Snow by John Banville

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I rarely buy crime or thriller books to read ‘for pleasure’, as opposed to reading ‘for work’. I used to read, many years ago, crime books by P.D.James, Robert Goddard, and others. I’m not sure quite why I abandoned the genre but perhaps it was because many of my ‘work’ books – books I’m sent to edit or proofread – are this genre. I actually quite like working on them, have even enthusiastically requested that the author’s next book comes to me, but my ‘pleasure’ books, the ones I buy to read when work is slow and I have time, or am on holiday, have taken a different direction.

So what attracted me to read this crime story by John Banville? Partly, I think, because my last piece of editing work was a dystopian, post-pandemic novel which, rather than taking me into a world of escapism, took me instead into a worst-case scenario future. Perhaps there was something to be said for those crime stories after all – you know where you stand with a bit of old-fashioned blood and gore, a wily detective and a host of suspects. I also caught sight of a good review and was intrigued to read a John Banville book of this kind – so it was ordered.

I read John Banville’s Booker Prize winning novel The Sea when it was published to much acclaim back in 2005. Although I remember little of it (I’m not good at long-term memory when it comes to the details of books read years ago and am always in awe of those who are), I do clearly remember I thought it was brilliant. I know that Banville turned to writing crime under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, so it was interesting that he’d abandoned the well-used pseudonym for his real name with this book, despite it having the same setting and characters (though a change in central character). What was this fusion of genre writing with literary writing?

The fusion is a combination of an old-fashioned country house mystery – à la Agatha Christie – and a beautifully written story. 

Set in 1957 in Ireland, Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called from Dublin to investigate a murder at Ballyglass House in County Wexford. A body has been found in the library (think Cluedo!), and a cast of eccentric characters appear, all with some possible motive for killing the man. But the man isn’t just any man, he is a priest, and thus the power of the Catholic Church will play an important role in determining the outcome of Strafford’s investigation. 

So, a country house, a body and a host of suspects. But Strafford in no Hercule Poirot. Strafford is a man with his own demons; insecure; uncertain he’s cut out for police work; a loner who stands apart from the world. Even his inability to tolerate alcohol means he’s unable to socialise and be accepted as some kind of ‘ordinary’ man – it’s merely an embarrassing burden for him to bear. And there is the mystery of his aristocratic background and why he chose this police route rather than become a barrister as his father hoped. As we witness his agonised internal brooding, his surprising, even shocking susceptibility to a pretty woman, he seems in many ways very real, unlike the other characters in the book.

At Ballyglass House we find a stiff, privileged colonel; his drugged-up, much younger second wife who found the body but seems incapable of giving any coherent information; an unruly daughter; a hostile, arrogant son. Into the mix are thrown the local publican who quotes Shakespeare and Chaucer in ordinary conversation; a doctor who feels a need to visit the frail wife every day; the local police chief who drowns his grief at his son’s recent suicide in alcohol; and the stable boy, Fonsey, whose sad history and rough appearance hide more intelligence than is generally recognised. Which of them would kill Father Tom Lawless? The apparently well-liked and popular priest. Well, of course ‘Lawless’ gives us a clue …The hypocrisy, power and corruption of the Catholic Church at this time is laid bare. 

The crime aspect of Banville’s story follows the usual conventions. Strafford says a few times that it feels as if he is watching a play and all the suspects are characters in it. And in this sense, we see it too as a kind of play; unreal and full of clichéd characters. And the clues to what lies behind the murder are laid bare a little too early for the committed crime reader to play at sleuth. But it is Banville’s glorious writing, the vivid descriptions of the snow-covered land, his authentic creation of 1950s Ireland, his acute understanding of his characters, that makes this an entertaining and worthwhile read: ‘It had snowed continuously for two days, and this morning everything appeared to stand in hushed amazement before the spectacle of such expanses of unbroken whiteness on all sides.’ It was with a kind of hushed amazement that I reread many sentences to enjoy their beauty again.

 

What does a freelance book editor do?

