Sketcher, a review.

Jean Piaget’s influence in understanding childhood development is almost unparalleled in the 20th century, besides the work of Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky. Amongst other things, he argued that a child’s drawing was reflective of their cognitive development. This, for Piaget did not necessarily mean that it was a distinct stage of development, but rather, an insight into the child’s development. When the child gets to the age of 9, their drawing is based on what they see, as opposed to what they know, so where they know that a cube has six faces, they realise that they do not have to draw all six sides of the cube for it to be a realistic depiction (Intellectual realism and visual realism). So, when Skid Beaumont’s brother Frico has the ability to realise what he puts on paper in real life, what would Piaget make of it?

Roland Watson-Grant’s energetic and deceptively deep novel about Skid Beaumont and his life in a New Orleans swamp is an original approach to failure of an American Dream. Alfrico, Skid’s father, has a drunken vision that on the back of the explosion in construction in New Orleans, that his family should live in the swamp on the promise that the city will come to them, landing a potential windfall for the Beaumont’s. Needless to say this doesn’t happen and they find themselves living in this wasteland next to the world of money and dream making. It is a ‘crack on the map where the construction just stops’ and New Orleans tantalisingly remains on the horizon, always in vision but never fully reachable, Skid observes ‘New O’lins was blazin’ and throbbin’.

The swamp lays a good base for Watson-Grant to develop his story. This basic level of life, almost squalid, contrasts starkly with the America they would have us recognise. There is also an unfortunate level of contemporariness with the New Orleans of today, thanks to the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina. As the city imposes, physically and metaphorically what does it represent? Does it represent salvation, or as Valerie Beaumont, Skid’s mother says “we’re all refugee’s, we’re all running away from something”. Watson-Grant shows quite emphatically that there is another way to life, and just because we’re not living it the way everybody else seems to be, there is a beautiful essence to swamp life,exaggerated by fakeness of the city dwellers. Tourists are described as ‘coming to take pictures of the advertising’ which ironically challenges the artistic strand that permeates through the rest of the novel.

Life’s natural beauty is emphasised by the magical realism employed. It is a device successfully and acutely employed. Skid becomes aware of his brother’s drawings to become reality,
“I saw Frico sketch on paper with his left hand…and he made some strange things happen. It had been a while, but deep down I knew what I saw. That boy was more than artistic. He had somethin’ in his left hand…a strange power to fix things with a pencil”.
It slowly emerges that the Beaumont family does not have a conventional history. If anything the word conventional is mocked incessantly throughout the novel; the family, the house, the heritage, even the novel, nothing is conventional about it. Skid’s grandpa, whom he shares a strong bond with once his father goes absent, reveals gradually to Skid about his family’s past on the island of San Tainos. Watson-Grant doesn’t say too much about this fictional island, but it potentially might be an allegory of Jamaica, “your moms was born In one of the prettiest places on earth, the gods made that place special”. Along with this and some other elusive details about a volcano, which Skid recreates in what appears to be a therapist session there is not too much mention of it. Either way, this was where the Beaumont family were raised and where their magical powers may have derived from. It will be interesting to see if Watson-Grant develops this in later novels, as one instantly thinks of Bogata in Marquez’, 100 Year’s of Solitude, arguably the first commercially successful magical realist writer (if not the best, or Atwood’s Quebec even).

So it comes to the Sketcher, Frico Beaumont. Watson-Grant chooses not to belie this special power in Skid which could be down to several reasons. This allows Skid, the seemingly only ‘normal’ Beaumont to try and manipulate these power to his own ends. The experience of the capitalist world through the city inevitably see’s Skid try and exploit Frico for money. Nothing too sinful mind. Furthermore, seeing this through Skid’s first person account we are given his naivety. Watson-Grant keeps the reader guessing if it is genuine magic, or if it is just Skid’s perception, because Skid has no power in manipulating it. Maybe Skid doesn’t like to accept coincidence and takes Pa Campbell’s stories too seriously like a naïve child. We can be sure that the Beaumont’s have a magical heritage but can never be fully as we taken along in Skid’s ride. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi demonstrated the power of the strength and ambiguity of the child narrator and there are notes of resonance with that fabulist tale.

