year
ever we haven’t met in August, holidays for once pushing the book
group out entirely - and I find it hard to remember our discussion.
Most of all I remember the fact that I had a raging sore throat
and my voice had gone, which was making me panic about my performance,
and that the July evening was a dull and chilly one. However, as
I write, I also remember that both of these things echoed for me
the ethos of this novel set in the autumnal decaying forest of North-American
logging country after the logging industry has collapsed, and in
which a sixteen-year-old girl mushroom-picker, feverish with allergies,
begins seeing visions of the Virgin Mary.
As far as I can remember, all of us said that we found the depiction
of some of the key characters insightful and moving: the struggles
of the young priest with his religious doubts and his sexual attraction
to the visionary, Anne; and those of ex-logger Tom, who has lost
his faith and feels he destroyed the son he can’t love for his lack
of masculine ability, paralysed for life when a tree he had been
ineptly felling crashed onto him.
However, visionary Anne’s mentality remains shrouded in mystery,
and I felt that it could be this which was underlying the dissatisfaction
which I’m afraid all of us seemed to feel with the book.
The book starts out magnificently and evocatively with Anne’s febrile
consciousness as she moves through the wood towards her first vision,
and then quickly switches to a journalistic-style narrative with
references to newspaper and witness accounts. This sets up a, to
me, very exciting dynamic: the tension between the subjective experience
of the visionary and the reaction of more objective witnesses. However,
this dynamic disappears immediately, as we never return to Anne’s
consciousness, and the concern of the book becomes exclusively that
of charting the effects on the community and other individuals.
I feel that this may also be why everyone in the group was irritated
by the intensity and length of the descriptions of the damp forest,
something for which the book has been praised - and they are indeed
striking - but which even Sarah, who normally loves description,
was irritated by: they don’t underpin any truly central emotional
Madeleine also criticised what she saw as the tricksy punning of
the section titles, which she felt indicated a certain lack of heart,
although no one else had even noticed this.
She commented that no character in the book found redemption, although
people pointed out that Tom did find a kind of redemption of understanding
in the crisis moment near the end. Others pointed out that his subsequently
regained faith was however an ambiguous redemption: at the last,
he and the priest are both part of a sheltered elite in the new
church built on the site of the visions, while the faithful crowds
must listen to the dedication service relayed outside, soaked in
the rain that still pours through the rotting forest…
Madeleine said she felt that the book was about belief, and people
wondered if the ambiguous ending is meant to illustrate the potentially
dangerous exclusivity of belief systems, a message which after all
is truly important for our times.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
were some vastly differing reactions to this long and complex Booker-nominated
novel. It consists of six brilliantly written and diverse yet linked
stories ranging through time and genre, from the nineteenth-century
journal of a ship’s lawyer passenger to a yarn told by the fireside
in a post-apocalyptic future – the most fundamental link being that
each story becomes a text of importance to at least one character
in the story that follows.
All of the stories, as Doug pointed out in his introduction, are
about some kind of oppression – nineteenth-century slavery, twentieth-
and twenty-first century personal and corporate manipulation and
oppression of the weak and old – leading ominously to the apocalypse
which lies at the heart of the novel both thematically and structurally.
The structure is ingenious and interesting. As Doug pointed out
in his introduction, in the first half of the novel each story is
broken off midway and interrupted by the next story in which it
usually transpires that the rest of the earlier manuscript has been
physically lost. Only the final, post-apocalyptic story exists in
its unbroken entirety at the centre of the novel, and from then
on, in the second half of the novel, as the characters begin to
fight their oppressors, the missing parts of the other stories are
found and we read them in reverse chronological order, ending up
again in the nineteenth century.
had disliked the book and given up on it, but others of us had found
the book hugely engaging as we had read it. However most people
wondered if it amounted to very much in the end. Some, including
me at the time, felt that it seemed a long way round to go (via
all those stories) to say something quite so fundamental and familiar
as that the abuse of power is a bad thing.