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Most people’s jobs are a mystery to some extent. We may have an idea about what an accountant does, what a teacher does, what a plumber or a car mechanic does, but it’s usually just a rough overview of the basics. We’re mostly unaware of all the skills learnt and used; the day-to-day experience of actually doing the job.

There’s a certain glamour to saying you’re a book editor. People usually imagine you tucked up comfortably just reading a lot of lovely books with little idea of what we actually do. I’m not sure there’s much glamour in the freelance world of book editing, but when I was a full-time commissioning editor many years ago, well-known authors and personalities would come into my orbit and I have to admit to some excitement meeting many of them. As a freelancer such things are rare and mostly nowadays I don’t even meet – actually meet – the various editors and editorial assistants who contact me to offer work. Everything is done virtually via emails – they contact me about work which is sent either as a Word document for a copy-editing job or an Adobe PDF file for a set of proofs to correct.

I used to do a lot more reading work than I do now, though still occasionally manuscripts are sent for me to assess. I have to look at whether I think they’re good enough to be published, looking not only at how well written (or not!) they are but their commercial potential. A report requires not just a critical analysis of content and an assessment of how well it reads, but it’s important to offer constructive comments on how it might be improved, what work might need to be done before it would be seen as publishable.

Most of my work now is either copy-editing or proofreading. Let’s start with copy-editing as that stage comes earlier, though not first. The first stage ‘editing’, or ‘structural editing’, is usually done in-house – i.e. by the editor who has bought or commissioned the book. They will read it to see if more work needs to be done: perhaps it’s too long or too short; maybe some character or event in the book needs more clarity or expansion; maybe the main character needs to be expanded so we know more about them. In a book I worked on a few months’ ago a guy who’d appeared in an earlier book in the series had behaved badly. In the new book he was going to end up marrying a lovely central character and I said I thought the guy needed to be made nicer as the new book progressed or we wouldn’t want him marrying her!

Copy-editing a book involves not only correcting spelling and grammar but checking consistencies. If the book spans a few years, do people’s ages and years of events match up? As an editor you have to make notes and have a timeline to check against as you work. If real people or products, towns and cities, are mentioned, you need to check spelling. I just happened to find myself working on lots of thrillers featuring terrorists a while ago and had to keep checking the spelling of guns and weapons. I joked that if I was being ‘watched’ the terrorist squad would be at my door soon. You also have to check dates for historical events. To a certain extent it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure references to real people, places and events are correct, but as an editor you have to be ready to question anything that doesn’t sound right.

My age helps sometimes and I’m able to pick up things that a younger editor might easily miss, e.g. the current age at which you can claim your pension. I once years ago read a book set in Rome, which I know well, and immediately saw that a description of a major road in the centre of Rome was incorrect. Having walked along it many times, I knew it was very wide – not the narrow street described in the book. It turned out the author had relied on someone else for the description and had never actually been there.

Most of the books I work on have UK spelling but occasionally US, so I have to know or check some spellings which are different, like ‘kerb’ (UK) but ‘curb’ (US) for the pavement kind of kerb; a block of flats with five ‘storeys’ in UK, but ‘stories’ in US. As a copy-editor you make a style sheet and one will be sent to you for a proofread. Of course most spellings are standard but a few are down to choice or house style (i.e. the publisher’s preference). The important thing for the editor or proofreader is checking consistency, that the same spelling is used throughout.

A copy-editor also looks as ‘clunky’ sentences. I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean, where a sentence is a bit too convoluted, unclear or simply goes on too long. You also look out for repetition – giving details in almost exactly the same way as earlier in the book.

I always read a book I’m copy-editing as a reader – someone who has bought the book – would do. I don’t skip to the end, I need to make sure everything makes sense as I go through, that things tie up and everything that needs to be explained – perhaps later in the story – is explained.

Once a book has been copy-edited and returned to the publisher, it’s usually looked at by the commissioning editor and the author. The author is given the chance to approve or not any changes; they will also look at and answer any queries.

Then the book is ready to go to the printer. The book is typeset and then sets of proofs made to be checked before actual printing.

