Monday, 27 January 2014

Mostly about 'Animal Magic' by Andrew Barrow

I felt a little bit bad on Friday, for not finding more things in ‘Sanctus’ to like. I went to town and walked around and – here’s one of my Friday treats – I sat in a crowded coffee shop and resisted the urge to get out my notebooks and start working again. I simply read, and at the back of my mind let my thoughts tick over about ‘Sanctus’ and my blog… and how, really, it’s important for me to say what I really think of books – not just because I know people pick up recommendations from here – but also because I’m still and always figuring out for myself why certain books work for me and others don’t. After all these years of reading and writing, I’m still trying to work these things out…

I think I don’t, in the end, enjoy or value books that don’t feel as if they absolutely had to be written. They can be the heaviest, densest, most serious thing in the world, or they can be the lightest and most flippant of soufflés – but if they don’t have that urgency about them, then it’s no good to me. I have to feel that getting them into the world was chancy and difficult and something their author wanted to do more than anything else…

That’s certainly how I felt about the book I was reading on Friday and Saturday – John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars.’ It’s a wonderful book. I don’t have much to say about it. It just feels necessary in all sorts of ways. The boy and girl at the heart of it remind me a little of the sassy and cool kids in Mary Rodgers’ wonderful kids’ books of the 60s and 70s. It’s an uplifting book. I know it’s one I’ll go back to over the years. It’s another book with a fictional book at its heart – which is a recurring motif with me in recent times.

It’s a motif in a memoir I picked up unexpectedly on Saturday (in the remaindered book warehouse at Brierley Bar, just south of Buxton), ‘Animal Magic’ – Andrew Barrow’s memoir of his brother, who was killed in a car accident along with his fiancé in the early 1970s. This is a strange, dark, funny little book. It’s about having a brother, first and foremost. It’s also about writing weird stories and drawing odd cartoons, bestiality and black humour, and hectic, ramshackle life in the West End of London in the 1960s. But most of all it’s a book about having a brother, and that sense of an accumulated, ineradicable past of in-jokes and ongoing private mythology. For decades Andrew Barrow has had his dead brother’s artwork and letters, and the manuscript of his single (rather odd) novel, ‘The Queue’ and he’s kept them like treasure. We get generous excerpts from the novel – which sounds like a glorious picaresque romp through a threatening landscape of lunatics and perverts, in the company of a raffish and sexy semi-human dachshund called Mary.

It’s a wonderful book, I think: grotesque and fey and addictive. It’s less interesting to me for the stuff about celebrity and Soho and the 1960s and all that gossipy stuff about ‘stellar promise’ and the poshery porn that gets the newspapers and middlebrow pundits all excited these days. For me the excitement is in the scary imaginary world that siblings create and decide to make public. The brothers here are like the Bronte sisters or the Lewis boys and their ‘Boxen’.

To me the book felt like something that really needed to be written one day. You get the sense of a writer who has longed to tell the world the story of a tragedy and a loss it would otherwise forget about. Like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ it’s very much concerned with the few bits and scraps of pages that we leave behind us when we go, and the effort that must go into making sure they don’t simply get chucked away. 

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