The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow (2009) A.J. Mackinnon

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow (2009) A.J. Mackinnon

  ‘I must borrow from the poets and the songs of voyagers everywhere. For Jack is all these: a stately Spanish galleon…Tom Bombadil; a cockle-boat…a gilded barge bearing Ling Pellinore to Flanders in Malory’s romance… or even that other little Mirror many years ago in which a small boy sailed between lonely isles on a lake in the Snowy Mountains, dreaming of Doctor Dolittle, treasure maps, pith helmets and the rivers of old England where I knew I would one day voyage.’

This whimsical memoir of a long voyage in a small Mirror dinghy, from Shropshire to the Black Sea, is written in a beautifully warm, self-deprecating tone. Sandy Mackinnon’s passion for the idea of a daring adventure, combined with his delight in related literature of armchair travel, heroic imaginative voyages, nature and personal discovery, lifts this book beyond the level of a more prosaic retelling of his adventures. His constant combination of literal and imaginative experience is narrated in an ironic voice, which often underplays the many genuine dangers he faces.

‘It was with a wholly false sense of approaching safety and calm that I approached the concrete complex of piers and wharves directing shipping into the huge double locks that would let us continue on the river far below. For once we sailed around into the relatively narrow jaws of the lock-approach, the waves went beserk…All about me, explosions of water shot up in six-foot high towers, now here, now there, as though a hundred depth charges had been triggered by my arrival.’

Mackinnon’s rhetorical descriptions of his many adventures and misadventures accurately convey the spirit of daring-do, which he brings to these experiences. This positive spirit and undoubted personal charm results in him receiving and gratefully accepting numerous offers of assistance, which he records as a genuinely surprising feature of his travels. This is a light, sparkling reinvention of a brave quest to travel beyond the horizon, by a means long loved by the author. Sandy Mackinnon’s naive, boyish enthusiasm, sense of the ridiculous and sharp eye for descriptive detail, makes this a highly appealing addition to travel literature. This is a perfect book to serialise.

 ‘And through all this runs a single thread. At times it is the brandy-brown of country brooks; elsewhere it is salt-green flecked with white…But in all its length it is unbroken, a single thread of water green laid from one end of the map to another.’  

The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) Edmund de Waal

 ‘But some objects do seem to retain the pulse of their own making…this pulse intrigues me.’

This memoir is an homage to the successes and tragedies experienced by de Waal’s family over the decades since 1870 to the present. It is memoir as tribute, an admiration for the highly skilled craftsmen of the netsuke, the small, oval carvings which depict various aspects of ordinary human and animal life.

The constant shifting of focus between the movement of international events, through to detailed descriptions of the finest creative art works of the period, distinguish this memoir. De Waal is acutely aware of not wanting a ‘misery memoir,’ instead using detailed narratives of the Ephrussi family and vivid portraits of a range of fascinating characters such as Elizabeth etc whom the writer brings vividly to life in a finely crafted portaits. De Waal’s restrained critique of the virulent rise of anti-semitism, which was to haunt his family from the inception of the story, highlights the tragic susceptibility of the Austrians to anti-semite propaganda. He shows, with marked refinement, how this powerfully and tragically influenced a young Austrian painter, Adolf Hitler.

‘All across Vienna doors are broken down, as children hide behind their parents, under beds, in cupboards – anywhere to get away from the noise as fathers and mothers are arrested and beaten up and pulled outside into trucks, as mothers and sisters are abused. And across Vienna people help themselves to what should be theirs, is theirs by right.’

Given the shattering events of World War Two for his family, the netsuke become symbolic of the enduring qualities of ordinary life connections, rendered finely and with incredible forbearance, by both the netsuke craftsmen and the troubled, quarrelsome artists of the era. For de Waal, as a nationally acclaimed artist, these artifacts represent the eternal values of love, the joy of artistic creation, the importance of social connections, and the ability of fine art to lift our eyes to honour our past and rise above tragedy.

 ‘There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others…the problem is that I am in the wrong century to burn things. I am the wrong generation to let it go.’

One Day (2009) – David Nicholls

One Day (2009) – David Nicholls –

‘So I’ve given this whole “growing old” thing some thought and I’ve come to the decision that I’d like to stay exactly as I am right now.’ (Dexter) 

The story of the long term relationship between Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, accompanied by a varied cast of friends, lovers, rivals and parents, rises above a conventional extended relationship story through the structure of basing events on one day in each succeeding year, chronological shifts, warm and lively authorial voice and a surprising turn of events. 

‘Finally, she loved someone and felt fairly confident that she was loved in return. If someone asked Emma, as they sometimes did at parties, how she and her husband  had met, she told them:

‘We grew up together.’ 

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) – Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) – Thomas Pynchon

‘There had hung the sense of buffeting, insulation, she had noticed the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus, that the receptionist refused to fix.’ 

This is the comic/tragic, mind messing trip of Oedipa Maas, trying to extricate herself from a condition of floating meaninglessness, which characterises her life experiences and perceptions. The events of the novel are built on her role as executor of the considerable estate of her former lover Pierce Inverarity. Linked to this task is her increasingly bizarre and obsessive quest to uncover the possible continuing existence of an unofficial, non-government postal system, the Tristero. Oedipa’s road trip both parodies and echoes the cosmic seriousness of the ‘road’ genre, through the increasingly chaotic nature of her quest.

“What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realises that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego, only incidental…If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”

Pynchon’s playfully teasing, rapid fire, allusive style, brilliant set pieces, combined with a cast of cartoon like characters e.g. Mike Fallopian, Genghis Cohen, Dr Hilarius, constantly unsettles an engaged reading of this story. There is a nagging feeling that the author is having a great time playing with the sensibilities of any reader who is trying to ‘categorise’ this novel. But it is not an unpleasant feeling, given the rewards of his intellectual sharpness, and the genuine warmth he expresses for Oedipa. The sense of ‘play’ between author and reader is of course one of the most intriguing features of the post modern novel.  Whether the contents of Lot 49 will bring resolution to Oedipa’s quest for connection in a world of perceptual chaos is ambivalent . Pynchon’s frequently biting satire and allusions to wider philosophical debates, located in a drug dominated culture, provides a sparky intellectual chorus, and an enduring relevance for this novel, well beyond a mid 1960’s trip to the funhouse.

‘She might well be in the cold and sweatless meat-hooks of a psychosis.’