There There: Tommy Orange

Native Americans, or Indians, were the first settlers in North America. But when colonizers from Europe came, they not only took away the Native Americans’ lands and livelihoods but rewrote their narratives. There There is Tommy Orange’s way of reclaiming the narrative of the Native Americans living in the United States today.

“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and the current state as a people. … We have all the logos and mascots. … Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”

The book follows a group of people in Oakland, California, as they prepare to go for a powwow. It builds up a picture through a mosaic of characters, each with his or her fears and dreams.

There is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, looking after the three grandsons of her sister, Jacqui Red Feather. Feeling responsible for the suicide of her only daughter, and fearing that she would only damage her grandsons, Jacqui won’t come near them. One of the grandsons, Orwil Red Feather, is trying to make sense of what it means to be an Indian (with a bit of help from Google) and is planning to go to the powwow in full regalia. Calvin Johnson doesn’t really identify as Indian; he just sees himself as someone from Oakland. Dene Oxendene is recording the stories of Native Americans to build an oral history of his people. Edwin Black, who once dreamed of being a writer, is an overweight man who lives with his mother and spends his life in front of computer screens.

It isn’t all bleak but many of the characters deal with addiction, depression and alcoholism, and some of them turn to crime. Like Octavio Gomez, whose father died protecting him from bullets, and Tony Loneman, who is suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and is planning to rob the powwow.

Orange dedicates chapters to the individual characters. As the book plays out, heading towards the final confrontation, the web of connections between them becomes clearer.

I loved the way Orange writes. Edwin, avoiding contact at a planning meeting for the powwow “gets out his phone as everyone does now when they want to leave without leaving”. Opal “doesn’t step on cracks. She walks carefully because she has always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous. She lives by a superstition she would never admit to. … She lives by it, like breathing.”

This is a powerful, angry book. The title doesn’t refer to the soothing words you say to a child but is from a quote by Gloria Stein about Oakland: “there isn’t a there there”. But Orange interprets it not to mean that the place is worthless but to mean that nothing stays the same—the “there” she grew up doesn’t exist any more. “[F]or Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The writing is lyrical and brutal. And using different characters to tell the story means that Tommy Orange gives you a multi-faceted view of what it means to be Native American in the US today. I will end with a final quote that I find apt: “Opal and Jacqui’s mom never let them kill a spider… . Her mom said spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap. She said that’s what we are. Home and trap.”

Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film—Syd Field

What makes a movie great? Why are some movies memorable while others disappear into obscurity? The foundation underlying the performances and the directing is the screenplay. A screenplay can make or break a film. Going to the Movies is a combination of memoirs and a lesson on the art of screenwriting by a man who is known to have written some of the definitive books on the subject, Syd Field.

Field studied film at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s when it was buzzing with talent. One of Field’s early mentors was Jean Renoir, one of the great French film directors, whom he met when he was studying film at the University of California, Berkeley. Renoir believed that film was a “new form of printing” and Lumière, the inventor of the motion picture camera, was the new Gutenberg (who invented printing in the 1400s).

Other students who went on to become famous were a young graduate student called Francis Ford Coppola and Ray Manzarek, who was part of a then little-known band called The Doors. It was the time of the New Wave, a revolt in cinema against the “puff films” (such as wholesome Doris Day fare). The New Wave produced films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour[1] and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, all films that Field admired.

Field also met some of the greats of cinema during the course of his career: Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni (whom he saw sitting on a bench as an old man and plucked up the courage to talk to) and Sam Peckinpah, with whom Field spent a summer when Peckinpah was writing The Wild Bunch.  

The book follows Field’s career and provides a glimpse into the film business, particularly the Hollywood film industry. He worked at Cinemobile, which started out as a “studio on wheels”, providing the technical and physical aspects of a film’s production. It was the brainchild of Fouad Said, who now wanted to produce his own films and had created Cine Artists. Field’s job was “find material”. For two and a half years, he read through piles of screenplays, looking for the one that would be good enough to go into production. But producers did not read scripts and had a minimal attention span: the script needed to be summarized in a couple of sentences. Among the scripts he pitched successfully were American Graffiti and Rocky, unlike Taxi Driver by Paul Schrader, for which there was no interest.   