As a proofreader you expect that most of the actual editing has been done in the earlier stages, but you might still question some repetition, a clunky sentence or note that some of the dates or events don’t match up. In essence you’re really checking for typos – errors that have occurred in the printing, but there will always be some ‘author’s errors’, things that have been missed at the copy-editing stage. Even an experienced copy-editor and proofreader won’t usually catch 100% of the mistakes and major books which are expected to be bestsellers are often sent to more than one proofreader, as well as being checked by the author.

I rarely work on a book that’s really awful as I work for major publishers and often the authors are well known or have had a number of books published already. Of course, they are not always books I’d actually buy to read for pleasure. This means I’m often working on books which are okay, and I’m happy enough working on them, but I wouldn’t have chosen to read. It also means though that I often find myself reading something I might not have chosen but really like, so it’s a nice surprise. The drawback, of course, to the books I don’t particularly like is that I have to read every word. But I’ve also found myself enjoying a read so much that I want to go on reading past my usual ‘stop work’ time but know I wouldn’t be able to sustain the concentration needed to do a good job for longer. The concentration required is for all described above but also includes things like noticing when a comma should be a full stop, or that a quote mark or apostrophe is the wrong way round – really minute detail. Both copy-editing and proofreading are jobs you can’t do non-stop for hours on end; you have to take regular breaks not just for your eyes but for your concentration. It’s not like working in an office where the day is usually a mix of things, with meetings and phone calls, chats with colleagues. Freelancing is truly head-down, high concentration stuff and over the many years I’ve been doing it, I’ve learnt of ways to break the day up and get a bit of light relief before I get back to the computer with full-on concentration again.

I’ve always loved reading, right from when I was a small child and reading my first books, so how lucky was I to find my way into work that enabled me to do something I’m passionate about.

The Magician by Colm Toibin

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I’ve admired and enjoyed Colm Toíbín’s work since reading Nora Webster (published 2014), and then Brooklyn, which was published earlier in 2009 but I read later. He has a remarkable gift for bringing his characters to life; a deep understanding of the workings of his characters’ inner life; telling a wonderful story. The Magician is different. It’s a novel based on the life of German author Thomas Mann. He’s taken this path before, writing The Master based on the life of writer Henry James. Clearly Toíbín has a fascination with other writers but for me his fictionalised biographies don’t work as well as the novels. I felt this about The Master, despite it receiving critical acclaim and being short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I read brilliant reviews of The Magician, I felt I should give this genre a go again.

To begin with, I really enjoyed it. I remembered reading Mann’s novels in my twenties and of course even if you haven’t read Death in Venice, most people will know of the film. Its story has a clear link to Mann’s suppressed homosexuality and the theme is constantly referred to throughout. Toíbín himself is gay but at the time Mann was writing, it was not accepted and still illegal. This fits with an almost ideal marriage that Mann makes to Katia who is willing to love him as he is and indeed they have six children. Katia has a close relationship with her twin brother Klaus that hints of something sexual at times but is perhaps merely an intimacy that no one else can infiltrate. Towards the end of the book, she says she didn’t want to be married to someone like her father who had many affairs and she knew Thomas wouldn’t do this to her. What Toíbín so wonderful conveys is how this marriage, which is some ways one of convenience to them both, works so well and the love and affection between the couple comes clearly through.

From the beginning, Katia was brought up in a household full of drama ‘as if it were a modern play’ and this sense of drama continues through her own marriage and her family.

Thomas was brought up in a wealthy family with much privilege but when his father dies and he doesn’t inherit the family firm as he believed he would, and the family have to leave their home and he is forced to take a job as a clerk, he is devastated: ‘No matter where he went, he would never be important again.’ Of course, he became very important indeed through his writing and I hadn’t realised before reading this quite how important on the global stage, nor how much wealth his writing created for him. But this early experience seemed to mark Mann for life; he seems always an outsider, guarding his reputation beyond most other things, Katia his support and protector.

