A novel of violence and suffering...
'The White Room' by Martyn Waites is one of the best, as well as one of the grittiest, novels I've read in a long time. In it, Waites fuses a fictional account of life in Newcastle with the real-life case of child-killer Mary Bell. Be warned – this novel is not for the fainthearted. From its first chapter, set in a slaughterhouse, the narrative examines child abuse, prostitution, brutal anal sex, gang violence and murder, with a few psychopaths thrown in for good measure. Throughout the bulk of the novel, the characters endure a relentless cycle of damage, often perpetuated from generation to generation, as in the case of Monica and Mae Blacklock. Furthermore, Martyn Waites avoids the fairy tale scenario of only making his bad characters – and there are plenty of those - suffer. In 'The White Room', nobody is exempt from the torment that Waites inflicts on them; the characters who are essentially decent people – Sharon, Jack, Bert, Joanne – also endure more than their fair share of death and sorrow.
But also one of redemption
The ending, therefore, impacts like a bolt out of the slaughterhouse stun gun from the first chapter. Initially, it seems a little unreal – the soft-focus emphasis on what the future holds for Mae Blacklock, the character based on Mary Bell. After so much suffering and violence, one way to end the novel would have been to abandon all idea of hope, as George Orwell did in ‘1984’. However, Martyn Waites doesn't take this approach. Instead, he offers us a more optimistic alternative. Hence the title of the novel - 'The White Room'. An echo from Mae Blacklock’s childhood, a white room complete with an image of Jesus on the cross, simultaneously portraying hope and suffering. One that offers the reader more optimistic possibilities after the raw brutality of the rest of the novel. After all, if a character as fundamentally damaged as Mae Blacklock can aspire to a better future, so can we all. Martyn Waites himself says ‘It's a dark book but, I think, not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise, what's the point?’
The White Room may shock you. It may horrify you. Or its implicit message may inspire you. Whatever your reaction, I'd be interested to hear your views. Post a comment for me!
More about the author
Martyn is also the author of 'The Woman in Black: Angel of Death' as well as the Joe Donovan and Stephen Larkin series of novels. You can find out more at www.martynwaites.com.
Anyone who knows me will testify how passionate I am about foreign travel. I've been fortunate enough to have done lots of globe-trotting in my life, with more trips planned; it makes sense, therefore, that a keen reader like me should enjoy novels based around travel. In this week's post, I examine as part of my 'Five' series some well-known books classed as travel fiction or memoirs. Commencing take-off....
1. The Beach - Alex Garland
Written in 1996 by British author Alex Garland, 'The Beach' tells the story of Richard, who, when the novel opens, is staying in the notorious Khao San Road area of Bangkok (I've spent many a happy hour exploring Khao San's peculiarities - I love the place!)
Richard becomes fascinated by what he hears about a remote beach situated in the Gulf of Thailand, described as stunningly beautiful and inaccessible to tourists. Daffy Duck, the Scotsman who tells him about this tropical Garden of Eden, leaves him a map disclosing its location before committing suicide. Intrigued, Richard hooks up with a French couple, Etienne and Francois, and the trio set off to find the beach. Once there, they discover a secretive community living alongside Thai cannabis growers. Events, of course, soon take a sinister turn - I won't say more as I don't wish to give plot spoilers, but at times 'The Beach' has distinct overtones of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. The body count grows amid the backdrop of the annual Tet Festival. Will Richard survive the experience?
2. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
Written in 1951 but not published until 1957, 'On The Road' is a novel by Jack Kerouac, based on his travels across America. The story epitomises the post-war Beat and counter-culture movements, being heavily based around spiritual quests and the rejection of materialism, and laced with copious amounts of jazz music, sex and psychedelic drugs. Kerouac emerges in the book as the narrator, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a road trip with his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, another major figure of the Beat movement.) Saddened by his recent divorce, Sal is eager to accompany the free-spirited Dean and discover what life on the road can offer him. They criss-cross the country from coast to coast, hitting San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Denver and Detroit. As someone who has long held an ambition to drive across the USA, this fascinates me!
A weird fact about 'On The Road' - the first draft was typed on a continuous 120-feet long scroll of tracing paper sheets, cut to size and taped together. The novel was transcribed from Kerouac's notebooks and typed without margins or paragraph breaks, taking him just three weeks (wow, that's fast!) to complete. I can only assume he couldn't afford proper paper on which to type! The scroll still exists and was bought by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts for $2.43 million in 2001.
3. Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
'Eat, Pray, Love' was written in 2006 by American author Elizabeth Gilbert and tells the story of her travels following her divorce and unsuccessful rebound relationship. The book is split into three sections, each corresponding with a different location in Gilbert's travels. First she spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life, which is the 'eat' section of the narrative. As a foodie and Italophile, I love this part! Next came three months in India, where Gilbert explores her spirituality ('pray'). Finally she travelled to Bali, where she fell in love with a Brazilian businessman ('love'), whom she subsequently married.
The book has attracted mixed reviews, with many being critical of Gilbert's alleged self-absorption. Others, like Oprah Winfrey, have loved the memoir (Oprah devoted two episodes of her show to it) and the 2010 film version has also proved very popular. Gilbert has also written another memoir ('Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage') as a sequel to 'Eat, Pray, Love', as well as short stories, essays and novels.
4. Around The World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne
Ah, the classic Jules Verne novel, beloved since its publication in 1873! The book tells the story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout as they attempt to win a £20,000 bet as to whether the pair can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. The traveller in me thrills at the challenge - perhaps I should give it a go sometime!
Fogg and Passepartout travel by rail and steamer, journeying first to Egypt, then to India, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA before crossing the Atlantic back to London. Despite what you see on the book cover, they never set foot in a balloon - the idea is brought up in one of the chapters but dismissed as being too risky. The image of a balloon has become synonymous with the book, however, thanks to the 1956 film adaptation.
Many people have since circumnavigated the world in eighty days or less, including British actor and fellow travel-holic Michael Palin, who made the trip in seventy-nine days as part of a very entertaining 1989 TV travel documentary.
5. Backpack - Emily Barr
This novel brings back memories! I came across it in a hostel in the beach resort of Mui Ne in southern Vietnam, and read it in one go whilst stretched out on a lounger next to the sea. Happy days! Here's the back blurb:
It's New Year's Day and the year isn't kicking off well for Tansy: her mother's dead, she's a cocaine addict and her boyfriend has just left her. A trip around the world seems like the only option except that she's not interested in seeing the world, just escaping from it, and the last people she wants to hang out with are backpackers. Like a lot of travellers on the Lonely-Planet-led Asian Grand Tour, Tansy is intensely irritating at first. Always on the look out for the "real" Vietnam--the one in which she can walk around "like a model, fanning myself gently, strolling into ancient temples and learning about inner peace"--she is opinionated, narrow-minded and remarkably naive (for a supposed media luvvy). Once she has shrugged off her addiction to lines of coke, skinny lattes and Nicole Fahri jumpers, she becomes more appealing. So by the time she's fallen for Max, a fellow traveller, she'll have won you over and you'll be just as worried as she is about the serial killer who appears to be on her trail...
Let's hear from you!
Wow, this post has made me want to pack my rucksack! Have you read any of the books I've mentioned? Any other travel-based books that you love? Leave a comment and let me know!