Trawling through never-ending piles of scripts allowed Field to understand the elements that make them work—or not. Based on his close reading, Field devised a three-act paradigm that could be applied to most scripts. Briefly, this is how it works: Act 1, the first 20-30 minutes, sets the scene. This is followed by a plot point that pushes the protagonist into Act 2, which Field calls the Confrontation (and which also gives the protagonist his/her goal). Act 3 is the struggle to reach the goal and the resolution.

Field’s analyses films such as Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Matrix and Casablanca to understand how they function. I enjoyed these analyses, and they made me want to go back to the films, so I could watch them with a different perspective, this time with an awareness of the nuts and bolts of the script.

This is an interesting book, even if you are not planning to write for films. Many cinema-goers do not always pay attention to the scriptwriter, although she/he is fundamental to the film (I do only when the writing stands out). Syd Field shines a light on this essential part of cinema: the writing on which the entire production rests.


[1] I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour when I was studying film, and I can still remember how it moved me, well over 30 years later. A powerful script.

A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles

“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

In 1922, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks for being an aristocrat. The Count’s home at the time of sentencing is a suite at the Hotel Metropole. He is moved out of his suite to a small room on the sixth floor, where furniture and odds and ends are stored. Taking it in his stride, the Count picks out the things dearest to him and has them moved upstairs. He eventually finds a way to break the wall into the room next door—through his closet—and fashions for himself a suite of sorts.

The staff at the hotel know and like the Count. He has managed to stash some money and so is able to live reasonably well, eating at the two restaurants, the Piazza and the Boyarsky, which is more upscale. But living in a confined space starts to take its toll on him.

His ennui is broken by a little girl in yellow, Nina, who befriends him. Nina is staying at the hotel while her parents are away and has plenty of time to explore it, not least because she has managed to acquire a passkey to all the rooms. She opens up the hotel for him, taking him to spaces he did not know existed. When she leaves, she makes him a gift of the key. The next time he sees her, she has grown up into a serious young woman who is leaving to work in the provinces.

The years go by, and the Count settles into a daily routine. But Nina hasn’t finished with him. She shows up unexpectedly with her eight-year-old daughter Sofia, and asks him to take care of her while she goes to Siberia to look for her husband. She never comes back, and the man who had prided himself in not forming long-term relationships finds himself taking care of a child and seeing her into adulthood.

Life at the Metropole reflects the changes outside: the clientele shifts from aristocrats to Party apparatchiks. So does the management: an incompetent waiter, whom the Count dubs the Bishop, becomes the manager through his Party connections. The Count works as a waiter at the Boyarsky where he forms a Triumverate with his good friends, Emile, the chef, and Andrey, the headwaiter. They meet every morning to set (and sample) the day’s menu.    

The Count is a wonderful creation: erudite, courteous, observant and determined not to let his circumstances get the better of him. The hotel is full of vividly drawn characters: the hot-tempered and talented Emile, the unflappable Andrey, the seamstress Marina who teaches the Count how to sew, the actress Anna Urbanova with whom he has an on-off affair, Osip, the Party apparatchik who hires the Count to teach him English and French, and so many more.

I enjoyed Towles’s writing. Here is a description of Andrey’s virtuosity as a waiter: “Having led a group of women to their table…Andrey seemed to pull back the chairs all at once. …[W]hen the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least, not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover had transmitted the spark of life.”

This is a masterful book. I couldn’t imagine how Towles would be able to keep up an interesting story within the confines of a hotel. But all of life is there: intrigue, politics, spies, love and friendship; the life of the country is reflected in the goings-on of the hotel. I have to hand it to Towles: the story never flags.

In keeping with the confines of the setting, Towles has set himself limits for his chapter headings: every one of the words begins with an A. I also loved the little icons at the beginning of each section, depicting something that would be central to that part of the story.

Pachinko: Min Jin Lee

“History has failed us, but no matter.”

Pachinko is about Koreans living in Japan, a group of immigrants about whom not a lot has been written in fiction.

The book starts in a little fishing village in Korea. Hoonie, a man with a cleft palate and club foot, and his wife Yangchin run a boarding house in Yeongdo. They have a daughter, Sunja, whom they love. Then Hoonie get tuberculosis and dies. Sunja is seduced by Hansu, a businessman, and becomes pregnant. She thinks he will marry her, but when he admits he has a wife in Osaka in Japan and offers to keep her as a mistress, she refuses to have anything more to do with him. Instead she agrees to marry Isak, a Christian priest and boarder whom she and her mother have nursed through tuberculosis.