Thomas dismissed the threat of Hitler for a long time, refusing to speak out. Clearly to some extent he does believe the threat back in the early 1930s is exaggerated and Hitler may disappear as a nothing in the end, but even when the threat grows more real and Hitler comes to power, Thomas is reluctant to speak out. To an extent this is excused by his protection of his family and his publisher, but it is also about his reputation and wealth – his books would be destroyed.

Mann’s life is haunted by tragedy, particularly suicides of family members. At the outbreak of war he uses his reputation to secure a ticket out of Europe to America where he struggles to fit in; struggles with the ‘death’ of ‘his Germany’. There is great poignancy in the family’s loss of their country and it becomes impossible for them to fit in well elsewhere, find another true home.

The book gives a background to Thomas’s writing, both his habits (always writing in the morning) and within his mind, how experiences shape the novels he writes, which is fascinating, particularly if you know his work. It’s also a portrait of a rather dysfunctional man and family and I found it hard to engage with the characters. What began as promising for me, ended as rather a dull book and a little pedestrian in its description of Mann’s life, as if all the ‘facts’ had to be included, however small, and although in a biography (whether fictionalised or not) you don’t necessarily have to like the subject, they have to promote interest but by the end of this book I neither liked Mann nor could understand how he became such an admired writer.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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I’ve been reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again – many decades after my first read – as I’d booked to see the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m slightly ashamed to say I don’t remember ever reading the book to my own children, but I do remember it was one of my favourites as a child – a book (along with Alice Through the Looking Glass) that I read over and over again.

As I started this ‘adult’ read – reading it as an adult – it struck me how weird it all was. Of course, I knew that, but I’d forgotten quite how weird and upside down a world is created here. When I was only about halfway through and happened to be talking to my daughter, I discussed with her that it was interesting to think how I’d seen it as a child. Did it all seem as weird and extraordinary to the young me as it did to the adult me? Or did I take it more at face value? Accepting the extraordinary more readily. Children are very accepting of magic. As I watch my young grandsons immersed in imaginary games, I’m not sure they would be at all surprised if a white rabbit ran past them saying, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’

You can find many analyses and interpretations of Alice online, and it invites all kinds of theories, but of course none of these would mean anything to a young child. I’m guessing I was about eight when first enraptured with Alice. I was an early and voracious reader and Alice was only one of my literary loves, but certainly one I turned to regularly. What did I see in Alice then? What so captured my imagination and interest? Perhaps it was no more than a child’s love of magic.

What I did see in Alice when reading it again now is the way Carroll captures the essence of children. Children are very logical and so is Alice: of the Queen of Hearts’ rule about processions, she says, ‘… what would be the use of a procession … if people had all to lie down on their faces, so that they couldn’t see it?’ Alice also displays a child’s sense of fairness and embodies their tremendous intensity and exaggeration. The Queen of Hearts screaming ‘Off with their heads!’ is just the kind of thing a child would scream in a boisterous game. Children live on a big scale, a small disruption to their lives or desires often blown out of all proportion to the adult. And of course there’s impassioned talks and questions. Anyone who has experienced a small child’s ‘why’ questions, the endless wanting to know more and more, no answer ever being enough, will recognise these qualities in Alice, who is constantly interrupting to question everything.

What the V&A’s exhibition confirms is that really, there is no definitive meaning to be gained from Alice. But its exploration of the way the books have influenced most areas of our lives since they were published 150 years ago, is both hugely informative and delightfully entertaining. And we learn much of Carroll (really Charles Dodgson, a Cambridge don) whose obsession with riddles and mathematics began at a precociously young age, as witnessed by a school report. We also learn – or are reminded – that at the time Carroll was writing a standardised Greenwich Mean Time had not been introduced (it came in 1880 and the first Alice was published in 1865) and thus the discussions of time at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the rabbit’s distress about being late as he looks at his pocket watch, all make more sense when we understand that time was moveable and not agreed upon.

