To my eternal shame I never read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the book that made the author famous and without which this book never would have been written. To be totally honest with you, I was allready halfway when I realised that there even was another book ! I will read it, of course, but in a certain way I think I am very happy that I stumbled upon this one first. Because, as the author says on the last page, this is not a prequel or a sequel but a companion. And I loved it.
This is a silent book. The whole atmosphere is one of waiting, of describing the past and the past only, of looking back, of explaining to Harold Fry, who is on his way to Queenie, an old friend. It pictures in a beautiful way, and I know this sounds odd, the last weeks of terminal patients in a hospice for the dying, where everything moves slowly but intensely.
I loved the descriptions of Queenie's sea garden and I think many people are jealous of the way she retired from "real" life to one of contemplation and quiet, but remaining very much a real and complete person. I loved the way the author created the characters of the dying patients that became Queenie's friends, and how they lived the end of their life. And I love how Queenie described her relation with Harold Fry and his son.
This is a soothing book, and one of its strange effects is that it has made me less afraid of dying. It is friendly, it doesn't shout but almost whispers, and it slowly takes you on its trip through time. At the end you just can't put it away anymore, and you shouldn't, it deserves to be finished in one long read.
It is a beautiful book, even if not all that happened in it is beautiful, but it touched my soul, both by its words, it contence as by its style. It was lovely reading from the beginning to the end.
I am very curious about the other one...
This book is about William Avery, a junior officer recently arrived in Calcutta, Jeremiah Blake, an ex-captain turned native and Xavier Mountstuart, a legendary poet. When Mountstuart goes missing, Blake and Avery are sent on a mission to find him, but as the story unravels there is more behind their mission than they thought, adn some people are not really who they seem to be.
The background of this novel is 19th century India, before Great Britain took it over from the Honorouble East India Company, a joint stock company founded to do business with India and China. From 1757 to 1858 its private armies and administrative force ruled large parts of India with the sole purpose of sucking as much money as possible out of it. In this it is a serious historical novel, well researched and I think quite accurate in its descriptions. But most of all it is a fantastic boys book (for adult boys).
It is packed with adventure, the story is very well written and it is a pure joy to read this as you jump from your adult self, interested in social history, to your boyhood self, with mystery, murder and adventure. In short, it is a thrill to read, with sufficient background to make it interesting, but especially with a lot of downright adventure. Lovely. Maybe not for girls. :-) Sorry.
PS MJ Carter is a pseudonym for Miranda Carter, a historian and writer. She is married to John Lanchester, one of my favourite authors.
'Erm - yes, there is your father's loss, of course, said Mr Cooke hastily, although it appeared that this was not what he'd actually been referring too. 'But we were commiserating with you, rather, on your start in life. What with one thing and another - the pub and the Belgian thing - you must have felt severely handicapped.'
Said Mr Cooke, Thomas Foley's boss at the COI, the Central Office of Information, about his parents, his father being a pub owner and his mother a Belgian refugee of the Great War. But the combination made him in the eyes of his superiors (and in the eyes of British Intelligence) perfect for keeping an eye on the activities in the Britannia, the pub of the British Pavillion at the big Expo 58 world fair, where the Belgians have put the Russian and the American Pavillions next to each other. The Cold War is breaking out, spies are everywhere, but the atmosfere at the Expo is also one of hope after the 2nd World War, and a generation of young people is looking towards the future, rather than the past. One of them was my mother, two years before I was born, working as a nurse on the Expo grounds (she still has the pin). And so this book interested me, and I have read it with the utmost pleasure.
It is, of course, a comedy. Jonathan Coe is one of Britain's great contemporary writhers, famous for his comedy novels, reminding me a bit of the great PG Wodehouse. With the Expo 58 as a background unravels an espionage novel with a twist of comedy, and with figures as Andrey, the Russian journalist/spy, Emily, American beauty/spy, Anneke, Belgian hostess, and Shirley, barmaid of the Britannia, the figures dance in the curious world of Belgium, anno 1958. And of course i should not forget Mr Wayne and Mr Radford, British spymasters, popping up at awkward moments, and curiously reminding me of the two rats in the animation movie Chicken Run.
I loved this novel. It is a nice story with some surprising twists, it gives a good background on how Expo 58 was seen by its visitors and by the people working on it, and I loved the parts where Foley heads back home, to a family life in Britain end of the 50ies, strangely droll and boring in comparison to the bubbling life on the fair. It's a comedy with a good story and it ends in an Antwerp wok restaurant that used to be the Oberbayern restaurant at the Expo.
The original Oberbayern, now a wok restaurant in Antwerp
I love how Coe brings this period to life. I love some of the characters, no heroes, just ordinary people, like you and me. Great literature ? No, but a very nice example of a British comedy novel, with a Belgian touch. Lots of joy in reading, lots of smiles, and a few tears...I think I'm going to buy the translation for my mother.