The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-December 2003
Elizabeth Baines

July 2003 - Arcadia by Jim Crace (1992)

It was a very hot evening and, aptly, we sat in Sarah's garden to discuss this book about a countryside ideal.
Most of the men wore shorts. There was old-fashioned misty-yellow lemonade set out on the wrought-iron table, and Neil, who is Sarah's husband, already had a big glassful, but most people went straight for the wine, as usual.
It was a small meeting even though Mark, unusually, had managed to come.
Sarah introduced the book (which had been her choice), the story of Victor, an old and lonely millionaire who decides to use his millions before he dies to make his mark on the city which produced him, and of the effects of his decision on others.
She said she liked the book chiefly for its descriptive prose and its character of a morality tale or fairytale, and the way it created a whole distinct, vivid and atmospheric world she could get lost in, which is what she likes to do when reading a novel.
She liked too the exploration of a situation in which somebody tries to put something back into the community from which he has benefited, only to get it horribly wrong. She appreciated the town/country theme: the fact that the messy market which Victor plans to improve and elevate represents in the book a piece of countryside right at the centre of the town, and the paradox that although Victor thinks of himself as belonging to the country, having been brought from there as a baby, he is thoroughly imbued with urban capitalist ideology, and his plan to make the market into more of an Arcadian idyll will only urbanise it. She was also very taken with the notion in the book that the rigid forces of urbanisation can never entirely obliterate the anarchic human spirit of places like the old market, which will always crop up again elsewhere.
None of us disagreed with Sarah over any of this. We all liked the thematic concerns of the book, Don in particular (and, he reported, Jeanne, who hadn't come - conked out by the heat and finishing her own 70,000-word novel). He said that he and Jeanne had once been caught up in exactly this situation, trying to stop the destruction of a vibrant old markeplace to make way for a giant Marks and Spencer, and failing. He was quite thrilled by the mythic way the book tackled it, a way that reminded him of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies.
He and Jeanne were also bowled over by the powerful motif of fire in the novel, which as Sarah had pointed out, was an archetypal symbol and actual agent in the book of destruction leading to renewal.
However, although everybody else acknowledged the power of the mythic form in general, and agreed that the description and the evocation of atmosphere in this book were impressive, we had been left feeling lukewarm about it.
Mark said that he found the book itself cold, and several of us agreed, and we spent the discussion trying to work out why.
John was one of those who thought it cold, but he was keen to point out that rather than an authorial mistake, this had been deliberate and in fact interesting strategy, which he had encountered in others of JIm Crace's books. He said that if Crace had wanted to tug our heartstrings about Victor, he could have started with Victor's childhood, but he had presumably made a conscious decision to begin at the time when Victor had turned into an irritable and self-absorbed old man.
Mark said that this was the problem: the characters themselves were emotionally cold. They didn't relate emotionally to each other.
Don said, Well, you don't expect psychological subtlety or realism in a morality tale, but I pointed out that there is emotional subtlety: the relationship between Victor's right-hand man Rook and secretary Anna, for instance, is quite delicately anatomised. There was general agreement that some of the characters - such as the dynamic young aunt who helps looks after the child Victor and the self-conscious architect employed for Victor's big plan - are touchingly drawn.
Mark said, Well, they all turn their backs on each other in the end.
Again, this didn't seem to anyone else a valid objection
, because - as Trevor (who was away on holiday) would no doubt have said - in a situation of rampant capitalism people do, and it's one of the main points of the book.
