Destiny and Dynasty
By Nick White
Amazon.co.uk, Ltd., Marston Gate, UK, 2015, pb, 179 pp
Reviewed by Gëzim Alpion
Birmingham, 31st December 2015
Destiny and Dynasty is Nick White’s first novel. There are a couple of books by established authors which I must confess I have not had the patience to read through to the end. White’s debut is a literary gem any serious writer would dream of starting their career with.
A good book tells an interesting story; a great book makes you feel the story is written for you. I initially came across the latter type of storytelling some thirty years ago when as a student in Cairo I discovered D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, James Baldwin and Joyce Cary. What I admired most about their first literary attempts as novelists was their courage and talent to turn some of their own life experiences into art. I was equally impressed by the attention they paid to their early formative years thus showing that there is method in the Wordsworthian maxim ‘The Child is the father of the Man’.
This is not to say that White’s novel is semi/auto-biographical. Nor is the book’s main character Michael Sumner a doppelganger of sorts for some of the early heroes – Paul Morel, Stephen Dedalus, John Grimes or Evelyn Corner – penned by the above-mentioned writers. Rather, he has a life and originality of his own which explains why he is such an unusual and yet entirely believable character.
Michael emerges from the start as someone who stands out, even as a child. He has more than his fair share of misfortunes since he is twelve. This is not what makes him unusual or special, though. Misfortunes do not make those who are at the receiving end interesting figures per se. In life, as in fiction, many suffer but few overcome the harsh trials and tribulations of capricious fate that often defies logic.
Although often vulnerable, Michael is fundamentally a survivor. And he chooses to survive not by following the easy options in life. On the contrary, he takes risks even when it is almost certain that he will be hurt, at times seriously.
The intriguing thing about Michael is that he can easily lead the people he associates with and cares about as much as the reader to believe that he is an easily manipulated character. White never makes a statement that his main hero is on a quest. The reader is expected, and rightly so, to realise this for himself. What makes this realisation rather difficult at times as well as an entertaining challenge is the fact that Michael himself does not seem to have a clearly stated goal in mind. He is haunted constantly by something although we do not know what exactly from. He wants to go somewhere but we are none the wiser at any stage in the novel about his ultimate destiny. He does not want to run a church like his love interest Naomi; nor is he tempted to run away from civilisation and be a hermit like Ian. On the contrary, ne never wants to be in control and is eager to remain in touch with people even when it is clear that this more often than not will bring him trouble and sorrow rather than satisfaction and happiness.
It is clear that Michael tries hard to make sense of the senseless waste of life, which he experiences first hand with the sudden loss of his family. Nothing could have prepared him for this; not even the fateful meeting with Madame Indigo, the fortune teller, whose words, in hindsight, take a complete new and sinister meaning for this indigo child.
What makes Michael an intriguing psychological character is that he speaks through his silence. White spares us tedious psychological monologues that a less scrupulous stylist could have been tempted to employ at the detriment of the inferred aesthetic reticence.
After the family tragedy, Michael is haunted by the nightmare of falling. His challenge from then onwards is to clutch at something, anything, in the hope that his life would assume some semblance of normalcy. This never happens, but he tries constantly nevertheless.
What is intriguing about Michael, a sensitive soul as he is, is that although he creates the impression that he is impressionable and can be easily manipulated, he is always his own enigmatic self. This is apparent at various stages in the novel, even when he leaves the impression that he is under someone else’s thumb. One such case is when, against his Aunt’s expressive advice, he follows Elizabeth Ravenscroft’s counsel to get rid of his mother’s diary and his brother’s teddy bear. This more than anything else indicates that he will not be held hostage by the memory of the departed loved ones, at least not to the extent to prevent himself from enjoying life or at least keep trying. Even his infatuation with Naomi makes more sense if it is seen in this light. Rather than apparently being besotted with Naomi, Michael is in love with the idea of being in love.
While Michael obviously craves to connect, the tragedy is that he can find no trustworthy people or institutions worthy of connecting with. His manager is a heartless creature and he is not the only cruel employer in the novel. Even a religious institution like the Triumphant Life Church (TLC) is void of true feelings and solidarity. The church lacks soul. Rather than a place of worship, the TLC is in essence a business venture that was started by a crook and inherited by a knave, and which most likely will end up in the hands of an equally unscrupulous fake shepherdess. The vivid depiction of the state the TLC is in, how it operates, and how it manipulates its flock, is a heartfelt condemnation not so much of religion per se as a courageous effort to highlight the failure of institutions to fulfil their responsibility, bring people together, and forge social cohesion at a time when we continue to leave an increasingly fragmented existence.
James Ravenscroft, the head of the TLC, is a religious hypocrite and a misogynist. He is the reason why his daughter has turned into such a troubled soul, almost a Heathcliff-like creature.