At an even greater level though, religion permeates the novel, or less dogmatically – belief. Does religion and faith offer a magical realist aspect to our lives? We are obsessed with narrative, everything we do has one, and religion arguably adds a greater plot line to it. Skid rejects coincidence through accepting the drawings and his mother’s conjuring, and while it is acceptable to accept this in a novelistic format we cannot accept it in real life. It works so effectively with the naïve child narrator and the squalor of the swamp and dreams of the city.

Skid who has no apparent magical powers, maybe to emphasise his normality. He beholds the power as the narrator. I must admit I was very sceptical on receiving the review copy from Alma. With the child narrator and Watson-Grant choosing to represent the text in Skid’s ‘New O’lins’ dialect, as you can tell, it works. Watson- Grant’s prose refrains from overloading it with adjectives, but it still provides some moments of poetry.There are some aspects that for me didn’t work though, like when Skid says ‘Freeze Frame’ as if stopping the story to digress, but instead looks like his own failed attempts at magic and maybe it is.Some of the family’s history tries to resurface at the end of the novel in ambiguous forms which were too obviously subtle – definitely happening, but you do not know if they were resurfacings of the Beaumont’s past . The two greatest risks work though – the magical realism and the deep south dialect. The novel  will satisfy sceptics of fabulist writing and atheists alike, and we anticipate Watson-Grant’s next move. Even the swamp becomes a cherished aspect, and you begin to hope for it later in the novel.

And so, we return to Piaget and the intellectual muscle flexing at the start. Is Frico drawing what he knows or the more advanced what he sees? If Frico was to be drawing what he sees then Skid is clearly unawares to the potential beauty of life, and who could blame him, when the bubble of your dream pops. Despite Piaget’s theory being too centred on the individual (Vygotsky for me was the far greater advocate of childhood development) Skid’s own account is a great claim for the joy of youth – its ambition, naivety and unrelenting hope for things to get better. And like Martel’s enormously successful book, the power of story telling.

Sketcher by Roland Watson-Grant (pp.279) is published by Alma Books and is out now priced at RRP £12.99

Piaget documented his findings on childhood drawing in The Child’s Conceptions of Space (1956 New York:Macmillan) but there are hundreds of sources on this.


The Spinning Heart, a review

The recession and global banking crisis’ implications on collective and individual psychology is a a source of great intrigue for any person interested in understanding people. The novelist perhaps is such a person. Then there will be those who exploit the narrative, turn it in into ideology  merely for its gains like the politicians, those who were largely unaffected by it. Donald Ryan portrays a sympathetic and original account in his début of the ramifications of a global banking crisis and ‘Celtic Tiger’ of Ireland. This was the period of the economy when which had a rapid growth until 2008 it severely reversed and was plunged into the hard times we know now.

Already tipped for big things, having being inducted into the Waterstones Eleven for 2013, Donal Ryan presents 21 different characters, in little over 150 pages, each effectively doing a monologue. It becomes clear after the first two or three characters stories that these are not short stories. They’re not even the eponymous named ‘overlapping’ short stories, as each characters story slowly constructs, a narrative, through doing so, a community. The central plot slowly burns away in the background as Ryan’s characters take centre stage with their unique voices, as they tell their story, the story of their community and at large, the story of the recession.

The first character, Bobby Mahon, slowly leaks that part of the building company that is responsible for this half built housing estate which is the setting of the novel. The contractors ran out of money and credit, and there was no money to finish the construction. Quite disorientingly at first, he mentions other builders and employee’s of the company, who appear at different points, and sometimes don’t appear at all to tell their story. One such character who constantly referred to is Pokey Burke who fled with all the remaining money of the company when things started to go awry, who elusively and teasingly never speaks himself.

