Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book review: Alms For Oblivion Volume 1

Simon Raven's Alms For Oblivion is a novel sequence - ten books - centred on a group of characters from Britain's upper (& upper-middle) class around the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than being a conventional series, following a group over time, or exploring the same timeframe from different perspectives, each of the novels is essentially self-contained. The plots, settings - and often styles - differ from book to book, but they all take place within the same world, with minor characters from one novel becoming major characters in another and events in some books being referred to in others (not to the extent that you need to have read the earlier one - you should, though, of course). Thus, over the course of ten novels, or even just the four here, Raven is able to build and populate his own little version of upper-class England.

This collection contains the first four books written in the sequence (over the course of the series, Raven jumped around in time, so these books are the fourth, fifth, third and first books respectively by that measure - but it's best to read them in the order they were written, I decided). The first, The Rich Pay Late, primarily deals with business and political deals in the mid-1950s London. Donald and Jude, who co-own a printing business, try to take over a political journal. That's basically all there is to the plot, although of course there are complications, but Raven uses that simple story to begin building his world. An astonishing array of characters is introduced, and with them, the complications of their various relationships - friends, enemies, allies of convenience, lovers, ex-partners, barely tolerated business colleagues etc. And Raven has tremendous fun with these relationships and complications, telling the story with a charming lightness of touch and an admirable ability to make his characters well-rounded and occasionally unlikeable.

Book two, Friends in Low Places, takes place not long afterwards and largely deals with the same set of characters, but with a different focus. Indeed, if anything, the spread of characters is even broader, with a plot revolving around various factions trying to gain control of compromising papers, the government's attempt to set up holiday camps, competition for political election, and the personal travails of a host of characters. At times it was hard to hold in my head who was who and how they all related in Friends in Low Places, but by the second half of the book all the threads are pulled together and the surprisingly intricate plotting becomes an asset. Some of the more prominent characters from The Rich Pay Late are reduced to secondary characters here, but we also get to see some of them from other perspectives, so they're painted more (or less) favourably than they were earlier, or different sides to their personalities are illustrated, or the toll taken on them by the events of that earlier book is evident.

The Sabre Squadron essentially introduces a whole new range of characters - although a couple from the first two novels make appearances. Daniel, a young mathematician, heads to Germany to try to unravel the final work of a man who was either a genius or insane (or both). He discovers that quite a few people are interested in his results, and in the novel's second half it becomes almost a spy novel as Daniel - and his findings - are jostled between different people, each with their own agenda, and he begins to wonder whom he can trust. The Sabre Squadron begins as a campus novel, becomes a spy novel, and ends on a quite unexpected note. The realignment of characters in the series is initally off-putting, I found, but Raven soon settles us into this new cast and this book makes clear that the whole Alms For Oblivion series is not going to be bound merely to the same (admittedly large) cast in the one setting.

The final novel in this volume, but chronologically the series' first, is Fielding Gray, named for its protagonist (& narrator), who has also appeared in each of the three previous books. Set during his final year of school - in 1945, beginning just as WWII ends - and based around a few of his friends and schoolmates (several of whom are significant characters in The Rich Pay Late & Friends in Low Places), Fielding Gray is, in its first half, a fairly typical English boarding school novel - which is not a complaint, mind you, since I usually enjoy the genre - focusing on his relationships with his friends, his difficult and domineering father & meek mother, the headmaster and various teachers, and typical plotting for such books (first crushes, growing philosophical/political consciousness, sporting matches, squabbles between friends, plans for holidays etc). As has become the norm in this series, however, the second half of Fielding Gray takes some unexpected turns, mixing tragedy with comedy, action with introspection, and fleshing out the main characters, especially the title one.

These four slim novels (the four together run to just under 900 pages) are each a quick, compelling read. Raven is a master of narrative pacing, always encouraging you to read just a little more. That, along with his beautifully crafted prose, commitment to drawing out his characters and ability to keep the reader on their toes via shifts in direction, made me race through these four and look forward to the remaining six novels in the series. Raven is one of those authors who is not well-known now (he died in 2001, and most of his books - including, until recently, this series - are out of print), but who nonetheless has a group of devoted fans. This volume has added me to their number.

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