Michael appears to understand from the first encounter with Naomi that something is fundamentally wrong with her. The fact that he is drawn to her to the end, however, as mentioned earlier, does not mean that he is an emotional dupe. Likewise, partly because of his own observations and partly because of the nature of the three tasks Naomi asks him to perform for her in exchange of wining his affection, it is clear that Michael is under no illusion as to what kind of church the TLC is. The fact that he falls in love with and follows doggedly a girl he knows is incapable of loving him back, and starts attending a church that is anything but a pious spiritual centre makes him sound at times like someone who does not know what he is after.
The choices Michael makes, however, odd as some of them obviously they are, are indicative of something crucial about him, something that is beyond corruptibility. He may have not found for the time being a girl who can reciprocate his love or a church where he can find solace for his troubled soul, but he will never apparently turn into a manipulative and killing misanthrope of the James and Naomi type. Nor will he apparently end up being a runner like Ian whose failure as a spouse and a father as well as the disappointment he experiences with James turn him into a quitter who escapes into the Welsh wilderness only to return back to the fold of civilisation to confront evil unsuccessfully and die an anonymous death.
Notwithstanding Michael’s importance as the main protagonist, the novel is a gallery of several memorable charters. This is mainly as a result of the original way the novelist employs the narrative which is economical and rich in its suggestiveness. The author is an astute observer of humans, nature and their interaction. This is a literary work as much as a sophisticated study on how complex, vile and lofty human beings can be. The narrative is often peppered with witty observations and humorous asides which make the novel enjoyable to read even when describing awkward moments in the characters’ lives.
Nick White has not made it easy on himself by writing such a delightful first novel.
Compliance is Futile
By Nick White
Reviewed by George Smith
18th August 2012
‘There was an angel inside me today’ is the first vivid line to hit you from this splendid selection of Nick White’s poetry. Was he referring to his Muse? If so, she is alive and well in there, and functioning in top form.
Nick has a wonderful gift for powerful, informing metaphor and images that summon up worlds, sensations, states of mind and narratives that are almost tactile. This is visual, emotional, communicative poetry; it tells you about experiences that are deeply significant to the author, but manages to dodge all deeply-felt but well-worn language that’s so frequently employed in such describing. Samuel Johnson complained of this very thing, declaring, ‘We have seen white-robed innocence before!’ It’s truly difficult to find new ways of telling about universal experience without being merely catchy, gimmicky, pointlessly offensive or igniting just one more flash in the pan, but I feel Nick White somehow manages it. He draws on mythical imagery, for example, to tell about the bonding in love and does it with a journey upwards that failed, like Icarus, and ends with an image of pure beauty shared in, of all places, Hades.
Or take the poem whose name supplies the book’s brilliant title, an account of the inner and outer experience of medical treatment administered without consent. Here is a finely-crafted little gem that opens a wide window into a painful and emotionally complex reality. We are moved and involved, sensing the conflict of necessity and real desire (what should actually be done?) that crystallises in the irony of the superb line ‘I learned that my behaviour was linked to my rights.’
Nick’s sense of narrative enables him to bring a whole, strong story within the compass of a single, short poem. His images hit on the senses: you see, you hear, you feel, you use them to create your own stories with their own meaning. ‘Island Of The Eighth Sea’ (a title which is almost a saga in itself) tells of princess Kate, who escapes ‘a land made of stone’ to the very strange island (you’d never guess why it’s strange) where she remains. Many images rush together and provoke many emotions; you wonder what it’s actually about, and find yourself creating, exploring the minds of the characters, building a meaning. And you do so because you’re so moved and intrigued: you see the narrative of the poem vividly, then wait for a meaning to catch up with it. Or take ‘Hardly Harmony’, a mad, clever, cascading sequence of escalating events and splendid chaos that somehow keeps a sympathetic focus on a single, sad figure who we easily forget among the brilliant mayhem – and sorry, no spoilers.
Sometimes the image, the scene, creates a shiver of delight in its mysterious immensity, as when the stars watch each other in ‘Promise’ (this one is both huge and brief), or a concept provokes an ‘Oh gosh!’ by its vast, clever simplicity, as in ‘Time Machine’.
And then there’s Nick’s deep reserves of empathy, a sympathetic understanding of the dark corners of life. He avoids morbid cliche and sentimentality, but nonetheless leaves you feeling that you’d trust him with your pain-story, that he’d understand and listen. ‘The Witches’ shows that he knows about your vulnerabity and betrayal by the world, ‘Blurb’ displays the mental sraight-jacket of media control, ‘Disappointed’ chronicles the crushing effect of religion misused.
But lots of hope too. This is where the collection begins, with the empowering realisation of ‘An Angel In Me’. Faith soars up laughing in ‘The Storyteller Of Storytellers’ and looks for unexpected hope in ‘A Stolen Simile’. And there’s just plain fun, like ‘Jelly-Shaped Hole’.
Do you like stories? There’s plenty here.
Do you want to feel you’re not alone? The book will do that. Do you love words and images and thrill when they’re strung together well? This is for you. Are you a visual thinker? Feast your mind. Aren’t you a visual thinker? You might become one. Do you want to meet with a lively, original, idea-crammed mind? What are you waiting for?