UNDER THE DOME
BY STEPHEN KING
Hodder & Stoughton £19.99
THE MASTER of the slow-burn thriller about the bad things that happen when people are trapped together in one place has found another intriguing way to explore the nature of human evil. This is a big, invisible, and deeply sinister dome that descends over the town of Chester’s Mill in King’s home state of Maine one October day without warning or reason.
It’s an amazingly effective fictional device – the glass dome rendering its occupants into metaphorical ants under a magnifying glass, binding them together forcefully but invisibly to wreak maximum psychological havoc, and – due to its otherworldly nature – presenting no solution.
Evil in Chester’s Mill finds its outlet in fascistic crystal meth-maker and used-car salesman Jim Rennie (a Sarah Palin supporter), who seizes the chance to create a police state run according to his merciless whims. Good is represented by Iraq War vet Dale Barbara (appointed to colonel status by a frantic President Obama), who – in opposing Rennie – gets locked up and water boarded (“it was how these things went in Fallujah, Tikrit, Hilla, Mosul and Baghdad. How they also now went in Chester’s Mill, it seemed”).
The political points are tiresome – can’t we just enjoy a thriller without suffering anti-Republican sentiment? Indeed, the dome is a fairly blatant metaphorical stab at Bush’s America: an evangelical dictator spewing lies to frame his enemies and shutting out the rest of the world to the detriment of his subjects. If such parallels don’t put you off too much (they irked me), the book is meticulously suspenseful, deeply dark and not uninteresting in its close examination of power and the conditions that give rise to good and evil in unremarkable people.
BY TRACY CHEVALIER
Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring demonstrated its author’s rare ability to convey dry historical events and characters with subtlety but also total readability. After all, she made Rembrandt into best-seller material, resulting in a film that was the making of Scarlett Johansson.
Chevalier is back with an even more ambitious topic for a historical novel – two female pre-Darwin fossil explorers – but she manages to render their story deliciously, achieving her stated goal of making fossils “sexy”. Indeed, in the early 19th century, fossils were deeply sexy and a major discussion point, not least for what they implied about God and His methods of creation.
The book tells the story of two real women. The first is Mary Anning, the self-taught doyenne of early fossil discovery (now considered the best fossil finder ever). A working class girl from the Jurassic Coast town of Lyme Regis and daughter of an unsuccessful cabinet maker (once hired, then fired, by Jane Austen), she discovered some of the first pre-dinosaur fossils in England, including the ichthyosaur in 1811 and the plesiosaur in 1821, having taught herself geology and anatomy.
The second heroine is Elizabeth Philpot, another real person whose collection of fish fossils was eventually recruited by Oxford. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth is educated and wealthy and, being older, becomes a kind of mentor to her. Their working and emotional relationship is buffeted by a man they both love, but nevertheless provides an insightful depiction of female friendship, and the romantic price that intellectual women had to pay.
With her trademark historical detail and acute retelling of history from women’s perspective, this is a book that is utterly absorbing for both heart and brain.
BY PATRICK GALE
HFourth Estate £14.99
Cornwall resident Gale, son of an Isle of Wight prison governor, has a rich imagination that found its way to the bestseller lists last year with the dark psychological novel, Notes From an Exhibition.
This collection of 16 short stories brims with Gale’s talent for exploring the fraught, complex relationships between people and the odd motivations of lonely individuals – these are stories of friends, fathers and sons, sons and mothers and elderly single women.
It’s relatively rare to find a man who writes chiefly – and acutely – about relationships, yet Gale is in his element here doing just that, brilliantly fusing the humdrum with the sinister. Among the best is Cookery, about a gay chef, called a “eunuch with a way with sauces”?by his bullying brothers, who exacts revenge on his homophobic father by securing him a camp nurse when he’s too disabled to speak.
In Sleep Tight, a babysitter’s charge disappears, while in Petals On A Pool, a failed female novelist experiences unsettling visitations while at a literary festival in Bali. It’s a masterful joke on the way celebrity culture has infiltrated the literary world as the heroine remarks disdainfully that “massage seemed to be playing a greater part in the festival” than literature, and a Chinese cable-show hostess-turned-books “expert” is a voracious reader of press releases and as toned as a movie star.
In The Lesson, the wife of a Cornwall prison governor (Gale often harks back to his own youth) finds happiness when an inmate teaches her the art of angling, while elsewhere, a dog-walk turns into the discovery of a murder, and a father makes an unexpected discovery about his son.
The variety is sure to keep you going back for more and Gale’s expert, easy style makes each a joy to read. Long live the short story.