Posted by: billpurdue | June 3, 2010

The coal mining community and angels vs. demons

Well, after posting my 100th I’ve had a short break, but now it’s time to move on to new ground in this vast body of literature that we have access to. I suppose that sounds a bit grand and pretentious, but it’s one way of starting my next 100 postings.

Close to home

The first of the new “batch” as it were is a first novel by Edward Hogan: Blackmoor [Pocket Books £7.99 9781847391261] is the story of a family living in a mining village in Derbyshire, but it’s not about a mining family. George Cartwright is one of the few residents who does not work down the pit ; his wife Beth is an albino who has rather eccentric habits and they have a son Vincent. The story is set at two separate times, the chapters alternating between the two – the period before Beth dies and the time when George and his son have moved to another more upmarket village.

George and his family don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the residents of Blackmoor and Beth’s eccentricities don’t help. It’s a story of a close knit mining community that regards people who are slightly different with great suspicion. What’s more, the man who does gardening jobs for the Cartwrights finds that the lawn is getting warm – in fact smoke is rising from it. This is not confined to their garden alone as the authorities realise that the problems underground can only be solved by building a completely new village for all the residents on a new site away from the affected area. I wouldn’t be surprised if the inspiration for this part of the story came from the village of Arkwright Town near Bolsover where the whole village was moved in the 1990s to a new site because of methane gas.

Ten years later George still blames Vincent for his wife’s death, but Vincent can never understand why. Gradually  the truth about the exact circumstances of Beth’s demise are revealed, but Vincent doesn’t find out the whole truth until near the end of the book. It’s very difficult to summarise the story as there’s such a lot in this book – I can only recommend that you read it yourself.

The book won the Desmond Elliot Prize last year and has been highly praised by Man-Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel, who hailed Edward Hogan as a “major new talent”. I certainly enjoyed it, though I felt it needed a more conclusive ending. By the way, I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve seen the word “nesh” in print – it’s a word we use round these parts (Notts. and N.E. Derbys.) to describe someone who feels the cold more than most.

You can listen to an interview with Edward Hogan on BBC Radio Nottingham and he will be giving a talk about the novel and reading from it at Heanor Library on June 10th starting at 7.30pm. For tickets (£4 and £3 concessions) phone 08456 058 058.

Devils and Angels

How many stories have you read which begin with someone waking up to find that they have lost their memory? It seems to be a familiar theme to me, though I couldn’t quote any titles off hand which have this as their opening. This is how The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell [Orion £7.99 9780575084650] starts off, but I’m glad I wasn’t put off: it soon became un-put-downable.

Gabriel Antaeus – or that’s what he is led to believe he is called – wakes up in a flat in Budapest, his head sticking to the floor with his own blood and a pile of money on the table. He has no idea who he is and whether he came by the money honestly. As the story goes on, he receives clues about who he is and where he came from. They are in the form of notes pushed under the door or found in obscure places, like in the pages of a book which arrives in the post. There’s also a man who he bumps into in mysterious circumstances from time to time – Zadkiel Stephomi (note the surname) – who eventually provides him with more information, but Gabriel can never decide if he is a friend or foe.

Gabriel has a special interest in angels and demons and the relationship between them. His flat appears to be stocked with plenty of books on angels, the devil and theology generally. He begins seeing a burning man when he looks in the mirror or in his dreams and the woman, Casey, who lives across the hallway reveals she is pregnant, but she is adamant there is no father. Why is he so drawn to the statue of the angel Gabriel in the city and why does a woman whom he recognises run away from him? Slowly but surely the story turns into a tour de force between good and evil, but how will it leave Gabriel in the end?

It’s a fairly quick read and it hasn’t received wonderful reviews on the whole, but I certainly enjoyed it. (What does that say about me?)  Alex Bell’s second book Jasmyn is due out in paperback in September.

In future editions – “13 Things that don’t make sense” and Jeremy Hardy researches his family history.

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