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Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

Today’s young people (what the government classes as the 18-24 year olds) may have a hard time gaining a proper perspective of the Berlin of the Cold War. A city divided between the British, Americans and French in the West, and the Russians in the East. The west would eventually coalesce into one beacon of democracy deep behind Winston Churchill’s iron curtain in communist Europe. To get from one side of the city to the other, to cross from one country to another, from one way of life to another, you had to go through an artificial border (as most borders are in fact). This was where the Berlin Wall came in. Designed to stop people crossing, to stop East Germans abandoning the soviet for the capitalist. Border guards, from one nuclear super power to another, would rarely act if someone was on the other side, maybe yards away, trying to escape across and being hunted by the other sides guards. It was across a border. It was an internal matter. For the most part, on German sufferance, the West and East were happy to posture in this city for forty-five years. A city and its people the pawns of nuclear rivals.

China Mievilles story of The City and The City, a truncating of the title of a book within the book, takes that very real historical situation to an existential extreme in a hard boiled noir masterpiece.

The ‘eastern’ cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma located somewhere, independently in the Balkans, sit side by side. Not exactly East and West Berlin, but as the writer coins “gross-topically” on top of one another. This street is Besz, this street is Ul Qoman, that street is both and neither. Over centuries two cities, two distinct cultures had overlapped and merged into two nations in one space. Citizens of one, walking the same streets, in the presence of the same skylines of citizens of another have to unsee what they are seeing if it belongs to the other nation. Grey, depressing, lifeless architecture sits right beside more modern, glass fronted high rises. Two cities with their own economies, police, fashion. The noise, the smells, the animals, the traffic… all have to be unseen and negotiated without doing the one thing that unites the two nations in fear;

BREACH.

The Breach is not Besz, it is not Ul Quoman. It belongs to neither, operates in both, and exists between. The Breach polices the distinctions between the two and ‘disappears’ in a haunting echo of a rogues gallery of 20th century dictatorships those who have transgressed the boundaries. Breach are the bogeymen, the KGB, the Stazi, Gestapo, the secret police. But who are Breach accountable to?

When the murder of a Canadian archaeology student takes place in Ul Qoma, and her body turns up in Beszel it is apparent to both nations police that a breach has taken place. And yet… where are Breach? Why haven’t they acted?

China Mieville dials back on his wonderful manipulations of language to present an accessible story set in a fictional city state of our world. His is a study of identity, of surveillance by the state and the extent to which paranoia is a comfort. Better to be paranoid than face reality?

As a historian, used to suspending my modern day views in the act of looking at the past I was well suited to reading this book. The unique nature of the two cities requires a blunt acceptance of it, to question it could lead only to confusion. Accept the premise, and jump right in and you can experience the story as a hard boiled detective case. A murder has been committed, a mystery created, and it must be solved. Mieville does superbly to build what is a small apparently localized crime into the birth pains of a revolution, an international incident. His way of introducing and explaining the rules of the world is gentle and builds beautifully on top of one another. Neil Gaiman on the back cover calls this ‘Fiction of the new century’.

It is indeed fiction of the new century. The lessons of the old century made ever prescient in a mind bending artistic novel. China Mieville constantly takes my breath away.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Fiction

 

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Review: Past Caring by Robert Goddard

The first of the three books that I picked as part of the Transworld Crime Caper was Robert Goddards debut crime novel Past Caring. Past Caring tells the story of a down on his luck, divorced, history teacher being given the opportunity to research the background of a former Home Secretary in the Pre-WW1 Liberal cabinet. What seems to our narrator as a straight forward tale of one mans fall from grace rapidly takes on sinister notions. Somebody conspired to ruin the career of this man, and possibly kill him. The story by and large chases down the who and why, dove tailing with the ghosts of the narrators own problematic life.

I chose Past Caring as the first book because I am myself a trained historian. My historical interests including the period which this book covers. What appealed to me was a work of historical fiction being set in a ‘present’ of the 1960s but pursuing the ghosts of the 1910s. The research to make it authentic must have been immense.

I had the unusual situation when reading it of finding myself not being particularly keen to get round to it, but every time I did pick it up I found I couldn’t put it down for hours. Have you experienced that situation with a book before? Influencing this was probably what I thought was a weak prologue and a rash of typographical and other mistakes in the text – it really needs proofreading – a surprise considering how long ago it was first published. The occasional use of a technique where the narrator referenced events that had not happened yet were also a little annoying and disrupted the tension and flow of the work. A lot of the characters also seem to talk with a similar well-educated polite voice. Perfectly acceptable in the memoir of the deceased Home Secretary and in conversations between historians but a little out of place when we listen in on other less well-educated people.

That said, there are two fantastic qualities to the book that deserve a recommendation. On the one hand there is the memoir that forms a good chunk of chapter 1 (which is about a 6th of the size of the full book) and all the different vivid stories characters tell. The first person narrative really works in these passages and pulls you right into the middle of the mystery. The second quality is the representation of historians, historical debate and processes. I read passages of conversation by historians in the book that felt incredibly authentic. Robert Goddard knows his characters inside and out and has written a tight, gripping crime story. Certainly memorable and, although I hope you get a printing that is corrected, I do recommend reading it if you enjoy your mystery and Georgian England.

Time is running out for me to complete the Transworld Crime Caper 3 book challenge. I’m going to have to up my game. Pretty sure I can get the 2nd book, “The Business of Dying” by Simon Kernick read, but all three? College and work have something to say about that. I’m not throwing the towel in yet though…
You can order the edition reviewed in this post from Amazon here.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Fiction, Reviews

 

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I confess to a Transworld Crime Caper!

Crime Caper Thumbnail

Late last week my favourite Irish writing blog (not about Irish writing, just from Ireland. We all have favourites, why don’t you?), that of Catherine Ryan Howard, published news of her participation in a publishing lines promotional reading challenge. The Great Transworld Crime Caper as they have called it involves bloggers reading between one and three books of their selection – gratis – in exchange for a review to be posted on their blog. You may recall that late last year I reviewed a couple of nonfiction children’s history books for Usborne. Well, this little caper was not going to escape, so I cut myself in on Catherine’s little scheme and volunteered at the weekend to read three of their crime thriller’s;

1 Past Caring by Robert Goddard

2 The Business of Dying by Simon Kernick

3 The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett

In order for me to meet this reading challenge on tight deadlines I am going to have to ramp up my reading still faster than I already have been. Not only that but I will have to learn how to turn paper pages again! I’m so used to pushing buttons on my Kindle I’m kind of afraid I might get a paper cut with some old fashion tree based reading material. I shall risk it though, and so should you. To read the original article on Transworlds blog click here.

Just make sure you have your getaway planned.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2011 in Publishing, Reviews

 

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