The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright

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The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright.

The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

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The next surprise book sent to me by the fine people at The Willoughby Book Club (see their website or my Goodbye to Berlin post for more details) was a book I’d never heard of: the curiously titled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

        The second book sent to me by The Willoughby Book Club        Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

By reading the blurb on the inside cover of the book I discovered that this is a 2012 novel about a squad of American soldiers who have been fighting in Iraq and who have been brought back to the United States for a two-week celebratory-tour-stroke-public-relations-exercise. I also noted that this is Ben Fountain’s first novel.

At this point I’ll be perfectly honest with you: this is not the kind of book I would likely have picked out for myself.

However, I did sit down to read it, and I am so glad that I did because this book really is quite something. And this is precisely why being given books by others can be so good, as it gets you reading things you would not otherwise read.

I don’t normally pay too much heed to the quotes of endorsement on the back cover of books, but I am going to repeat this one, as I entirely agree with it:

Ben Fountain’s novel is an exhilarating, funny, heartbreaking glimpse into the life of a young soldier and into experiences in which we are complicit – but about which we understand nothing. And it finds its mark in an incredibly personal way. The book has left me reeling. [Colin Firth]

The thing about this novel is that it is not what you might first expect from the synopsis. I could well imagine that plenty of other authors could have written a similar tale, and the book would just end up consisting of bad-mouthed squaddies demonstrating plenty of male bravado, cynicism, brutality, and hypocrisy, and the whole thing would just leave you feeling depressed. Such books would probably get called “gritty” and “hard-hitting” but in truth they would be predictable, unoriginal, and would not really challenge your thinking about soldiers and the wars that they fight.

But, thankfully, this book was not written by other such authors, it was written by Ben Fountain, and I have to say that he has delivered something far richer, more nuanced, and certainly more thought-provoking. Yes, the PR machines keep on spewing out their spin. Yes, the rich and powerful merely use the poor soldiers to serve their own ends. And yes, the whole system is shown to be pretty corrupt. And yet there is also great humanity displayed in these pages.

Oh my people.

This is a novel that deals head-on with the problematic issue of Western countries sending their troops to fight abroad, but as another of the quotes on the back of the book points out: Instead of skewering the military … it skewers the society responsible for sending it to war. Here Billy and his buddies really are just pawns in the game, with no say over what they have to do and where they have to go – either when they are on duty in Iraq or, as it turns out, when they are on their heroes’ tour back in America.

As Billy and his fellow soldiers travel the country in a whirlwind of interviews, hand-shaking, and photo opportunities we get an insight into what it feels like for the men who have seen the true horrors of war first-hand to return home only to be prodded and pawed over as if they were public property by well-meaning but totally ill-informed citizens.

All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.

Fountain does a great job of showing us Billy’s inner life; his thoughts and questions, his hopes and his fears, and perhaps most of all the bewildering confusion of it all. In terms of characterisation, I certainly found the protagonist here to be as fully rounded and three-dimensional a character as any I have read. And this makes Billy’s observations all the more powerful, as he tries to piece together the madness around him.

This really is a moving tale, full of sadness and (dark) humour, life and death, and truth and deceit. It certainly had an effect on me and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. I will also look forward to seeing what else Ben Fountain produces.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday

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After reading Sophie’s World, I didn’t know what to read next and so wandered over to our “unread” bookshelf and perused the titles. After picking up a few books, I decided on a whim to try a Paul Torday novel called The Girl on the Landing.

I knew nothing whatsoever about this novel, but had bought it a while back in a charity shop, solely based on the fact that I had read and enjoyed a couple of his other novels (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce).

The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday

In fact, before I get on to the novel itself, I must just mention a couple of things about Paul Torday. The phenomenally successful comic novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was Torday’s first novel. Yes, that’s right: the very first time he turned his hand to novel writing he sold bookshops worth of copies throughout the world, won two literary prizes, and had the work turned into a major film. And do you know how old he was when this first work was published? Fifty-nine. Yes – I’ll write it again – 59. Amazing. (I like to think that there’s still time for me yet…)

Although he was a late starter, once Salmon Fishing was published, Torday then went on to write a further seven novels in the next seven years. Another quite remarkable feat. Sadly, I see that Torday is no longer with us, as he passed away in 2013.

Anyway, enough about the author; what is the novel about?

Well, it is a strange tale, truth be told.

Michael Gascoigne appears to be the very epitome of reliability and routine. He is a man who wears the same types of clothes day in, day out, and whose days follow the same pattern – either whiled away at Grouchers, his Mayfair gentleman’s club, or spent up on his Perthshire estate, walking, fishing, or shooting.

Michael’s wife, Elizabeth, still likes her husband, but finds their marriage passionless and uneventful, but over the years she has come to accept it for what it is.

But then Michael begins to change.

It all starts when they are visiting some friends of friends, and Micheal believes that he sees a mysterious girl in a painting hanging in their landing. From then on, various small changes start to occur in this otherwise most predictable of men. At first Elizabeth (who narrates half the chapters) likes the changes she observes in her husband. He becomes more interesting, lively, passionate even. But then she finds some packets of unused medication, and starts out on a journey of discovery about her husband that becomes more and more disturbing.

The Girl on the Landing is a curious book. Part psychological thriller, part romance, and part ghost story. It’s certainly eerie, although mostly due to the fact that, along with Elizabeth, you find yourself questioning everything that you thought you knew about Michael. To be honest, I can’t really work out whether I like the book or not. It is certainly a darker kind of tale than I typically go for. However, it is well structured, and the way that the narrative is told through the eyes of Michael in one chapter and then Elizabeth the next certainly helps to add to the complexity, confusion, and suspense that the author was evidently trying to achieve.

At any rate, a book not to be read alone in a remote Scottish house.

If you did like this, you might also enjoy Paul Torday’s The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.

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