Isak and Sunja move to Osaka to live with his brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee, and the two women become very close. Sunja is shocked at the way Koreans live in Japan—treated as second-class citizens, their houses are ramshackle and their neighbourhoods poor. The outsider status is made worse for the family because Josep and Isak are Christians, a minority religion.  

Sunja gives birth to Noa, whom the family raise as their own. She later has a second son by Isak, Mozasu. Then their world falls apart as Isak is arrested for reciting the Lord’s Prayer and released only when he is close to death.

It is a time of war in both countries: Korea’s civil war has split the country into two, and Japan has entered the Second World War. In the meantime, Hansu has been keeping an eye on Sanju and Noa, but only makes contact with Sanju after Isak’s death. He arranges for a safe place for the family in the countryside and brings Yangchin to her daughter. Yoseb finds work in Nagasaki.

The story follows the family through their ups and downs. This is a story of endurance—mostly on the part of the women, especially Sunja, who somehow copes with all the hardship that life throws at her. Lee writes with heart—you invest in these people and feel for them.

And the facts are shocking. Koreans are not recognized as citizens in Japan. They are only granted three-year residency permits, which have to be renewed, no matter how long they had lived in the country or even if they were born there. Obtaining a passport is almost impossible. Not welcome in most regular occupations, the one way of making money was for them to run pachinko parlours, which are gaming arcades (pachinko are slot machines).

Mozasu drops out of school and starts working for pachinko parlours and eventually makes his fortune running them. The more intellectual Noa, on the other hand, pretends to be Japanese and is terrified that he would lose his job if the truth came out. He faces the dilemma of many immigrants who want to take on the identity of their adopted homeland but have their roots elsewhere: in the end, they are neither wholly one or the other. The treatment of Koreans as second-class citizens in Japan doesn’t really change much over time: Mozasu’s son Solomon faces it in the 1980s, although it is so normal for him that it takes his American-born girlfriend to see it.

Min Jin Lee does the story of Korean immigrants justice, painting a vivid picture of their lives and of their losses and triumphs. At a time when migration has become a global issue, and they are often seen as “the other”, we need books like this that depict immigrants as people not that different from anyone else.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Life with an Enchanting Tawny Owl—Martin Windrow

“Shaving is tricky with an owl on your right shoulder.”

Especially when the owl sees it as a game, pecking at the razor at the end of each stroke and trying to eat the shaving cream. Meet Mumble, the Tawny Owl with whom Martin Windrow shared 15 years of his life.

Introduced to birds of prey through his older brother Dick, Windrow decides to get one of his own. Enter Wellington, a Little Owl (a species, not a description). It is a disaster from the start. The appropriately named owl (with the Duke’s iron will) had not been hand-reared by a human, and all of Windrow’s attempts to win his trust are met with deep suspicion. Eventually, Wellington escapes.

The second time around is completely different. Windrow’s owl is one of a batch of eggs that are hatched under Dick’s care. When Dick’s son is given the privilege of naming the owl, he calls her Marmite Sandwich, after his favourite thing. Windrow finds Marmite Sandwich in the kitchen, a little ball of feathers with large, shiny eyes.

“‘Kweep’, it said quietly. Enchanted, I leaned closer. It blinked its furry grey eyelids, then jumped very deliberately up on to my right shoulder. It felt like a big, warm dandelion head against my cheek, and it smelt like a milky new kitten. ‘Kweep’, it repeated, very softly.”

On the drive home, the owl escapes from her box and perches on his shoulder throughout the drive, taking a “delicate beak-grip” on his ear to steady herself. Windrow rechristens her Mumble for her way of holding a “quiet conversation with herself, me and the world at large”. And that is the start of a beautiful relationship.

Back in his apartment, Mumble settles into Wellington’s old cage, a large aviary on his balcony (which he has to keep secret from his landlord). Living with what is essentially a wild bird is fascinating, and Windrow is a keen observer. Mumble has a definite personality. She is eternally curious, loves drinking from a dripping tap, riding on the carriage of a typewriter as he types and exploring the back of shelves. Her curiosity can sometimes get her into trouble, like the time she leans over a little too far over the dishwashing water and falls in (and mutters irritably to herself as she slowly dries off). She also tries to feed Windrow bits of raw chicken, and when he avoids the morsels, she tries to stuff them into his ear instead.

