Wednesday, 10 September 2014

She Is Not Invisible, by Marcus Sedgwick

Laureth’s dad has an obsession: coincidences. He’s been trying to write a novel about coincidences for years, but has gotten stuck in the research phase, bogged down by the questions of whether coincidences really exist, and what they might or might not mean. He’s away in Europe on one of his research trips when Laureth gets a strange email, an email that sends a shiver down her spine: her father’s notebook – full of his irreplaceable research – has been found by someone in New York. If her dad is supposed to be in Europe, what’s his notebook doing in New York? Why isn’t he answering his phone when she tries to call him? And why isn’t her mum more worried?

Anxious that something seriously bad has happened to her dad, Laureth “acquires” her mother’s credit card and heads to New York to track him down. Can she and her little brother get through security and onto the plane without anyone stopping them? Where will they begin when they get to New York? And what will happen when her mother finds out what Laureth has done?

I absolutely loved She Is Not Invisible. I’ve never really read anything by Marcus Sedgwick before, but now I want to read pretty much everything this brilliant British author has written. It’s really quite a remarkable book that at once meets and subverts typical YA criteria: we have a girl and a quest, but nothing works out quite the way you expect it to. Laureth is such a complete character that right from her opening sentence I wanted to know more about her, while her little brother Benjamin has his own very special set of quirks, and I really did not know what the ending would be or how all the threads would come together.

The extra element in the story is Laureth’s physical handicap: she is blind. But She Is Not Invisible is not a story about a blind girl – Laureth, as she herself says, does not (and does not want to) fall into blind superhero cliché. It is a story about coincidences in which the protagonist is a girl who happens to be blind. Nevertheless, this makes for a special kind of storytelling because, by her very nature, Laureth sees and experiences the world around her in a different way. The person that Laureth is – and how Sedgwick’s writing makes her and her world real – raises as many interesting questions and thoughts as the actual storyline:

There are the ways people around her respond to Laureth, and how their responses change once they become aware of her disability. There is the fact that nothing is ever given a physical description, and yet we still get just as strong an idea about surroundings and people and events – perhaps even more so – than we would with a sighted description. And there is the part where Laureth doesn’t make judgments about things in the same way as a person with sight does. Perhaps most striking in this is she doesn’t see colour, and so colour – especially in people – is meaningless to her (which is, of course, exactly how it should be for everyone). And the irony in all this is that it enables her to actually see more than another person might.

One thing: when you learn what she deals with, you might love the blind girl who knows that it’s never been her sight that she needs - that it’s trust, love, and faith also. Laureth is not flawless, though; she still makes judgments, it’s just that those judgments are, in large part, based on different criteria; she makes mistakes and assumptions, and perhaps puts more faith in her father’s notebook than she should.

I recently met Marcus Sedgwick at YALC and he told me that he left one deliberate coincidence in the book. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure exactly which coincidence it is that he means. It’s not that this is a book that is peppered with coincidences, but there a series of apparent coincidences within it, most of which I assumed were engineered – but perhaps one of them wasn’t. One question is, which one? Although another question is, does it matter? Like both Marcus and his characters say, coincidences are weird and striking to those whom they happen to, but for everyone else they tend to just bounce off without much impact.

And he plays with this in the story too: several events that you – or Laureth – think are going to be terribly important and meaningful just bounce away without having the effect you thought they were going to have. And in this way, perhaps Marcus Sedgwick has actually done what he thought wasn’t really possible: written a book about coincidence. There is also a boy who short circuits anything electrical, a raven named Stan, a rather creepy hotel, a brief scattered history of the study of coincidence, and a pair of men who I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to meet down a darkened alley at night. And there is also a number: 354. Laureth’s dad has been followed around by this number his whole life (or perhaps it is the other way around: he has followed the number), and it’s a number that crops up in the book here and there, and there again, not just in the story, but from the page count to the paragraph breaks, adding a beautiful little twist.

So, do you believe in coincidence? Do you believe that weird coincidences really just are coincidences, just chance happenings? If you don’t believe in coincidences, is this because you know the mathematical probability of a particular ‘coincidence’ means it isn’t by chance – or that the chance of this event is higher than you might at first think? Or is it because you believe that ‘coincidences’ means something? That they’re guided by fate or some greater force, some greater mystery? Will reading She Is Not Invisible change your position?

And at the end of our story, as Laureth exits stage right, she issues her readers with a final challenge. Is this challenge the result of the ‘true’ coincidence Sedgwick alluded to? I’m still not sure, and I’m going to tell you what it is either; you’ll have to read the book to find out. And yes, I did take Laureth up on it.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

William Bellman is a smart young man, who’s worked hard, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, and built himself a good life. But William Bellman is also a man who easily falls prey to obsession; he can use this to turn a penny or two in business, to dedicate himself to nursing his sick children to health, or to identifying the strange man, dressed all in black, who hovers in the background of every funeral William Bellman has ever attended. And when tragedy strikes, William Bellman’s life is torn asunder, not only by his losses, but by the ensuing conversation he has with a man in a graveyard, a man named – or so Bellman believes – Black.

Who is Black? Was he following William? Will he come back? And what will he want if – when – he does? If only William could remember the finer details of the bargain he is sure that they struck: that Black would save William’s daughter in exchange for William embarking on a new business: the business of death. And as he waits and wonders and frets and worries, Bellman turns his obsession to the realization of the seed that Black has placed in William’s mind: the construction of Bellman & Black, the Mourning Emporium. This, surely this, will be enough to appease Black. But what if it isn’t? What if Bellman & Black isn’t what Black wanted at all?

Diane Setterfield has followed up her extraordinary first novel, the gothic and mysterious The Thirteenth Tale, with quite a strange tale that leaves the reader wondering. She begins her tale with the recounting of a repressed memory from William's childhood: how, whilst demonstrating his prowess with a slingshot, hits and kills a rook in a tree fifty yards yonder across a field. He is repulsed by the act: it was never really his intention to kill the bird; he didn’t think he’d ever actually hit it. So he goes home and outs the memory aside. The rooks, however, we are told, don’t forget so easily. Thus, as we watch William grow into a man, become a husband, a father, an entrepreneur, the rooks are watching him too.

I enjoyed reading Bellman & Black, but I’m just not sure what exactly to make of it. Essentially, it’s the story of a man’s life, the changes, the tragedies and the hope that wend their ways through it, and how a particular event bounces him off onto a different path. As William becomes consumed by his new business, to all intents and purposes shutting out the one thing he loves most – the one for whom he bargained – I couldn’t help but wonder where the Bellman we knew before had gone. But the chapters following Bellman’s life are intersected with snippets from the rooks and ravens: so are the choices Bellman makes his own, or are they influenced by something other? Is Black a rook? Or death itself? Or are the rooks somehow a representation of death? It’s easy, after all, to associate corvids with graveyards.

Rather than fretting over how it all links up, perhaps I shouldn’t try to read too much into it. We make our choices and we live by them. And we die by them. What begins as a tale of a smart and eager young man making good on his meagre beginnings becomes one of tragedy as obsession and loss take their toll. Like I said, it’s a strange book, but no less interesting and no less readable for all that. It’s definitely an interesting choice, especially for readers who are looking for something with gothic undertones, or for something to leave them questioning.