Book reviews: fiction from Yann Martel, Ernest Bramah and Charles Dickens
Martel is moving and redeeming once he gets the whimsy out of the way; Bramah, a forgotten bestseller of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, gets the Stephen Fry treatment; and Richard Armitage relishes the many voices of Dickens
by Yann Martel (read by Mark Bramhall)
The High Mountains of Portugal employs that most 21st century of literary forms: the interlinked novella. “Homeless” starts in Lisbon in 1904 before, as its title suggests, roaming farther afield. Its hero, Tomas, is so overwhelmed by grief (his son, partner and father have all died) that he walks backwards in defiance of the world. He borrows his uncle’s car and starts to drive, albeit badly, in search of a mythical crucifix. “Homeward” inverts the spaciousness of part one, being set in a single room, again in Portugal. Dr Lozora, whose wife has also died, is performing an autopsy, only to be interrupted by debates linking Hercule Poirot, Jesus, humour and fiction. There is also a skin-crawling autopsy and a something strange inserted into the corpse. “Home”, the least fantastical section, is set in contemporary Canada, and features a third widower, this time politician Peter Tovey who finds weird, but poignant solace at a monkey refuge in Oklahoma. Mark Bramhall does a fabulous job, lending a lightness of touch to Tomas’ absurd reversed life, while convincing us that Peter Tovey really does find wisdom through a chimp. He can do accents but reins them in to create characters not caricatures, something Martel’s fantasies flirt with, but just about avoid. Moving, whimsical and ultimately redeeming.
by Ernest Bramah (read by Stephen Fry)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Before being hounded for some crude, but frankly not world-ending comments at the Bafta awards ceremony, Stephen Fry cast his honeyed rumble upon the obscure Tales of Max Carrados by the equally obscure Ernest Bramah. In his day, Bramah rubbed shoulders, figuratively given his reclusive tendencies, with Conan Doyle, Jerome K. Jerome and H.G. Wells, writing humour and crime fiction with equal facility. His Kai Lung stories, set in a fantastical China, taught enlightenment through simplicity, with added dragons. Max Carrados, who outdid Sherlock Holmes in The Strand magazine, is blind but can read with his fingers. Helped by sidekick Louis Carlyle and the Jeeves-like Parkinson, he solves his first case “The Coin of Dionysus” (about a forged coin) without leaving his study. The tone, at once wry and louche, continues through the light xenophobia of “The Game Played in the Dark” (more missing coins). Signora Ferraja, who says “Amerigans”, complains: “‘The laws of my country are not good at all.’ ‘From what I hear on all sides,’ said Carrados, ‘I am afraid that your country is not alone.’” Fry revels in such witticisms, as he does in the absurd nothings of the plot (strange cases involving the Monkey Burglar). These divert and absorb, just not for very long.
by Charles Dickens (read by Richard Armitage)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
You may have seen Richard Armitage in full-body acting action as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit, or the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde in Silence of the Lambs spin-off Hannibal. Audiobook fans may have heard him narrating Hamlet (the novel), which won Audible’s 2014 audiobook of the year. His range of voices – unlike some he doesn’t hold back on accents or characterisation – means it was only a matter of time before he attempted a big Dickens, having read the Christmas story The Chimes last December. And here it is: his David Copperfield is a 36-hour epic which stretches his full range. Armitage narrates Dickens’ own vibrant narration with humour and melody, but you have to tip your hat to the diversity and consistency of his voicing, from the simpering, slippery Uriah Heep to the well-spoken bounder James Steerforth. The exception, of course, is David himself, whom Armitage develops from helpless child to confused, aspiring young man to mature, redeemed adult. Armitage passed my own tests, which were making Mr Murdstone a greater monster than, say, the murderer Magwitch in Great Expectations and presenting Mr Micawber as an infuriating, lovable rogue. If you have a spare day and half, I urge you to clamp headphones over your ears.