The Tea Party is a reflection of the new idea of ‘taking afternoon tea’, introduced by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1830s. The exhibition tells us that Carroll’s Mad Hatter party was ‘parodying these stuffy social conventions’. Thus Carroll makes social and political statements through the vehicle of Alice. But there are less tangible, more abstract questions. Much has been written about Alice and identity. The exhibition notes tell us: ‘Alice changes in shape and size, and repeatedly faces the question “Who are you?”‘ We can see Alice as a young girl trying to make sense of an adult world; a young girl struggling with the changes to her body as she grows. But Alice is also an example of female empowerment for she grows in confidence as the story unfolds.

There’s so much more to Alice than I’d remembered and I’m so pleased I reread the book and the V&A’s exhibition is glorious. If you’re in London, don’t miss it! Click here for their website.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

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This was a bit of a spontaneous buy – reading just a few words about it in an email about new books made me think it would be one I’d enjoy. It turned out to be a book I loved. An extraordinary book that’s sad, inspiring, magical and wise. It’s about enduring love; what it means to be an immigrant, someone not living in the country in which you were born; it’s about family history and the passing on or denial of the past.

Elik Shafak is a British-Turkish prize-winning author. The Island of Missing Trees centres around the story of Cyprus and its divisions after the Turkish invasion of 1974, which led to the island being divided into Turkish Cyprus to the north and Greek Cyprus to the south. Before this, the tensions between the Turks and the Greeks was already difficult enough that two young lovers – the Turkish-Muslim Defne and the Greek-Christian Kostas – had to keep their love secret from their families who, if they knew, would disown them.

‘Once upon a memory’ opens the book, ‘lay an island so beautiful … that many travellers … fell in love with it … wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.’ Such beautiful language makes the tragedy of the battles and divisions that have raged throughout Cyprus for generations all the more vivid and haunting.

The story, however, opens in London with Ada, 16-year-old daughter of Defne and Kostas, who when asked by her teacher about family heirlooms can’t answer, and then starts screaming. Is she screaming because her mother recently died? Is she screaming because her father has been consumed by his grief and become distant from her? Or is she screaming because of all the untold stories, secrets, ghosts and tragedies of generations that lay hidden within her?

The Island of Missing Trees follows Defne and Kostas’ story through Ada, a girl born in London with all traces of her Cypriot heritage apparently wiped away but desperate to be recognised. Much of the story is told through a fig tree (which narrates alternate chapters), grown from a cutting of a tree that stood in the middle of The Happy Fig taverna in Nicosia. A tree that has witnessed all. In 1974 the taverna was run by a gay couple – one Greek Cypriot, one Turkish Cypriot – who were more at risk of discovery than even the young lovers. It was a happy place ‘despite the tensions and troubles besetting the island … It was a place with history and small miracles of its own.’ Yusef and Yiorgos help the young lovers, giving them a quiet corner of the taverna where they won’t be seen. The men are their protectors – but there’s no one to protect them when violence breaks out …

Kostas is persuaded to go to London in 1974 to escape the danger in Cyprus, told it’s only temporary, but  really for good. He writes to Defne but she doesn’t write back. More than 20 years pass but Kostas can’t forget his first and true love. By now he’s become a well-respected botanist and when his work takes him to Cyprus again, he knows he has to find out what happened to Defne. She is working as an archaeologist digging up the remains of all those who died in the war so that the lost are identified, the families can make peace. Or do they make peace? Should some things be left alone?

Despite Defne’s initial reluctance the two become a couple again … secrets, heartbreaks are shared. Both move to London, Defne already pregnant with Ada. It should be ‘happy ever after’ but in real life this rarely happens, and nor does it here. Defne becomes an alcoholic, she can’t forget the past and is haunted by ghosts and the loss of her own country, by the family who rejected her. She and Kostas agree to never speak of the past, of their families, so Ada grows up in ignorance of her heritage, her culture, her wider family. A decision made with love but also ignorance of our need to know where we came from, who we are.

Meanwhile, through the fig tree, the family’s story is told through a weaving of nature: of trees and plants, or animals and insects. It’s a wondrous tale of the continuity and connections in life.

I really loved this book: a book which is sad and troubling but also one of hope and delight.