Saturday 20 October 2018

Book Review: Death Watch, by Ari Berk

Book Review – Death Watch, by Ari Berk

We have always been fascinated by ghosts. In myth and legend, art and religion, they come to frighten, sometimes to amuse, always to raise questions about our own mortality. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father that sets in motion the events of Shakespeare’s famous play, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, that enliven Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.So when Aindrila Roywas kind enough to gift me a book whose central theme appeared to be ghosts, I settled myself down for what I hoped would be a grand read in that hoary tradition. 

I was not disappointed.

In ‘Death Watch’,Ari Berkpresents a stirring, creepily atmospheric tale of the living and the dead, and those whose job it is to take souls from the land of the one to the other. Drawing upon various ancient and medieval mythologies and more modern beliefs, the book takes the readers on a truly goosebumps-inducing journey over the course of its 500-odd pages. 

Silas Umber is an introverted American teenager who does not seem to be particularly unusual for his type—shy, believing in imaginary friends, having few in real life, and caught in the middle of his parents’ unhappy marriage. His father Amos is a mortician, and his mother Dolores a housewife, and while they live in the town of Saltsbridge, his father’s work usually takes him to Lichport, a nearby coastal town where Silas was born.

But when his father disappears suddenly, Silas is forced to confront the reality that perhaps his father was something much more than a mortician, and his mother is little more than a barely-functioning alcoholic. As their money runs out, Silas and Dolores have to return to Lichport to stay with Amos’ elder brother, Charles. Silas finds himself distrusting his uncle and the more he meets and befriends the other people of Lichport who knew his father, the more he learns about the line of work he has been born into—for the Umbers are an old family, and for long have had the responsibility of easing the passage of the living to the world of the dead, and other things besides.

In Berk’s deft prose, Lichport itself comes alive as a vast sprawling necropolis, a town dedicated to the dead and those who linger beyond death. Silas, as the heir to the Umber profession, is received by the town as one of its own, and as he takes on, literally and metaphorically, his father’s mantle, we are taken with him on a journey where the borders between life and death blur in ways that are often sad, and sometimes frightening. 

Here we have the lovely Bea who Silas loses his heart to, the strange Mrs Bowe and her ghost lover, Mother Peale of the Narrows, ever on the lookout for the Mist Ship, which comes to take the souls of the damned, the three women of the Lichport Sewing Circle, who weave a tapestry and unweave it as events unfold. But just as much character comes from the Umber House, the Beacon HillNewfieldswith its giant bronze lion, the millpond and the Narrows where the Sorrowsman wails out his horrifying tale.

The book is essentially about Silas’ search for his missing father, and to some extent about his relationship with Bea, but those end up being like a hiking trail—existing mostly to give us an opportunity to revel in the beauty of the world Berk creates. Indeed, so immersive is the world of Lichport that as a reader one can almost forget, at times, that there is the matter of Silas’ father to clear up; it seems almost secondary to the broader story about what death is, and what it means to ‘Rest in Peace’.

Despite the morbidity of the subject, Silas is a character who embodies hope, and has a deep-rooted desire to make the world of both living and dead better. His enduring love for his father, his simple and almost-pathetic feelings for Bea, even after he realizes who she is, all make for a likeable protagonist, while the handling of the subject means that even over its considerable length, the narrative rarely becomes boring, even if there are passages where very little seems to happen.

All said and done, Death Watchis an enjoyable read, especially for those who enjoy horror (though you know, probably not at night in an empty house and so on). It is possible that removing a POV or two might have made for a tighter story, but that will always be a matter of opinion. Also, some aspects, such as Silas’s relationship with Bea and the significance of the Mist Ship, are perhaps not as well-explored or as well-concluded as I might like, but with this being the first of a trilogy, perhaps these are to be seen in more detail later. This does not mean that the book does not work well stand-alone, because it does, but it has certainly also piqued my interest to read its sequels. 

Ari Berk deserves praise for his handling of characters and settings, for weaving myths that we know in a refreshing way and for taking a subject of such morbidity and managing to write a story that feels alive. None of the horror relies on cheap tricks or gimmicks, and like its characters who linger beyond death, Death Watch is a book that seems determined to stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Buy the book here:

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Tuesday 9 October 2018

Of Greatness, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Baz Luhrmann

Of Greatness, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Baz Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby, as most people know, is a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann.

It is also, as most people also know, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the foremost authors of the first half of the 20th century.

I read 'Gatsby' a long time ago, and I still have memories of the freshness of the prose (though I was reading from a well-worn book that had once belonged to my uncle), the natural-ness of the writing and how Fitzgerald could careen from the sordid to the sublime through the power of his words. For a long time to come, I could recall the imagery of the green light glimpsed through the fog at the end of Daisy's dock, the fantastic parties at the Gatsby mansion, and the spooky eyes of TJ Eckleberg overlooking the Valley of Ashes. 

And yet, having seen at least two Luhrmann films, I had a disinclination to see this book, that I had loved so much, in its film adaptation.

