Let’s Kill Uncle – Rohan O’Grady

August 9, 2010

Let's Kill UncleI picked up this book on a whim – I mean, face it, Let’s Kill Uncle is a great title and the red cover is pretty striking.

Then I discovered it was written in 1963 and, I confess, I almost put it back. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy novels written 50 years ago, but it crossed my mind that it could be very dated.

Then I saw a quote from Donna Tartt, who wrote one of my favourite books ever – deliciously dark The Secret History. That sealed it for me.

The basic plot of Let’s Kill Uncle is about a young boy and heir to a $10m fortune, Barnaby Gaunt, who ends up on an isolated Canadian island one summer, and decides to murder his uncle, with the help of new friend Christie, before his uncle can get to him first.

I needn’t have worried about it being dated. Yes, it’s set not long after the end of WW2, but that adds to the atmosphere and the plot – the local Mountie, Albert Coulter is a former war-hero – because with the development of the technology, it’s inconceivable that the island’s isolation would work in 2010.

In fact, the clever part of Let’s Kill Uncle is the way that the island itself is like a step back in time. There’s no-one else young living on the island and most of the inhabitants have spent their entire life there, lending the whole book a kind of dream-like existence.

Add to the mix, a philosophizing one-eared cougar, an assorted cast of quirky locals who all have their own sad tale to tell, the almost comic-book villain in the shape of the eponymous ‘Uncle’, plus the beautifully sketched 10-year-olds Barnaby and Christie, and you have a book that keeps you gripped from the outset.

This is no page-turner in the mould of Lee Child or Patricia Cornwell. There are no tales of derring-do, grisly murders to unearth, or staccato, machine-gun-fire prose. Instead, Let’s Kill Uncle relies on good old-fashioned story-telling, with well-written characters, a beautiful turn of phrase and a plot that guarantees you want to keep reading.

It’s astonishing that Rohan O’Grady is not better-known. A quick search leads me to discover that it is the pen-name for a Canadian novelist called June Skinner, who was ‘rediscovered’ in 2009, following a journalist’s attempts to discover what became of the author of Let’s Kill Uncle.

Although they are worlds apart, if you love The Secret History, then Let’s Kill Uncle should appeal to you.


Tomas – James Palumbo

July 17, 2009

Tomas - James PalumboI finished Tomas 2 days ago and I’m still digesting what I think. I spotted the book advertised on a billboard on London Bridge station and it immediately stood out.

The book’s cover was striking, simple and the poster came with some quotes that made it sound intriguing. Stephen Fry gave it a recommendation, plus I recognised James Palumbo’s name as the man behind the Ministry Of Sound – the centre of clubbing culture in the 90s.

So what’s Tomas about? Well, it’s basically a sharp satire of the rampant consumerism of the early 21st century: highly-paid professional footballers; money-grabbing merchant bankers; desire for plastic surgery; celebrity culture – many of the things that are currently being blamed for the onset of the recession.

Palumbo serves up surreal images and a kind of black comedy that is at turns extraordinarily funny, but also very difficult to read. Tomas is actually quite disturbing and shocking and the humour isn’t often strong enough to save it from becoming simply gruesome.

Many of Palumbo’s images and characters are cleverly drawn – representing Russia as a Great Bear is hardly new, but it works here – but the increasingly bizarre nature of the plot as the novel continues means that the characters become secondary.

By the time the book drew to a close, I was thoroughly confused and had less and less idea what was going on. The twist at the end simply served to baffle me even more.

On the plus side, Palumbo’s writing style is sharp and incisive at times and he has a turn of phrase is, at times, delightful. It will also be interesting to see how accurate a satire Tomas really is once history has its say on the first recession of the 21st century.

But overall, my feeling was that Tomas is a novel that is far too much like the flashy, insubstantial culture it sets out to debunk. Too much artifice and not enough delivery.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

February 26, 2009

On Beauty by Zadie SmithI’d been meaning to read this for a while. In hardback, sat on our bookshelves, it taunted me. “I’m a Zadie Smith novel – full of intelligence, long sentences and esoteric concepts that you’ll never get round to reading.”

After three years of owning the book, I finally got my head into the right frame of mind to read On Beauty.

So what’s it about? Well, it features two families, who are effectively at war. The Kipps – headed up by Monty, the British Caribbean right-wing, reactionary academic, feted for his strident views – and the Belseys – with Howard at the helm, a white liberal academic who married a black American woman and settled in New England, at a prestigious university.

The families both possess high ideals but low morals and the unravelling of the various feuds and flashpoints make up the meat of the novel.

Zadie Smith doesn’t hide her intelligence and the writing is full of bewilderingly long sentences, packed with intricate clauses and vocabulary that, at times, even the well-read would find dizzying.

The characters are well-rounded and beautifully fleshed out and the descriptions of the settings give the mind little work to do to imagine where they are.

So much for the good points. Unfortunately, while Smith is performing pyrotechnics with her wordplay, she often forgets actually to move the plot along.

Many of the characters also come across as thoroughly unlikeable and don’t encourage you to want to continue reading.

In fact, there were times while reading this, that it felt like wading through treacle. Humour is sparse, plot is patchy and the overall point of the novel felt impossible to grasp.

Compared to White Teeth, which was a wonderfully vibrant exploration of race, internationally, but also very locally, On Beauty feels as if Smith is running out of ideas and on empty.