Friday, 6 September 2013

'Ghost Hawk' by Susan Cooper

It’s a very rainy end to the week – a week’s that’s felt very much like the first in a new school term. I’ve diligently kept trying to work (even with the roofing men above plus J. doing DIY indoors)… and I’ve made some advances on a new project that I hope will go somewhere. This week I even found a new café to work in – a very homely one with excellent bacon barms at the Antiques Centre on Levenshulme high street. It’s essential to have good, local cafes nearby to escape to. Writing five hundred words seems so much easier when it’s just you, your notebook, coffee and a bacon sarnie in a place full of strangers…

Since finishing it on Thursday, I’ve been thinking a lot about Susan Cooper’s new novel, ‘Ghost Hawk.’ There are some extremely vivid, wonderful moments – especially in the first third, when our hero goes into the wilderness for three months to prove his mettle. His death-tussle with a lone wolf is a fantastic episode. There are a few of these incredibly sharp, clear moments in the book and they put me right back into the world of the very best of this author’s work.

I have to say that ‘The Dark is Rising’ (the whole sequence, but number two especially) is, as I’ve said before, one of my favourite things ever and I reread it every few years. It’s an immersive experience and, though I think he’s pompous in the way he extols it, I agree with Philip Pullman about the reach of its influence and its ‘importance’ (though I dislike it when writers bang on about each other’s ‘importance.’ Ugh. You can hear the long, hollow echoes of their endless backslapping like the Rank Organisation gong…)

I do think Marcus Sedgwick in last week’s Guardian review was a bit over-generous with his response to ‘Ghost Hawk.’ I don’t find it the best of her work, or as profound and moving as he did. The spectral viewpoint of the second half (no spoilers here) actually meant that I felt even further from the action and the focus of the story. The steadiness of the tone and its matter-of-fact delivery already meant that I felt I was seeing things at a slight remove. When we focus on the English boy in the second half, that effect was doubled and whole sections of the book felt a little summarizing in tone – especially when great swathes of time were passing.

Perhaps, in the end, the book is a little too ‘on the money’ for me? It’s about the English and the untold harm they caused to the tribes of Native Americans in the years after the landing of the Mayflower. The book flags up at every level that this is what it’s all about – and the enduring spirit of the native tribesman and how a bit more empathy might have proved beneficial to both sides… and this is exactly what we get. It’s bang on the money.

Interesting that in her afterword, Cooper talks about Ursula Le Guin being the child of a groundbreaking anthropologist and the author of a definitive work about the plight of the last ‘wild’ native American. It sounds like an amazing book, actually – but it also reminded me that when Le Guin approaches similar themes in her own writing it’s most often obliquely, and through allegorical or fantastical strategies. (I haven’t read all of Le Guin – far from it. A meagre five or six of her books. But that’s true, isn’t it?)

So I think I realized – at the very end of Susan Cooper’s novel (which is lush, dramatic, beautifully-written, of course) that my problem with it is that she isn’t affording herself the creative licence of seeing the subject obliquely as she does in her earlier books. Even with the introduction of the uncanny element, it all feels a bit too literal and obvious for me.

But I’ll go on thinking about it! Her books are always rich and thoughtful and it might just be me not quite getting it yet.

And since then I’ve been romping through the second Brian Aldiss anthology, ‘More Penguin Science Fiction’, from 1963. And it’s as playful, profane, erudite and brave as the first. Even more so, in fact. You get the sense of people writing in a genre where they were beginning to realise – ‘We could go anywhere with this…!’ (And they didn’t mean outer space. They make the idea of going into space seem a rather rash and vulgar thing.)

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