The reason for this? First and foremost, ‘Moulin Rouge’, which I saw in a small theatre in Bandra with one friend whose defining characteristic is to be stoic to the point of sometimes resembling a tree, and another whose idea of high art was ‘Comedy Circus’. The former watched in silence and maintained that silence to the point of waving us good-bye after the film, while the latter kept his gimlet eye fixed upon the acres of cleavage on display on the screen and seemed to remember nothing else after. That film, a regurgitation of colour and hamming onto the screen in a way that tries so hard to be beautiful that it could only fail, stands as a reflection of how an otherwise ordinary film can be uplifted by a brilliant performance. I am referring, of course, to Nicole Kidman, who played Satine with such sensitivity and skill that the fact that she wasted that performance on this film was a bigger tragedy than what was depicted on-screen.

Secondly, of course, ‘Australia’, in which even Kidman’s talent and Hugh Jackman’s charm cannot deflect for long from the tiresome mish-mash of tropes and stereotypes that it is.

But Netflix, in its infinite wisdom, decided that Gatsby was the sort of film I’d like to see, and since DiCaprio’s visage, holding up that champagne bottle, had some sort of psychic hold over me, I ended up clicking through, and seeing the film in three or four instalments over a week.

It begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a nursing home, on a typewriter, writing out the events that will constitute the film, and one quickly realises that not only does this give Luhrmann the ability to insert passages from the book verbatim into his film by having Carraway narrate them, but is also the exact same framing device he used for Moulin Rouge. We are introduced to Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan). Daisy is Nick’s cousin, Tom is a wealthy old-money heir, and they live across the bay from Nick’s little outhouse-cottage. Nick himself is not quite as rich and has to make his living working in the bond markets on Wall Street, while the Buchanans appear to live off their inherited wealth in a gorgeous life of ennui. Nick is also introduced to Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a friend of Daisy’s and a well-known golfer. 

All the while, a great mystery is kept up about Nick’s neighbour, however, a fabulously wealthy young man named Jay Gatsby who has never been seen in person, but whose mansion hosts the most incredible parties, attended by all of New York’s bold and beautiful. It is at one of these parties, to which Nick seems to be the only man with a proper invitation, that he meets Jordan Baker again and then, his host, played with typical earnestness by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Nick quickly becomes friends with Gatsby, who takes him to the City to meet his friends in a speakeasy behind a barbershop, introducing him to his friend Wolfsheim (a cameo from Amitabh Bachhan). It’s the first hint Nick gets that Gatsby might not have made his money through strictly legal means, and also that some parts of the story he tells about himself may be untrue. Tom Buchanan also seems keen to befriend Nick and even takes him along on a romp with his mistress Myrtle(Isla Fisher), a car mechanic’s wife who lives above the garage in the ‘Valley of Ashes’, a stretch of sordid, slovenly land between the elegance of where the Buchanans and Gatsby live and the glitzy, looming skyscrapers of the city; a town marked by the tall billboard advertising the services of TJ Eckleberg, Oculist (optometrist), which shows a pair of bespectacled eyes looking down over the whole expanse.

The crux of the film is Gatsby—his past, his wealth and his feelings for Daisy—but it is also the relationship between Tom and Daisy, with Tom’s infidelity and Daisy’s unhappiness being like an open secret, a chasm between them as wide as the bay that separates the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock from the one that extends from Gatsby’s estate.

In portraying the tragedy that unfolds, the film never rises above the glitz and glamour of Gatsby’s parties. For a book that is often interpreted as a stinging critique of both classism and conspicuous consumption, all that this adaptation achieves is to seemingly celebrate those exact values. Scratch the surface of Luhrmann’s exquisite costumes and hairdo’s, the sets and the lighting and what you have is something of a ham-fisted morality play or an un-ironic love story, neither of which is really what The Great Gatsby, as Fitzgerald wrote it, was trying to be.

DiCaprio and Edgerton, nevertheless, act well and are convincing as the hopeful upstart and the pampered boor respectively. Edgerton in particular, hams magnificently in a role that demands hamming. Carey Mulligan is disappointing as Daisy though, capturing but little of the character’s Southern charm and less of her conflicted carelessness. Tobey Maguire’s Nick is sadly forgettable and Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan even more so. Indeed, by jettisoning much of Baker’s role (as in the book) in the adaptation, it can be said that Debicki was dealt a harsh hand.

With one exception, Jay-Z’s soundtrack is forgettable and incongruous, though that exception—Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful” fits perfectly into the film like the book sleeve on that old copy of the book on my shelf. Sung with a lingering sorrow permeating every note, Del Ray’s smoky, nasal voice embodies Daisy’s pathetic existence better than Mulligan’s dialogue or expressions do as she utters her plaintive plea:

“Will you still love me, when I am no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me, when I got nothing but my aching soul?”

With all this said though, I still find myself thinking that it is a film worth watching. If for no other reason, than that the book is not widely-read enough outside the US, and within that country, being taught in schools has ruined it for generations who might see in Luhrmann’s colour-laden, excess-laced version, a reason to visit and re-visit it, and find something to love, hate, or fear.

For me, the images Fitzgerald’s words conjured will continue to outweigh the images that the film depicted, whether it was that light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the hollow sham that was Gatsby’s wealth or those ever-judging eyes of TJ Eckleberg.