As an owlet she is fine with visitors, but as an adult bird she is possessive and attacks anyone else who comes into the apartment. Windrow and Mumble eventually move to the country where she has a larger aviary outdoors.

Windrow’s observations of Mumble are interspersed with a lot of information about owls in general: the different species, how they are coping with the way humans are changing the landscape and their place in folklore. He is obviously passionate about owls and at the end of this book, I felt I had learned a lot about these wonderful birds.

Cutting for Stone: Abraham Verghese

This is a rich story, interweaving the lives of people working at a clinic in Addis Ababa run by a Christian mission (known as the Missing Clinic by the local people and everyone else) with the history of Ethiopia from the 1950s to the late 1970s.

Sister Mary Joseph Praise is a Carmelite nun from Kerala, who is sent to work in Africa by the Abbess of her convent. On the ship, she meets Dr. Thomas Stone, a surgeon, who is also going to work in Africa. They both end up working at Missing, with Sister Mary becoming the doctor’s indispensable right-hand person. They seem to have a professional relationship, so everyone—including the doctor—is stunned when Sister Mary goes into labour with twins. She had managed to keep her pregnancy secret from everyone.

The story is narrated by one of the twins, Marion (named after the famed gynaecologist, J. Marion Sims), who starts the story with his birth and that of his twin, Shiva. The birth is complicated—the twins are joined at the skull, and Sister Mary cannot push them out. The resident gynaecologist, Dr. Hema, being away, Dr. Stone is summoned to help. But faced with trying to save the life of the woman he loves, he loses his nerve. The twins survive, only thanks to the arrival of Dr. Hema, but she cannot save their mother. Shattered, Dr. Stone leaves the clinic and the country without acknowledging his children.

The boys are brought up by Hema and the man who becomes her lover and companion, Dr. Ghosh. The boys grow up at the clinic with Genet, the daughter of the maid, Rosina. Their childhood is relatively happy—Hema and Ghosh make good parents, and Marion-Shiva and Genet are inseparable. But adolescence shifts the dynamic between them, leading to a single action which impacts all their lives. Marion feels betrayed by Shiva, and the twins grow apart. Genet deals with her demons by joining the fight for Eritrean independence.

Politics is always present in the lives of the characters. Colonel Mebratu, who Ghosh’s patient, launches a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie. The coup fails, and the Colonel and his driver, Zemui—Genet’s father—are taken into custody. Rosina goes looking for Zemui and disappears for days, and Ghosh is arrested and imprisoned. Then later, when Genet and a group of Eritreans hijack an Ethiopian Airways plane, a woman identifies Marion as Genet’s friend, which means that he has to leave the country. He goes to the United States to work in an inner-city hospital in Boston, which finally brings him face-to-face with his father.

The characters are rounded and nuanced—no one is purely good or bad. Addis is a character in its own right, and Abraham Verghese brings it to life. When Sister Mary goes into labour, the rainy season had just ended, “its rattle on the corrugated tin roofs of Missing ceasing abruptly like a chatterbox cut off in midsentence. Overnight, in that hushed silence, the meskel flowers bloomed, turning the hillsides of Addis Ababa into gold. In the meadows around Missing the sedge won its battle over mud and swept right up to the paved threshold of the hospital.”

Verghese is a medical doctor and so are most of the characters in this book, including the twins. There is a lot of medical detail about operations and diseases, which some readers may find a little overwhelming but I thought worked, given the context.

Verghese covers decades of Ethiopian history, from the remnants of Italian colonialism to the coups against Haile Sailasse and Eritrea’s fight for independence. But this is at heart a book about people and the messy, complicated relationships we all have. Cutting for Stone is a beautifully written book that you can easily lose yourself in.

Judas: Amos Oz

Translated from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange

“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of the war that had divided the city a decade earlier. In the background you could hear the distant strains of an accordion, or the plaintive sounds of a harmonica behind closed shutters.”

This first paragraph sets the scene: war, hidden lives and emotions, and religion. The city is Jerusalem. Amos Oz died at the end of 2018, and this is his last book. It is the book of an older man, looking back at the past, wondering about alternative paths that, if taken, might have avoided conflicts that have become entrenched.

Oz has been writing about Israel for years. But in Judas, he raises questions not only about the creation of Israel but about Jesus and the conflictual relationship between Jews and Christians. And at the heart of both these stories is a man labelled a traitor.

