Paperback reviews: A Meal In Winter, The Tell-tale Heart, The Elements of Eloquence, Under A Mackerel Sky, Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc)

 

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The Independent Culture

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (Trs by Sam Taylor) (Portobello £7.99)

One chill morning in the 1940s, three German soldiers are sent out into the Polish countryside to hunt Jews. They find a young man hiding in the woods and capture him. As they trudge back to camp, they take shelter from the cold in an abandoned barn and prepare a simple meal. Eating, drinking and smoking, they discuss the prisoner’s likely fate, should he be turned over to their superiors.

This superb novella from the French author Hubert Mingarelli explores the psychological effects of wartime atrocity on both the victims and the perpetrators. Narrated in spare, simple language by one of the soldiers, the book shows how he and his companions are haunted by the butchery that surrounds them. They are together, but feel utterly alone; their conversations more like parallel monologues. Bauer, the most volatile of the three, is “prone to strange compulsions”; the gentler Emmerich retreats inwards, losing himself in memories of family and home.

The prose, elegantly translated by Sam Taylor, is full of rich visual descriptions, which not only lend a sense of verisimilitude but also suggest the narrator’s mental state. In enumerating the physical details of his surroundings and his interaction with them – the thin wood shavings needed to make a fire catch; the precise way a sausage is sliced before being added to a soup – he seems deliberately to distract himself from the enormity of the horrors to which he contributes.

But the very fact that the soldiers are troubled, almost incapacitated by their duties – along with their instinctive revulsion at the Polish anti-Semite who interrupts their meal to abuse the prisoner – speaks to the persistence of humanity even in the bleakest of times, and lends a frosty glimmer of hope to this enormously powerful and moving book.

*****

The Tell-tale Heart by Jill Dawson (Sceptre £8.99)

When Drew Beamish, a teenage tearaway, is killed in a motorcycle accident in the Cambridgeshire Fens, his heart is donated to Patrick, an ailing 50-year-old professor, womaniser, and souse. A nurse lets slip the details of the donor and Patrick becomes interested in the family’s history.

Despite the allusion to Edgar Allan Poe in the title, there is not much of the gothic or mystical here; Jill Dawson’s focus is on exploring life’s unpredictability, on unexpected parallels and coincidences. As Patrick begins to recover from his operation and seeks forgiveness from those he has wronged, Dawson weaves in tales from Drew’s family history, skilfully tacking back and forth in time, and developing characterisation with a warm, empathetic touch.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Patrick’s narration, but the interleaved tales of Drew’s ancestors — particularly the story of Willie, who becomes embroiled in the Napoleonic wars and the Littleport riots of 1816, resonate with an earthy authenticity

***

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (Icon Books £8.99)

Mark Forsyth’s enjoyable, accessible book explores the uses of classical rhetoric. Drawing on literary luminaries, from William Blake to John Lennon, he shows how the art of theoretical figures can make one’s prose more memorable.

Forsyth can be provocative – he begins with a compelling argument that “Shakespeare was not a genius” but rather a craftsman who honed his style by reading in translation the work of classic rhetoricians such as Plutarch – and often very funny, in a chummy sort of way: “We can’t all be Oscar Wilde, and it would be interminably dull if we were. The world would degenerate into one permanent epigram.”

****

Under a Mackerel Sky by Rick Stein (Ebury Press £7.99)

Rick Stein grew up in a middle-class family in Oxfordshire, but spent his summers in Cornwall, where he was drawn to the “ruggedness” of the landscape and the “gnarled endurance” of the local fishermen. After his father killed himself having suffered with depression, Rick fled to Australia  before eventually settling in Padstow to establish the seafood restaurant that made his name.

This is a strong memoir, in which Stein writes touchingly of his memories of childhood and his troubled relationship with his father. You don’t usually associate celebrity chefs with a facility for prose, but Stein’s is fine – especially in his vivid descriptions of his beloved Cornish coast.

***

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc) by Delia Ephron (Simon & Schuster £7.99)

This book collects a series of autobiographical essays from the American novelist and screenwriter Delia Ephron. “Blame it On the Movies” revisits her aimless twenties, during which she circled slowly towards a literary career; “Collaboration” explores the pleasures and difficulties of working with her late sister, Nora. The centrepiece, “Losing Nora”, is a remarkable account of her sister’s passing that brims with wit and insight: “The clocks keep ticking, insulting our grief, forcing us into new realities, cheering us up, making us laugh, taunting us with the possibility of forgetting, zapping us with the pain of remembering.” Rarely can the experience of losing a loved one have been so truthfully expressed.

***

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