Despite Bobbycoming across as a street savvy, local hero, he and the other builders were hideously naïve in the good times “I should have known something was up the day last year Mickey Briars came in asking about his pension” and the illegitimacy of Pokey’s company becomes prevalent:  “PRSI. PAYE. Income levy, pension. She held it in front of her with her nose wrinkled up like I was after wiping my armpit with it. Well? I said. Well What? Whats the story?There’s no story sir . I wasn’t on the computer as an employee of Pokey Burke or anyone else”.
It is this kind of local level that that Ryan makes his grand statement about the economic downturn (downturn seems such a limp, understated term in this sense; Celtic Tiger – just ridiculous) like the negligence, and ignorance of Pokey Burke. Kate believes “you don’t have to pay minimum wage in a recession”, and Realtin says the housing estate is ”just the ghosts of people never existed”.

There is the overriding sense people being trapped in this, and for some this feeling is more explicit and admitting than others. Ryan, displaying his versatility at manipulating the language of other characters uses,  Vasya a Russian immigrant, who presumably came to Ireland for opportunity, describes the horizon as ‘close and small’. In this way Ryan shows language as a key determiner of characterisation down to Vasya speaking sentences of ‘two words or three’.

The physical boundaries are also emphasised by Bridie, who reminisces of her child drowning in the sea, “the greedy Atlantic swallowed him”. This is an Island.  Bridie introduces a feeling of segregation and abandonment who’s horizon is also limited ‘I always swore i’d never again set foot in County Clare. I don’t even like to to look across at east Clare from the low shore at Castlelough’. The ultimate abandonment is of course the housing project.

Like Bobby Mahon reappears and seems to float through the lives of the other characters, his plot line central to the others, so do the metaphors and themes he introduces. The title of the novel is taken from the gate to his father’s cottage,
“Red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. Its flaking now; the red is nearly gone. It needs to be scraped and sanded and painted and oiled. It still spins in the wind, though. I can hear it creak, creak as I walk away. A flaking, creaking, spinning”
From the first page this piece of the gate and entrance to the house, the heart the is thing that causes problems are is caused problems. The characters seem to be fixated with the heart, its problems as if puzzled by its physical anatomy, unable to understand as if it should be capable of more. Timmy recognises something wrong with somebody’s heart, and in his naïve voice claims ‘it just stopped beating’, or the weird, unsettling Trevor who claims that one day his heart ‘will just stop dead’. In each case that the heart occurs it seems to be faulty. Ryan’s realism appears to be challenging the cliché of the heart, this source of apparent love as a cliché implies. Where has the heart gone in society? Was the romance of life ripped from the community in the financial crisis if that is what the heart is mean to mean: localism and community values destroyed, the individual fighting for his own individual sense. After all this, the heart seems nothing apart from a biological transportation system, keeping us alive with its incessant thudding.

If the heart is not the source of love, where is it then? Brian maybe provides the answer ‘Love is a physical mechanism that ensures humanity’s survival. It’s an abstract concept as well, for people to write songs and books and make films abut. Either way, it’s nothing but a construct’. A construct indeed both physical and metaphysical.

If the source of love is then the family then Ryan makes us rethink this. From the moment Bobby goes round to his Dad’s everyday wishing he was dead (“and everyday he let me down”), absent and imperfect fathers are everywhere. The family is never conventional. Bridie has different children to different fathers, or Trevor who has visions of kidnapping a child rather than visions of producing a family himself. Seanie’s womanising may suggest how the failing of the family is the failing of the community. Maybe it is just a problem with men – with the world run by men, they’re the only ones who seem to be able to change circumstances in The Spinning Heart, and usually do a poor job of it.

