Sunday, 9 October 2011

Review: 'The Book of Caradoc' by James Leigh

Strange book. I'm not at all sure what to make of it. The premise: after some unspecified global apocalypse (known as the Withering), the survivors in Britain have coalesced into numerous small, semi-autonomous farming and manufacturing communes, and larger administrative centres (or Authorities), which manage trading and defence, all of them harrassed by roving bands of raiders known as Metros. So far, so normal. The conceit of this particular book is that it purports to be a history of one particular war leader who was intrumental in dealing with the Metros and ushering in a more settled age of greater prosperity, compiled from the writings of those who knew him. I don't know how common a technique this is, but I've never read anything quite like it.

This author follows this idea through rather well. It really does read just like a history book much of the time, as written by a rather pedantic academic ("Caradoc arrived in Felixstowe around Whitsun. Riding by way of Puckeridge, he crossed the Chelmer at Waltham and Blackwater at Coggshall before halting for a few days in a fishing commune near Maldon..."). People the hero meets are introduced as "Colonel (now Chief Alderman) Fellowes" and so forth, there are few descriptions of people, and there are long paragraphs describing how the various settlements interacted or managed their affairs ("currencies of the larger Authorities were generally convertible at that time..."), while other aspects were glossed over as "being of no interest to most people today".

The supposed historian also jumps in from time to time to explain his knowledge, or speculate on Caradoc's motives, or simply to editorialise ("We think of the need for revenge as itself an emotion..."). This sounds quite dry, and some of it is, but there are also some gloriously funny episodes, such as when the great hero, whose battle successes have been detailed in reverent awe, suddenly makes what can only be described as an ill-advised second marriage (this at a time when he had no idea whether his first wife was still alive). The historian is almost squirming with embarrassment as he describes these events. Then there is the Hundred-And-One, an elite, self-appointed militia guarding Caradoc, whose elegantly out of control exploits are no more than synchronised slaughter.

The background of a society still adjusting and settling, still only barely on the edge of civilisation, is well done. There is an astonishing amount of detail tossed in about places - how they would have changed once civilisation collapsed, which were still usable and how they would have been adapted to the new era, clearly warmer than now. Rivers have changed their course, open areas have reverted to woodland, parts of southern England are described as desert, there are vineyards and locally grown tobacco. There are very detailed descriptions of some activities - snaring rabbits, for instance, or the work necessary to restore a water mill to functionality - while other aspects are glossed over. I found it difficult to reconcile the relatively primitive way of life in some of the communes, with the more sophisticated life in the Authorities (the obviously wealthy dilettantes of the Hundred-And-One, a woman described as a bluestocking, implying an academic life, an apparently inexhaustible supply of manpower for militia or rebuilding programs). We never find out just what the catastrophe was, but there is one chilling section where Caradoc rides through a previously built-up area still littered with bones. I'm not sure how non-Brits would deal with the laundry lists of placenames; I'm a Brit myself, and I found it difficult to follow. A good map would have been a big help.

As for the story - well, it reads like a history book, not a work of fiction at all. Apart from Caradoc himself, characters simply pass by, sometimes reappearing later, sometimes casually written out ("Pierson... having been killed on Sylt - crushed between the 'La Perle' and the Hoernum quayside"), often simply disappearing, and even the hero is only glimpsed second or third hand, as it were, so we never really get under his skin or develop any empathy for him. Of course, very little dialogue is taken verbatim from Caradoc himself, apart from a few key speeches, and the supposed historian guesses at his motives, so we never really understand how he came to be so famous. It seems to be as much a matter of luck as anything else. Many of his early encounters end surprisingly easily, a combination of chance and arrogance, and later his reputation (and arrogance again) cause people to capitulate without much of struggle. It all seems credibly implausible, if I can put it that way (just like real life).

It may sound strange, but I can't decide whether I liked it or not. I finished it, which is in its favour, I was never tempted to toss it aside, and I have written quite a lot about it, so it obviously got under my skin. On the other hand, there were none of the qualities I tend to look for in a book - interesting characters, great plot, resonant ending, well-written dialogue, emotional engagement. The writing style was literate but very dry, with long dull descriptive passages, a few mildly exciting parts, and the odd outbreak of near-farce. The editing was execrable - not typos and apostrophe abuse, nothing so ordinary, rather it felt as if the author had started a sentence and changed his mind mid-stream without cleaning up. Mostly the mangled result was interpretable, but it happened so frequently as to be very distracting. But on the whole, this was an interesting rather than absorbing book. An oddity, definitely - three stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment