Book reviews

Can You Learn “How to Write Like Tolstoy” from a Book?

 

Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen

should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.

Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?

Beginnings

You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:

“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”

Can you teach creative writing?

The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.

“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “

He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.

The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.

“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”

Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.

Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”

This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.

My MA in Writing at Middlesex University

From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.

Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.

What about George Orwell?

What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:

“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”

He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.

Plot

is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.

Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”

Overcoming Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return
Comedy
Tragedy
Rebirth
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?

Sex

Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.

William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.

What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.

Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.

A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.

Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?

Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.

The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:

Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread

In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…

By this these Angles from an evil sprite,

Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below.

O, my America! My new-found-land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…

To enter in these bonds, is to be free;

Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.

Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.

The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.

Endings

There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,

Stop.”

Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.

 

ASIAN BOOKS BLOG: 500 words about Cry of the Flying Rhino

What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.

You can also read the article here below:

Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.

longhouse3 longhouse1 longhouse2

Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
36BorneoDayak
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.

In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.

headhunters tattooing girls tattooing girls

Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.

Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.

 

 

REVIEW: BBC’s “Chinese Burn” appalling script, racial stereotypes, human detritus not diversity

Did anybody catch this on the BBC over the weekend? A terrible TV film about three Chinese girls in London called CHINESE BURN. The script is so shocking and racist I can’t believe it was made.
One has a permanent cleaver looking at little dogs to chop up and eat.
One is an out-of-work actress who auditions for endless prostitute or cleaner roles with kungfu thrown in.
One is a failed sommelier walking around as a human signboard for bubble tea, who gets molested by her Chinese boss but ends up giving him a hand job.
Very poor. None were empowered or normalised or fit into society as they were terrible cliches and stereotypes of people who don’t even exist, like pulling their eyes into slits. It’s like the writers went: “Hey I know! Why challenge stereotypes when we can reinforce them? This is a great idea. Let’s call it diversity, heh heh! Just throwing that word in for luck. Let’s create hideous characters, the dregs of humanity. Not an ounce of delight or warmth. Let’s call them Chinese girls.”

chineseburn
OK that is my TV review. Apparently it’s a comedy too but it’s not funny at all. Will black people or white people find this funny? I am a very humorous person too – people tell me I am a funny girl. But this show is stupid and not funny.
How are we supposed to move forward when we are moving back all the time? We as in everybody, not just Chinese girls. We as in scriptwriters, writers, thinkers, workers, doers, the Beeb. I am waiting for something clever and funny. Not asking a lot, you see, just some eye candy while ironing.

Lulu Allison: The Relevance of Art in Literature

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas

-COVER smlLulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.

Author photo smaller

Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?

Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.

Art by Lulu Allison

in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.

“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”

vagabond palace 1

Vagabond Palace 1

vagabond palace 4

Vagabond Palace 4

There are three types of art in literature:

1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.

2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.

3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.

This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.

“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”

entropy value added

Entropy: Value Added

Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.

Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.

“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”

Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who

“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.Little_Chittenden_Wood_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1861070

“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”

These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.

Author’s Biography:

Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along. Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.

You can find Lulu Allison here. Check out her new novel Twice the Speed of Dark paperback version here and the kindle version here. Check out my new paperback award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino here, kindle version here.

 

 

REVIEW: “Monte Carlo” by Peter Terrin (hardback)

I first picked up this book for its cover, a vintage fashion shoot time black and white photo cover. Also it has all the themes which inspire and interest me: vintage, obsession, fame, class.

There has been a Formula One Grand Prix accident in Monaco, May 1968 witnessed by the world press in the grandstand as the celebs mingle with drivers and their racing cars. grandstand is witness to a terrible incident. Jack Preston, a simple mechanic for Team Sutton, will bear the scars of injuries from which he shielded Deedee, a budding film star. Back in a remote sleepy village in England, it seems like it is still the 1950s. Church-going villagers wish him well. A slow-witted boy stands around and assists Jack back in his garage while he tinkers with cars. Jack recovers from his injuries and is nursed back to health, after which he owes it to his wife and has to put up with her insatiable sexual appetite. Jack becomes totally obsessed with Dee the glamorous Hollywood actress. waiting every day for a sign that she would be back to show her gratitude, to find him, to see him, to say ‘thank you for saving my life’.

Peter Terrin’s writing is rich, beautiful and evocative. Already he is being compared to Camus and I can see why. This is a thin book, only 160 pages, yet it is full of restraint, lacking in verbosity and descriptive excess. Instead it is a clear, simple and imaginative account of a car mechanic’s obsession with a film star. “Monte Carlo” has been translated from the Dutch language by David Doherty. Peter Terrin himself was born in 1968 the year of the Grand Prix.

Proverse Spring Reception 2017 ‘Live’ in Hong Kong

This is the Proverse Spring Reception on 27 April 2017. The film is 53:09 minutes long. The section where they announce the prize winners is from 4:32 to 9:10.

However, you may wish to watch to the end. It is actually very entertaining, especially as new books are being launched, and there are readings by writers and poets from all over the world. It is an evening celebrating writing, writers and books and a special treat for book lovers everywhere.

The books being launched were:

Birgit Linder, “Bliss of Bewilderment”

Dragoş Ilca, “HK Hollow”

Laura Solomon, “Brain Graft”

Gillian Bickley, “Over The Years” 

Gillian and Verner Bickley (Editors), “The Proverse Poetry Prize Anthology 2016: Mingled Voices” 

BOOK LAUNCH: Ewan Lawrie’s “Gibbous House” Thursday 12 January 2017 1830H

I was very lucky to have been given an invitation to attend Ewan Lawrie’s book launch in Islington. This would be the first time I am meeting an Unbound author and in fact the first time I would be meeting an author that I had got to know first through social media.

Times have indeed changed. The first time I met an author was Catherine Lim, bestselling author of The Bondmaid, in Singapore, when I was a schoolgirl, a tweenie (this is somewhat anachronistic: there was no such word at the time, you were either a child or you weren’t). I was very impressed that she was not only leggy and slim, she wore killer stilettos and the traditional tight-fitting cheongsam with high slits. This was the 80s after all. Phwoar! I thought she was glamorous and that I probably should be a writer. Little did I realise. It is so totally not glamorous. It is 16:52 on Sunday and I am in my pajamas, typing this blog, sipping a moscow mule.

Gibbous House is about the adventures and misadventures of this thug called Moffat who has just inherited some assets and is making the journey up north to claim his goodies. It is very rich in atmosphere and detail. I have not got to the point why the book is named so, because gibbous means hunchbacked. I am on Chapter 5. Because of the florid Victorian lingo and voice, I have to slow down and take it all in.

I got to know Ewan through Unbound. I bought his book because I really love the Victorian gothic genre. I had read all of Sarah Waters’ books. I read up to page 12 of the book on the underground on my way to the launch, as I received it from Amazon that day itself. Ewan is also a supporter of my book Heart of Glass on Unbound. The evening was well-organised and very pleasant. Watch a couple of clips here: IMG_4671 IMG_4673 Ewan was there to greet all the guests. I got to meet Rachel his editor, who introduced him. I was disappointed he did not do a reading and there was no Q & A session as I had burning questions to ask. He was kind, friendly and soft-spoken with his twinkling blue eyes. We talked about Unbound, crowdfunding, books, reading and all the usual lark. I may even have gained some tips. The pub, aptly named The Blacksmith and Toffeemaker, is an old Victorian boozer, amped up to modern trendy standards that we are now accustomed to. I think the venue was well-chosen, spacious, bright, with a back area that could be cordoned off.

 

REVIEW: David Szalay’s “All that Man is” Man Booker 2016 shortlist

I started this book in 2016 and finished it in 2017.

That is because I did not want it to end. This book is on the Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist. There are famously 9 parts to this novel. It has been heavily debated whether it should be a novel or nine short stories. I think it is a novel. It has the impact of a novel. Each is not self-contained. Each leads to the next character. Supposedly this is a novel about masculinity. I wonder if the majority of the readers are men or women. I would be surprised if it was men. The book has universal appeal because it is about the human condition (again) as all literary novels are, and secondly it is about ageing, and therefore the descent of the human over just a few decades.

I don’t know about you, but when I read I like to be taken to somewhere else.

Even if it is a mundane somewhere else, it is not in my own mundane world. All that Man is is nine different men of six nationalities in 13 different countries. I never thought I would be so interested in men. I am not, really. Yet I am fascinated by each of them as their stories unfold. It is the purity of the moment that Szalay excels at. Every moment, even and especially the mundane, is rich and evocative, and lived, in every sense of the word. Plot, grand themes, idea, character exposition is of secondary importance to the living the moment.

The first character is an artsy bookworm type 17-year-old inter-railing around Europe in the summer with his friend before going up to Oxford. The last character is a 73-year-old depressed, lonely and retired civil servant in his second home in the Italian town of Argenta infested by mice and poor central heating.

p1050609

SPOILER ALERT. Don’t read this section if you don’t want to know the plot.

The civil servant reads an email from his daughter regarding his grandson who is inter-railing in Europe, who has just written a poem and has been published. Then only the reader finds out the twist, that life has come full cycle, as the novel has. The first character is the lasat character’s grandson after all. These are the only two characters connected to each other. The second character is a lazy unambitious Frenchman, probably in his early twenties, who has been sacked from his job and is now on the pull in Cyprus and manages to sleep with an obese girl AND her mother (because he doesn’t really care and just shags). Next up: a Hungarian working as bodyguard for an acquaintance who pimps his girlfriend in Park Lane hotels in London and he fancies the pants off this girl that he is supposedly bodyguarding. This is followed by a thirty-something Belgian scholar of medieval history who really fancies himself, like an academic would do, driving across Europe to meeting his ambitious and young Polish TV presenter girlfriend who is pregnant. He is totally against it, and reticent about fatherhood. My least favourite character comes next, and I had to speed read this section because I didn’t get it: a Danish journalist flies to Malaga to confront a minister about his affair. Next up: an English estate agent from Earlsfield, London, works with a developer trying to sell cheap Alpine chalets and he fancies the girl who is local Swiss agent but as he is middle-aged he can’t be bothered to make a move on her. Probably my second favourite is the miserable Scottish alcoholic in his fifties relocates to Croatia as it’s cheap, after he has sold his flat and is now drinking himself to death but encounters scams, punchups, mishap after mishap and bad luck; The second last character is a suicidal Russian oligarch in his sixties on his yacht in the Mediterranean, losing all his money to his third wife in some complicated divorce trial and having meetings with butler, cook, and lawyer and various staff. He has lost his verve and passion to live. He realises that he does not want any of his substantial assets and the wife can have it all.

SPOILER OVER. It’s OK to read this last paragraph now.

Therefore it is not quite true to say that plot is secondary. Plot comes from character. The characters make the plot and they become the story. The first thing that occurred to me was – how did he know all that? There is a lot of detail and all of it is relevant. It must have been thoroughly painstaking to write this book. The simpler to read, the more complicated the writing. He knows the minutiae about people, their jobs, their cultures, their countries. These are drawn into photographic detail. Everything rang true. Sadly I have now finished the book. I made it last as long as I could because it is a 9 course meal! Come on! I do not want to rush it as it is the most intense and endearing reading experience that David Szalay has given us. He is so talented and he writes in extremely simple language. It reads like it is a translation. There are no big words. There is nothing he would like to show off except how finely he writes. I really would like David Szalay to write The sequel: All that Woman is.