Ryan lets rumour circulate, as each character opens up, they reveal themselves and more about other people. With each person, the reader seems to carry with them what he already knows.There is a moment when Trevor talks of himself painting somebodies windows for a favour, and amidst his troubling, unsettling thoughts appears to be a nod from Joyce’s, Dubliners in the continual image of people looking through windows. Throughout Joyce’s stories we’re either looking through the window or watching the characters look through the window and this seems to be happening throughout Ryan’s work.

This idea of a construct though, Ryan is hinting at something greater. Returning to  the immigrant Vasya who can ‘only speak in sentences of two or three words’: Is his horizon restricted by his language capacity? The language of the character is key to their depiction. Some express heavier dialect than others, interspersing expletives and Irish patter. And there is Timmy, who is presumably a child because of his colloquialisms. Rumour and gossip is hinged on language and as each character present them self, their individual stories cohere to construct this community and all of its ideas.

Ryan’s novel is something remarkable. He mostly avoids clumsily intruding his character’s conscience, as his conscience over pins all 21 of the characters. In another medium, it evokes Alan Bennett’s Talking Head’s series, and you can see some form of adaptation in this. There are moments when the depths of language are explored counteracted by moments of poetry and lyricism. The Spinning Heart is something to read, and then read again, In a different order maybe. Ireland, steeped in literary heritage, and although it may be early days, here is an exciting new voice in its heritage.

The Spinning Heart is published by Doubleday Ireland/Transworld and is out 27 June 2013 this year. Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Men of Mountains: Buddhaland Brooklyn, a review.

 Our world may appear more accessible an open, thanks to the lens of a T.V camera projecting us into cultures, in the safety of our homes, but we are arguably still as divided and ignorant as we once were. Building on the success and themes of his first book, The One Hundred Foot Journey, in Richard C.Morais fish out of water tale, from eastern recluse (to the western reader at least) to the  hubbub of the western world.

Unlike Morais’ first book though where food was the central metaphor, its scarcity and abundance, it is religion in Buddhaland. Reverend Oda (not Reverend yet, but to save confusion we’ll refer to him as Reverend Oda throughout) is surrounded by nature and the flowing of the Kappa-Gawa river. The whole first paragraph is a watery metaphor ‘it suggests there are times when we float lightly along life’s surface, bobbing from one languid, long pool to another’ and also immediately alluding to the Buddhist way of life.

Life is basic: living in the elements which all seem to be at conflict with one another; earth, wind, water and eventually fire. Along with  this, and the young Oda’s growing understanding of Buddhism, Morais uses his first chapter, which is almost embryonic – In a Bildungsroman fashion, Morais first introduces Oda to the west in the fashion of tourists,
“Buried deep into the world view she passed onto her children – unfathomable considering the nature of the family business – was a particular visceral disgust for Americans, those bumbling barbarians who somehow defeated Japan. She would rail about how they had ruined our beloved ancient culture, about the evils of their modern technology and the way they introduced twentieth century consumerism”.
There irony is of course that it is inevitable Oda will have to go to America, despite him expressing this level of xenophobia. Growing up with his family in the rural, mountainous  town of Katsaurao,
Morais obliges Oda with the metaphorical breaking of the ties of his family when they are killed in a fire. With the amount of water on display in the first chapter, the fire attacks the fragile structures of the homes to shocking effect, setting up Oda for his eventual alienation.

Orphaned, Oda moves to live in the local priesthood, where he immerses himself in the Buddhist teachings under the tutelage of the senior acolytes and on the provision of his painting skills and the prospect of residing permanently in the head temple at Mount Nagata goes to Tokyo University of Arts. The fish is slowly leaving the water and his predispositions to western culture are challenged again as ‘the european students were bovine at best…but it was through living in extremely close quarters with loud and drunk english students” Interestingly, whilst seeing the worst of western academia, he see’s some of the best, being introduced to the romantic poets of Keats, and Byron. Ironically deployed again, as Oda, on one of the few occassion’s experiences what he believes to be love is nothing but a fallacy and he recoils back into the purity of Buddhism, away from the seemingly western, commercialised creation. The love of his home and family seems be the only viable definition of love. 