New member Jenny said that she found the connections between the
stories somewhat ‘tacked on’ – the occasional shared notion of an
atlas of clouds, the identical birth mark which all of the narrators
carry, hinting at the idea of reincarnation - and others of us agreed.
However I feel in retrospect that the meaning is based more in the
structure of the novel than we recognised in our discussion, and
that the novel is saying something subtler. As a novel about lost,
incomplete and regained stories, its message is the impotence and/or
power of story-telling behind both the will to power and the fight
to resist it. As Adam the nineteenth-century journal writer
concludes: If we believe [ie envision a narrative
in which] … leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable
& the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a
world will come to pass.
is not however unproblematic, I feel. As some people in the group
said, it’s ultimately a depressing book: after all, Adam’s final
statement is grimly backshadowed by the apocalypse to come, and
his hope thus a forlorn one. Or is it? This depends entirely on
how fictive we take the stories to be within the framework of the
novel. If by the end of the novel we can view all of the six stories
as mere fictions within its overarching terms, then Adam’s statement
can rise free of them into reality beyond the novel, and the stories
serve as warnings and illustrations of his point.
However, both the investment required by the reader and the engrossing
nature of the stories prime one not to see the stories in this light.
This is illustrated by a disagreement we had about the third story,
a thriller-style novel – The First Louisa Rey Mystery - featuring
a female journalist’s fight to expose corporate greed and a nuclear
cover-up. It is the only one of the six stories to be couched in
the style of an unashamed fiction, the other stories consisting
in turn of a journal, letters, a memoir which will later be turned
into a film, a digitally recorded interview accompanied by a hologram
and a reported confessional oral tale. The first story, the journal,
turns up in the second as a broken book propping up a bed, and the
second story, the letters, turns up in this thriller 'novel' which
in turn will be published by the publisher-narrator of the next.
It was at this point that the fictive nature of the stories became
problematic for me.
If the Lousia Rey story is ‘only a novel’, then it follows that
the earlier stories within it are also to be taken as merely ‘fictional’,
and while this serves the function of freeing Adam’s final statement
in the way described above, one’s investment in the characters and
their mystical links is squandered. Significantly, in his introduction
Doug referred to this third section as a novelisation of ‘real’
events, and he and others were resistant to my insistence that although
I had fervently wished this to be the case, I had looked for clues
to prove it but had so far found none – indeed, the author of the
‘novel’ turns out to be not the real-life Louisa Rey, as I had been
hoping, but a corpulent middle-aged man.
complained that the characters were one-dimensional, even Sarah
who perhaps enjoyed the book most, though she didn’t really mind
that: she felt that it was enough to have such exciting narratives.
A quibble of mine was linked to this: structured around self-conscious
recordings and voices, the novel has something of the quality of
drama and lacks the interiority for which I mainly value novels
and the psychological resonance it gives to any stated moral or
theme. And while the modes allow for such obvious summings-up as
Adam’s, several people felt that the moral of the book was thus
pasted on in an unsubtle way.
We all agreed that Mitchell had a wonderful mastery of voices, and
Sarah and I were enthralled by the language of the two sections
set in the future, an Orwellian development of our own euphemisation
and use of brand names as generic nouns in an increasingly corporate
world, followed by the debased yet poetically inventive lingo of
the post-apocalyptic world in which knowledge is lost. Others weren’t
so enthralled by this. They found it hard to negotiate, slowing
down the reading at a point in the novel when you expected to be
on a roll. I admitted that one thing that had disappointed me was
that while the second language seemed very much a debasement of
the first, we finally learn that the first is an entirely foreign
language to speakers of the second (so that the message of the digital
recording is lost to them). This seems like an inconsistency and
spoiled my previous enjoyment of the striking linguistic connections.
which, we ran out of things to say about the book, which people
felt was very strange for such an immense and complex and apparently
The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore
met at Sarah’s by the skin of our teeth: her busy life as a doctor
and mother had caused her to get the day wrong. A quick borrow of
crisps and nuts from Mark and she was ready to greet us, but unfortunately
had only read half the book, having intended to finish it that night.
Busy with his own family, Mark hadn’t managed to read the book either,
and once again there was an overriding sense of books getting squeezed
out by life.
spite of its hasty beginning, this was another of the civilised
meetings to which our group has recently ascended (or descended).
There was a consensus of approval for this short political thriller
set in a fictional East-European country during the Communist eighties
and centred around the power struggle between the Catholic church
and the state. Everyone present had found the book entirely engrossing
and most of us had read it at a sitting. I for one am no fan of
thrillers as a rule, but had found this book one of the most engaging
and resonant I had read.
asked me why I didn’t tend to like thrillers. I realise that I am
no authority on the matter (having read few thrillers), and of course
there are exceptions. However, I said my impression was that in
the typical thriller, however ‘thrillingly’ ambiguous things might
seem while the plot is in progress – uncertainties as to who are
the goodies and who are the baddies – its moral universe tends ultimately
towards the simplistic (ie is based on a distinction between goodies
and baddies). Sarah said that there has in fact been a trend towards
the morally flawed protagonist, but agreed that characters in thrillers
tend not to be psychologically complex. Not unconnected with such
moral and psychological simplicities, I felt, was the fact that
many thrillers are written in unremarkable and clichéd prose.
novel however, we all agreed, was written brilliantly and with great
integrity. Right from the first paragraph Moore sets up in spare
yet vivid prose a haunting atmosphere of uncertainty, preparing
the way for the violent event which will occur by the end of the
first page, an attempt on the life of protagonist Cardinal Bem.
The events which ensue – Bem’s kidnapping by unknown agencies, his
escape and period on the run – create the structure of a conventional
thriller; however the true concern of the novel is less with the
twists of this plot than with the moral, political and religious
issues at its heart, and, most importantly, with the humanity of
those involved on all sides.
The novel adheres consistently to Bem’s viewpoint and there is no
red herring or ambiguity for the reader which Bem himself does not
experience. This makes for an emotional honesty and interiority
not often the concern of political thrillers, and the reader is
led to identify when Bem finally reaches a moral crisis and is forced
to question his own religious integrity.
Mark noted the similarity here with the novels of Graham Greene.
John pointed out that Moore’s prose is starker than Greene’s yet
if anything paradoxically more vivid, and most people agreed.
were one or two quibbles. I said that I got bored towards the end
of the chase: by this time many of the ambiguities appeared resolved
(although it’s possible to interpret the end in a way which throws
doubt on this), and the novel seemed here to descend to the conventional
thrill of the chase for its own sake. John had noted one or two
moments where the prose lost its emotive grip and took on the perfunctory
But these were only minor objections and, as Doug pointed out, this
book is a brilliant argument for the short novel so unpopular with
publishers these days yet increasingly the only kind which members
of our group are finding time to tackle. Exciting and atmospheric
and packing a complex story and heavyweight political and moral
issues into less than 200 short pages, this book is thrilling essentially
by virtue its economy.
which conclusion Trevor decided to open another bottle of wine,
but then, in our new civilised incarnation, we thought better of
drinking it and keeping a worn-out Sarah up when she had to work
early next day, and went home instead.
here to add your comments
Small Island by Andrea Levy
pushing out books more than ever. This meeting had to be postponed
as hardly anyone had read the book in time, though only a few made
it to the meeting in the end.
who did had enjoyed this novel set in post-war London when newly-married
Hortense arrives from Jamaica to join her husband Gilbert in Englishwoman
Queenie’s boarding house, and charting the Jamaican and wartime
events which have brought the characters together and the social
and racial difficulties they must negotiate.
am afraid to say, however, that in spite of our enjoyment, and in
spite of the novel’s prize-winning status (the Orange of Oranges),
we had some fundamental reservations.
In terms of the prose, we all thought the book extremely well-written,
taking as it does the alternating first-person voices of four main
characters, cleverly contrasting their perspectives on events, accurately
and wittily capturing their contrasting registers, and treating
a potentially sonorous subject with a redeeming humour.