I said that I thought the problem - and my big problem with the book - was the narrative voice. The story is told in formal, indeed old-fashioned diction, and with a somewhat neutral or disinterested attitude to the characters and events. It is a voice which is largely disembodied, on a first reading at any rate, since the identity of the narrator is not immediately revealed, and after it is - he is the 'Burgher', a columnist on a local newspaper - he quite deliberately keeps in the background and has no apparent impulse or motive for telling the tale. When, right at the end of the book, his involvement is explained, it turns out to be no more than pragmatic and disinterested (or even self-interested): he has been commissioned to write Victor's life. These artistic choices, and the implication of refusal of commitment in the narrator's pseudonymous status, as well as the connotation of detached pragmatism in his byline, were no doubt deliberate on the part of Crace, formal representations of his theme, in which, as Don pointed out, the main character is no person but the market itself. However, I found the effect of these narrational stratagems defocusing and alienating.
Some people in the group objected that a detached and old-fashioned narration was apt for a morality tale, but I countered that this wasn't so much the universal voice of traditional tale-telling as that of one particular fogey whom it was hard, in the reading, to place.
Something else that troubled me about the prose was its heavy insistent iambic rhythm, which in fact is not stylistically in character for a journalist narrator. John said Yes, at moments it reads like Rupert Bear, it even makes unintentional rhymes. Others differed and thought the rhythm apt for a fairytale. I said I didn't think that any fairytale well told ever had such an insistent and booming rhythm drowning out potential shifts of mood and meaning, and which, when it's suddenly broken (as it often is in the book), makes the prose seem suddenly very clumsy. Doug said that, on the contrary, he found that very clever.
Don conceded that there was one part of the book he found fault with: the section which relates Victor's childhood
. He had been powerfully struck by its central situation, Victor's failure to be weaned from his mother's breast, in service to the market forces of begging (which as Sarah had commented, led to his emotional and social maladjustment in adulthood). It was close to Don's heart because once, in Eastern Europe, Don had made the mistake of suspiciously demanding to see inside the bundle which a woman begging from him was touting as her 'baby' (in spite of Jeanne's protestations, for god's sake to just give her some money) - only to find, when the woman finally reluctantly gave in and let him peep, that there really was a two-week-old baby inside. Even so, he found the presentation of Victor's childhood sentimental.
Neil said he had another problem with this section, a problem of veracity. It is clear at the end of the book that Victor has given the Burgher-narrator only patchy information about his childhood. Therefore much of the intimate detail of this section must be merely the (somewhat indifferent) Burgher's speculation, and so in retrospect lacks authority as an insight into Victor's emotional journey.
Don also found it unconvincing that a man as emotionally and socially naive as Victor could have achieved his transformation from beggar to millionaire (although the rest of us had found this acceptable human inconsistency).
All in all, the book left most of us as emotionally unengaged as Victor himself and his detached journalist narrator. If this had been an authorial intention, most of us felt it was a mistaken one, as it left us uncommitted to the book and largely unaffected by it.
Maybe it was this, or maybe it was the fact that we were out in the garden, but the discussion had kept breaking up anarchically into simultaneous sub-discussions.
It was very clammy and clouding over, and the swifts which nest in our attics were wheeling overhead and screaming madly. I suddenly remembered a mistake I had found in the novel, and Sarah, a keen birdwatcher, remembered that it had struck her forcibly too: a reference to swifts sitting with swallows on wires at the end of summer, when in fact swifts don't settle and leave for the south the first week or so of August. This had made me suddenly doubt altogether the authority of the authoritative-sounding narrative voice and the erudite-seeming passages about plants and exotic vegetables I hadn't heard of.
We all mused on the fact that the swifts would soon be gone
, and then suddenly there were huge drops pinging on the wrought iron, and we all dashed inside and talked about altogether different matters, such as our holidays.