Shmuel Ash is a student in Jerusalem, in love with his studies and with Yardena. But Yardena has had enough of him: “Either you’re like an excited puppy…or else you’re lying on your bed for days like an unaired quilt”, she tells him and leaves to marry someone else.

Shmuel’s father loses his business, so Shmuel has to give up university. When he sees an advertisement for a “humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history” to spend a few hours with a 70-year-old man in return for a small salary and board and lodgings, it seems a perfect way to retreat from the world.

The house in the advertisement is old and draws him into its meandering corridor, much as he is later drawn into the lives of the two people who live there. “[T]he passage was not level, but sloped downhill, as if it were a riverbed, not a dark corridor.” He is interviewed by the old man, Gershom Wald, and a young woman whom he later finds out is his daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. He moves in and becomes part of the household, and inevitably, falls in love with Atalia, the mysterious woman just out of reach.

Shmuel is writing his thesis on Jesus and the Jews, trying to understand the how the animosity between Jews and Christians started. After all, Jesus and his apostles were Jewish. Jesus did not want to start a new religion. According to Shmuel, Judas was a spy sent by the Jewish authorities to infiltrate Jesus’s entourage, to find out more about this young preacher. But Judas starts to believe in Jesus and thinks the only way that Jesus can prove his divinity is to go to Jerusalem. But things do not go as Judas planned. Jesus is crucified, and Judas is labelled a traitor.

There is a parallel story here, which Shmuel learns from Wald and Atalia: the story of her father, Shealtiel Abravanel. Abravanel was also branded a traitor because he challenged Ben Gurion on the foundation of the state of Israel, the only member of the Zionist executive committee to do so. Abravanel believed that Arabs and Israelis could live together, but it had to be done through constant dialogue and not through conflict. Like Judas, he is also banished and lives out his days in the old house. 

The conflict that Abravanel tries to avoid leaves its scars on the family. Micha, Wald’s son and Atalia’s husband, was killed in 1948, presumably by Arabs, during the fighting on the road to Jerusalem.

It is a house of ghosts, still lives and betrayals: Abravanel’s room has been left as it was, a shrine to him, and Wald lives with the memories of his dead son. For Wald and Atalia, there seems to be no way out of the house and the pattern their lives have fallen into.   

Oz has a way with words that bring people and scenes to life. The house and Jerusalem are characters in their own right. The house has grills on the windows but in the courtyard are geraniums, sprouting from “a mass of rusty pots and disused pans, paraffin stoves, buckets, basins, tin cans and even a cracked lavatory bowl, all filled with soil and promoted to the rank of flowerpot. … And over all this, lay the silence of a cold winter’s evening. Not the kind of limpid silence that invites you in, but rather an indifferent, age-old silence that turns its back on you.”

Oz writes beautifully and provocatively. This is a book to savour that leaves you plenty to think about.

The Cure for Death by Lightning: Gail Anderson-Dargatz

“The scrapbook was my mother’s way of setting down the days so they wouldn’t be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn’t happen or it was all a girl’s fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.”

During the Second World War, Beth Weeks was 15, living on a farm in British Columbia with her parents and her brother Dan. Her father, John, used to be a gentle man but became unpredictable and paranoid after he went into the forest chasing a bear that had attacked Beth. The Indians from the nearby reservation said he was taken by the spirit of Coyote, who lies in wait for those who are weak.

John’s mood swings have the family living in a constant state of tension. Dan has been threatening to sign up for the war but he doesn’t trust his father with Beth (with good reason, as it turns out). There is an undercurrent of rebellion in the house because of the way John treats Dennis and Billy, the two hired hands from the reservation nearby. Beth is being pursued by an unseen thing—there are sounds of rushing winds like something is running towards her, but she never sees anything. Could it be Coyote, looking for a wife?

Beth’s mother finds solace by turning to her dead mother for comfort and advice. Beth finds hers in the Indians from the reservation, especially in Billy and Nora, a girl her age with a bell necklace. The girls rebuild Nora’s great-grandmother’s underground hut and go there when Beth’s father or Nora’s mother get too much for them.