There were also details we found enlightening, most notably the
difference between the British and American forces in their wartime
treatment of race: the Americans, unlike the British, conducting
segregation and thus institutionalising racism. The fact that certain
towns were designated ‘white’ one week (only white troops deployed)
and ‘black’ the next was a revelation to most of us.
We did however find the racial theme somewhat simple. The beginning
of the book sets it up clearly: Queenie reminisces about attending
the British Empire Exhibition as a child and seeing black people
for the first time ever, on display as curiosities. This continuing
reaction to black people in wartime and postwar England – curiosity,
shock, physical disgust and deep cultural misapprehension – is the
theme of the book and the notion on which the story pivots. While
those of us old enough to remember could vouch that this was a social
fact of the time, it was felt that racial matters have become far
more complex since, and thus, for a contemporary book of 530 pages
exploring racism, we found Small Island ultimately unsatisfying.
We also felt that in spite of the lightness of touch and the engaging
nature of every episode, on reflection the book was research-heavy.
Queenie’s period working in a wartime rest centre, her involvement
in a bomb attack, the RAF experiences of her husband Bernard and
of Gilbert are all revelatory – Gilbert’s experience as a black
airman in particular – but such episodes read like Mass-Observation
accounts (indeed, the wartime Mass-Observation diaries are included
in the author’s acknowledgements) with a wealth of detail not essential
to the core story and often appearing to squeeze it out.
On the other hand, someone said that the core story isn’t in fact
much of a story, its most dramatic and enthralling aspect hinging
on a coincidence which no one in the group could take.
also found that in spite of the air of intimacy provided by the
first-person voices, there were moments when the motivations and
psychology of the characters remained unclear – Hortense’s precise
attitude or emotional state, for instance, when she destroys Gilbert’s
relationship with another woman, or when soon after she suggests
to him marriage to herself, or Queenie’s metamorphosis from hard-hearted
young girl to liberal-minded and kind young woman, which last seems
as it is presented almost like an inconsistency.
Echoing this psychological uncertainty was an uncertainty I had
noted in the authorial stance. The first-person narrations are often
cast in the mode of dramatic monologue, Gilbert’s in particular:
Come, let me explain. However, the audience and the circumstances
occasioning the narration are never made clear, leading most people
in our group to read the narrations rather as interior monologues
and then to feel unsatisfied by the gaps in psychological revelation.
again we were largely in agreement. However Mark, who as a new third-time
father has failed to finish the last few books, said he suspected
that if he could only finish them and join in properly he’d reintroduce
some of our old dissent.
here to add your comments
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
chose this novel, the story of Afghan refugee Amir whose new life
in America is haunted by the sin which as a child in 1970s Afghanistan
he committed against his faithful friend and servant Hassan, and
his nail-biting return to the Afghanistan of the Talibans to find
The book is reputed to be a favourite with reading groups, and our
group was no exception, a large and enthusiastic number turning
up to discuss it (after our recent poor showings), and I had to
run and fetch extra chairs.
the book, Jenny said that while she thought it something of a potboiler,
she had found it a really exciting read and that it had told her
a lot about Afghan society which she had not known. This was a view
generally shared by the group, with one or two exceptions.
while everyone agreed that the plot was somewhat contrived, the
group was dramatically divided over the standard of the writing.
On the one hand Sarah and Doug thought the early sections, which
take the mode of a memoir and describe Amir’s childhood in Kabul,
exceptionally well written, both feeling that the writing fell off
once the book moved into the more contrived thriller tale of Amir’s
return to Afghanistan.