After a slightly implausible jump in years, Oda is informed that he is to go to America to supervise the building of a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, which comes after a timely earthquake. The world is gradually becoming more commercial and nationalised to Oda though. Before he leaves, his superiors driver round in ‘flashy German cars’ and not in the Toyota’s which would have course been native to Japan. In the developing style of the novel from, to use that word again, embryonic in the sense of its recluse, it could be determined that Oda’s gradually growing conscience is opening his eyes to this materialism. Oda’s departure is immediately consumed and in foreign territory ‘I moved to raise my hand in return, but before it was fully up the taxi was swallowed by the dark wet woods of the west’.

Morais has set Reverend Oda’s transmission from the secluded east to the busy west. The world he depicts when he arrives is immediate and Reverend Oda feels isolated in this busy world and where the river ran through his old town, in America this is a train line.
“After the long stillness of my life at the temple of everlasting prayer , Brooklyn appeared through the haze of my jet lag as a singularly beligerent attack on my central nervous system. It was the noise of smells of New York that in particular so overwhelmed me, and I found myself wincing or jumping nervously each time a train rattled by the window, or the upstairs neighbour came thumping down the stairs or the pipes in the building began to clang loudly.”
Reverend Oda’s, or even Morais’, America is one of many, different people, but it is one full of individuals, each caring for their own goals and achievements. This is most successfully evident with the construction of the temple, as the architecture of America imposes itself on the conscience of Reverend Oda ‘it hurt my neck to bend back like that and I felt quite alone in the world. The buildings looked to me like monsters striding across the earth; I was little more than a tiny insignificant animal scurrying around in their dark shadows’. If the temple was to be personified like that of the buildings already there in America, (the architecture and skyline of New York and Manhattan is recognisable to most people) then it is the small temple trying to build its reputation and structure like Reverend Oda himself. Reverend Oda is continually tackling bureaucracy, either from the government or from other members of the Buddhist’ sect in Brooklyn, determined to see the temple done in their way rather than Oda’s. Morais successfully depicts this western world of individualism. The over abundance of wealth and food, as Reverend Oda is continually put into scenes of over excessiveness andthe over examination of social situations involving a slightly implausible but comedic scene (one trepidates calling it postmodern) where he attends a fashion show in the company of the press.

Sometimes Morais, pleasing, if adjective abundant prose is Dickenesian, in its scope of Brooklyn and its characters and inhabitants, but then it can border on the clunky on banal. For instance, at the start of chapter 9, the end of the summer season is nigh, and the freedom of the lights and heat that the summer brings, as he juxtaposes a paragraph describing children playing in a fire hydrant with ‘But it was all coming to an end. The US stock markets fell’, and with that there is no implication of what this means for Reverend Oda, or the construction of the temple, and doesn’t add to the social context. He is also prone to continually starting a paragraph or sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ that comes across as lazy rather than stylistic

The first person narrative is quite restrictive in that the other characters that Morais’ creates are not fleshed out. They seem to be ushered in and out of Reverend Oda’s scenery to present problems to him when Morais needs to give him a moral dilemma. The biggest injustice to character is Michael who is eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, and leads on from Morais misconstrued understanding of mental health in the first chapter. Morais gives too little time to this complex issue, and would have profited from devoting it as the main story,or leaving it out altogether. I believe there is definitely something to be said about religion and mental health and the way it is understood and treated in different cultures, but here was not.

Still, there is a lot to be gained from the novel. Morais has a good turn of phrase, and it avoids being a nauseating Buddhist self help book, even satirizing it. Besides this it is a good steady piece of contemporary fiction that boasts that summer read feel, and who knows, maybe beyond.

Buddhaland Brooklyn (282pp) is published by Alma Books for £12.99 and is out now. Thank you to them for their review copy.