Beth’s mother records the events around her in her scrapbook: the day when it rained blue flax, covering the earth in flowers, the time when Sarah Kemp is killed by a bear, and the night John set fire to the hut of the Swede, their neighbour, with whom he had a running battle over boundaries.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz has an eye for detail, not just of the landscape but the way people interact with one another. At Sarah’s funeral, her senile grandmother mistakes Beth for her grand-daughter: “The whole crowd was still and staring expectantly, greedily, not shuffling self-consciously as they would if Mrs. Halley would have mistaken one of the pretty Hambrook sisters for Sarah. They watched to see what would happen next. They watched to gossip later.”

The land and the rhythm of the seasons are an intrinsic part of the story. Anderson-Dargatz’s description of living on a farm made me wonder if she was writing from experience—it is so real, you can smell it and hear it. The making of beet wine (there are recipes scattered throughout the book), bringing in the harvest, and the milking of cows every morning, no matter what else is happening in your life. They pick up on your mood, so if you are upset, they can make milking very difficult.

The characters are very well-drawn—no one is entirely good or bad, they’re just regular people with their flaws and strengths. Beth, the centre of the story, is a strong character. She has to deal with a difficult father, bullying in school and a mother who isn’t always there, but somehow manages to get through it. Even John, who is a difficult character to like, has moments of fragility.

And yes, there is a cure for death by lightning, “written in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s favorite pancakes:

Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.”

Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

A town in Scotland where the sun never breaks through the clouds, pollution hangs heavy, unemployment is high and people are in thrall to a potent drug called the brew, manufactured and sold by the drug lord, Hecate.

This is the setting for Jo Nesbo’s grim, gritty reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.[1]  He turns it into a police procedural, set around the 1980s (I think).[2] Macbeth is the head of the town’s SWAT team. A former drug addict, he is well-liked and respected by his colleagues. The new police commissioner, Duncan, wants to clean up the town by getting rid of Hecate. This isn’t going to be easy: Hecate’s tentacles spread deep into the town, and many in the local government and police are in his pocket.

As the book starts, Duff, a police inspector, has been tipped off about a large shipment of drugs arriving at the port. Thinking that he would get all the credit if he pulls it off by himself, he does not inform Duncan and turns down Macbeth’s offer of help. But things go wrong, and Macbeth—who is there with his team, including his trusted friend, Banquo—saves the day.

Walking back from the raid, Macbeth and Banquo are stopped by two women of indeterminate age with ravaged faces and “cold inscrutable [eyes] that don’t let you in, that only reflect their surroundings”. The women are joined by Strega, a man-woman in leopard-skin tight, who works for Hecate. The women predict that Macbeth will become head of the Organized Crime Unit and then Chief Commissioner. He dismisses them but then, as soon as he gets back to the police station, Duncan makes him head of Organized Crime. This is the beginning of the end for him: as Strega says to Hecate, “If people see the soothsayer’s first prophecy fulfilled, they’ll believe the next one blindly”.

Macbeth shares the day’s events with Lady, the beautiful owner of a posh casino, with whom he is in love. Lady, who is more ruthless and more ambitious than Macbeth, sees an opportunity to consolidate power and persuades Macbeth to murder Duncan. At first horrified by the idea, Macbeth eventually buys into Lady’s argument that together, the couple can do a lot of good for the town. (At least that’s what he tells himself.) He murders Duncan and takes over his job as Chief Commissioner, fulfilling the women’s prophecy. But the murder opens the door to his addiction. He takes a bit of the brew to get his courage up for the murder, and he is hooked. The drug fuels his paranoia, and the murders spiral out of control. Lady is made of sterner stuff but she has her demons too, and gradually, they both start to unravel.

Meanwhile Duff has realized what is going on, and is on the run from Macbeth. He joins up with other cops who take the fight to Macbeth. But will getting rid of one man really get rid of the endemic corruption?  

Nesbo sticks quite closely to the original. There are some nice touches: the brew is concocted by the two ravaged women from their secret recipe said to contain “toad’s glands, bumblebee wings, juice from rats’ tails”—like the witches’ brew. Naming their boss Hecate echoes the play too, where she is the goddess of witchcraft. Hecate in the book does not need witchcraft to cast his spell over the town: all he needs is the brew.