John, Anne and I, however, could not have disagreed more strongly
about the earlier sections, John indeed saying that he had found
the book in general and this earlier part in particular so badly
written that he could not engage with the book at all. Anne saw
the book’s main problem as being that it’s really two books in one
unsuccessfully fused, the memoir of the first part and the thriller
of the second. John and I felt that our problems with the prose
style of the earlier part were linked to this: sections which Sarah
and Doug found vivid we found sadly lacking the focus of dramatisation,
always a danger with the memoir mode:
Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway
of my father’s house… Sometimes, up in those trees, I talked
Hassan into firing walnuts with his slingshot at the neighbour’s
one-eyed shepherd… [Hassan’s father] would wag his finger
and wave us down from the tree … he always said… (my
As Henry James once so famously advised, this kind of continuous
retrospective account is always less dynamic and resonant (both
in itself and in terms of a book’s structure) than a single properly
Unlike Sarah and Doug, I felt that in the second part of the book,
where dramatisation takes over, the prose picks up, developing a
rhythm and economy often missing in the earlier part.
There was general agreement that over-repetition and lack of economy
were faults with the book, but people were ready to forgive them
for the insights the book provided into a way of life and a history
little known hitherto in the west, and for what they, like many
critics, saw as the searingly painful honesty of a narrator accepting
his sinfulness and coming to terms with it.
It was on this last point that John and I disagreed most fundamentally
with the others. I said that my greatest objection to the book was
its disingenuousness. It seemed to me that the whole time we are
being manipulated into this position by a narrative which in reality
drips with self-regard.
However, our attempts to prove this with reference to the prose
fell completely flat. John’s quotation of the opening sentence:
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast
day in the winter of 1975
as portentously self-centred (particularly as we will later find
that the incident concerns the tragedy of another, not mentioned
here) was met with the question, Well, what would you expect of
a first-person narrator?
I said, But whatever terrible things happen to others, it always
has to be about the narrator. I quoted the end of the chapter in
which teenaged Amir and his father and other refugees flee Afghanistan
and the Russians invaders in a petrol tanker. When they are finally
safely across the border and the tank is opened up, one of the young
men, Kamal, has died from the petrol fumes:
Before any of us could say or do a thing, Kamal’s father shoved
the barrel [of a gun] in his own mouth. I’ll never forget the echo
of that blast. Or the flash of light and the spray of red.
is always the ending of a section of writing which carries the weight
of significance, however, and the chapter does not end here, but
with an additional sentence focusing on the narrator and his ‘sensitivity’:
I doubled over and dry-heaved at the side of the road.
Sarah countered that that was precisely how a teenager would think
(ie he’d concentrate on himself), and Doug said that it was quite
consistent with the selfishness of the narrator, about which he
is being completely honest. Neither accepted my argument that as
a matter of authorial, rather than narratorial, choice it was an
unironic and self-regarding one.
argued that the opening short section is lacking in focus. There
is no indication as to ‘what Amir is today’ so the statement is
meaningless. The second sentence continues:
I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud
wall, peeking in to the alley near the frozen creek.
Precise the moment may be to the narrator and author, but it lacks
precision for the reader, as the situation is not contextualised
and there is no further elucidation before the narrator jumps forward
in time to the near-present and Golden Gate Park. Here someone is
flying kites which may have retrospective significance once the
reader has read on and encountered the Afghan kite-running contest
at the heart of the story, but they do not carry the presumably
intended resonance at this point on a first reading. The narrator
then lists the names of people he remembers as he watches the kites,
people who will be central to the story but who to the reader at
this point are no more than that, just a list of names, before finally
sonorously repeating his opening statement:
I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came
along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.
Trevor and others, however, insisted that a bit of mystery at the
start of a novel was a good thing. We said that there was a difference
between mystery and lack of focus, but they did not agree that the
passage lacked focus in the way we claimed.
commented on a passage near the beginning, in which the author neatly
if sonorously establishes the core relationship of the book. Referring
to himself and Hassan as babies the narrator says:
spoke our first words.
Mine was Baba [Father].
His was Amir. My name.
However the effect is then spoilt by overstatement:
Looking back on it now, I think the foundation for what happened
in the winter of 1975 – and all that followed – was already laid
in those first words.
however did not find the message overstated and had no objection
to this passage whatever.
hadn’t been able to make this meeting and hearing afterwards about
our disagreements commented that reading is ‘all subjective anyway’,
which as a writer I don’t know whether to find worrying or comforting.