The betrayals in the novel feel more visceral than in the play. Macbeth is a character we are familiar with: the incorruptible cop who breaks the rules and gets results. So when Macbeth agrees to kill Duncan, he goes against the stereotype (I did think he agreed a little too easily, though).  Banquo is not a contemporary of Macbeth’s as he is in the play—he is the man who took Macbeth in as a child and gave him a home, which makes Banquo’s murder even more shocking. The bond between Macbeth and his nemesis, Duff (the Macduff character in the play) is also something Nesbo has added. The two men were at an orphanage together and know each other’s secrets. This creates an intimacy but also an uneasy relationship, which brings more depth to their conflict.

Nesbo underlines the filth in the town: the moral corruption is reflected in the weather and the pollution, unlike Fife a short distance away, which is bathed in sunlight. But the men living there choose to do so, as if too much light will expose them for what they are. The book opens with rain, following a single raindrop as it finds its way down to the main characters, a device Nesbo uses again at the end.

This is a book about power, which is the real drug here. Everyone is on the make and will stop at nothing to further their own ends. It fits right in with the world Nesbo has created in his other books. I found it compelling: the violence could be appalling but I couldn’t tear myself away from the story. I usually have trouble with books where none of the characters are sympathetic. Not here.


[1] Macbeth is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, has also been reviewed on this site.

[2] Before cell phones, at any rate.

Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat—Chris Stewart

It all began when Chris Stewart, 29 and out of work, bumps into a friend. “My great-aunt Jane has been on at me for weeks to find her a skipper [for her yacht], and I thought of you straightaway.” Which was a little odd because Stewart had never been on a boat before, never mind knowing how to sail. But he needed the job so he decided to keep minor details like that to himself.

A book, Teach Yourself Sailing, teaches him the jargon and how to tell one boat from another. He hopes this would be enough to impress grand-aunt Jane at their first meeting. (It is.) He is to pick up the boat, a Cornish Crabber, from a marina near Athens where it was being fixed by a Captain Bob Weare. He is to sail it to the island of Spetses, where Jane and her husband Bob would spend the summer. A dream job—provided Stewart could actually sail a boat.

He enlists the help of Keith, a “rather malodorous person with a black beard [and] a chubby boyish face” who has a crush on Stewart’s girlfriend, Ana, and who owns a boat, a “twenty-one-foot craft banged together out of plywood and tin”. All does not go well. There is thick fog and the boat capsizes, pitching them into the freezing sea. Fortunately, Keith knows how to right the boat by standing on it, and they survive.

Classes with a professional sailor, Tom Cunliffe, give Stewart enough knowledge to go to Athens with some confidence. He finds the Crabber in a terrible state—mouldy and without an engine. Stewart rescues it from Captain Bob and hands it over to two Greeks, both called Nikos. When Stewart worries that the keys are still with Captain Bob, one of the Nikos points out: “Keys are for engine. You got no engine.” Problem solved. New engine, new keys.

By the time Stewart has finished his stint with Jane, he is hooked on sailing. When Cunliffe asks if he would join his crew to sail to Newfoundland, Stewart jumps at it. They set out from Brighton on a rainy day in April, via Norway and Greenland. It is the first time that Stewart was going to be on a boat for weeks on end. He describes living on a boat: sharing a small space with other people (including Cunliffe’s wife and four-year-old daughter) in a small space, keeping watches at night while trying not to fall asleep, the cold, and the comforting tones of the shipping forecast. (And a very funny bit about trying to pee from the side of the ship in the freezing cold.)

They stop in a little town called Norheimsund, in Norway. The already stunning landscape of the fjords is heightened with white apple blossoms “as if bright patches of snow had lingered in the warm green valleys”. Norway is expensive so they live on fish they catch. A group of Norwegian men who come over for a night of drinking are horrified by this, and bring them enough smoked leg of lamb to last for the rest of the journey (which Stewart suspects wasn’t obtained entirely legally).

I love Stewart’s writing: he’s funny and lyrical and his vivid descriptions makes you feel you are there. And you can tell why people do get hooked on sailing: “as the land drops away astern, all the woes and worries that afflicted you on dry land—all the things you ought to have done but have left undone, all the drab detritus and clutter of your daily existence—slough away like the old dry skin of a snake”.

Chris Stewart is best known for the books he has written about living in Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain,[1] and for briefly being a drummer in Genesis. I am so glad they kicked him out—it would have been a real loss to the book world if he was still drumming!


[1] See my reviews of his books: A Parrot in the Pepper Tree on this blog and Driving Over Lemons for Women on the Road (scroll down to the bottom of the page: it was the first one I wrote for the website!).