August 2003
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

Only five of us made it to this mid-holiday-season meeting in Doug’s house to discuss this inventive book in which a young man with the same name as the author visits the Ukraine to search for the woman, Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Only four of us had read the book (Trevor had been away and had managed the first chapter in the half-hour before the meeting). Only three of us had made any head or tail of it and no one felt they had grasped the ending.
Even so, everyone present loved it.
(Trevor reported that he’d met Mark who, on the contrary, hadn’t taken to it, which may have explained his absence this time.)
All present loved the book’s command of language and most of us were very taken with the inventive structure whereby chapters alternate between two ‘novels’ being written after the search is over: the hilarious pidgeon-English account of the search, written by Alex, the young male Ukrainian translator who accompanied the ‘hero’ (as he calls him), and the historical/mythical and poetic tale of the Jewish grandfather’s shtetl, written by the ‘hero’, the character Jonathan Safran Foer.
Alex’s ‘divisions’, as he calls them, (chapters), are accompanied by his letters to Jonathan as they exchange sections of their novels in progress, providing amusing, telling and ultimately moving comment on the main theme: that of the slippery and vulnerable nature of truth, memory and history.
Sarah particularly liked the shtetl story, precisely for its baroque detail and ebullience and fairytale character. Although I too relished its air of magic and irrepressibility, I said that I had worried that in view of the foregone conclusion - the horrific Nazi extermination of the shtetl - this story strand steered a little too close to whimsy, and as a result risked playing into certain stereotypes. Sarah strongly disagreed with this last. I had to agree that there’s a consciousness of these dangers on the part of the author, since the story is critiqued by Alex, sometimes negatively - in particular he points out one of the story’s outrageous anachronisms. We decided that the fabular nature of this story is perhaps intended as a statement of the dubious distinction between fact and fiction (implied also in the shared name of author and ‘hero’), the dubious nature of factual history and the impotence of memory in the face of genocide, and the healing power of myth as recompense.
Doug, though, didn’t like the shtetl sections quite so much, finding them hard going with their cast of what seemed like hundreds. Everyone loved the Alex sections, and agreed that they were laugh-out-loud and, as the book approached its end, very moving. The main problem, however, was that the fast speed with which we’d been carried along by the pell-mell pace of the last part of the book had left us all unsure of what precisely was meant to have happened, and feeling that we had missed important connections we should have grasped. We had all taken into consideration the fact that this too had been intended by the author - a way of showing that when a history is wiped out there is no way of completing the circle of meaning and making the comforting resolutions we all long for both in reading and in life, an idea which seems supported by the fact that the book ends mid-sentence. However, we couldn’t be sure how far our unsatisfying experience as readers had been intended.
One of us had noticed that the name of the woman whom Jonathan and his guides do meet and at first think is the Augustine they are seeking - List - is also the name of a woman from the colourful sexual past of Jonathan’s grandfather’s, recounted in Jonathan’s tale of the shtetl. The group was confounded by this: what were we meant to conclude from this about List and her connections with Jonathan’s grandfather? Or was this simply the character Jonathan’s fictive mixing and matching? Yes, because Jonathan could hardly be privy to his grandfather’s sexual history, not least because his grandfather had been dead since even before Jonathan’s mother was born. But then, why was the character Jonathan making this particular connection - to make what point, what thematic meaning? After one reading we simply couldn’t work it out, and the thing which confounded the group most was that the connection, which seemed so significant (if impenetrable) once we’d noticed it, had actually passed all but one of the group by.
And what were we meant to conclude about the grandfather of Alex, who, against all initial expectations, turns out to be central to the story? Were there things we had missed about his role in it all? We all thought there might be, but after one reading no one could be sure.
As for John, who had read the book intermittently while beginning a new job and making several trips, and therefore with less than even half his attention: he’d been left at a total loss, and hadn’t even worked out that the book was composed of two ‘novels’. Nevertheless, the book had made a great impression on every one of us, and Sarah said that she was going to read it again to sort out her confusions, something which as a busy doctor she has never before done with a book which didn’t yield itself up fully at one reading.
Then we talked more generally about Truth, and the fact that, as this book conveys, there is never any absolute truth, each tale only relative to the teller.
After this we got onto Hitler via the book again, and had an argument about whether Hitler must have had some kind of charisma or was simply at the head of a monumental political machine.
Then Sarah, who was on call, had to go home, and not long after, Doug’s wife Helen came back from her board meeting and joined us, and so we opened another bottle. Finally John and I and Trevor left, John and I sitting on the wall between Doug’s house and ours and swinging our legs over, and Trevor, still talking, swinging his over too and ending up on our path to finish his point.

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September 2003
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)

We met at mine and John’s to discuss this seemingly improbable but entirely convincing tale of a boy, Pi, shipwrecked in a lifeboat with a tiger, told to the ‘author’ as a tale that could make one believe in God.
Our unanimous verdict was that it was brilliant. Everyone of us had found it stunning.
This was in spite of several of us not fancying it much at all beforehand (because of its apparent improbability), and Don and Jeanne being furious when it won the Booker over William Trevor. No one could deny, however, once they had begun it, that it was utterly compelling.
We loved the breathtaking story, we loved the book’s humanity, we loved what it was saying about the human condition, about tolerance, and above all, about the redeeming power of fiction. We had total admiration for the author’s mastery of narrative and language, and his ability to hold us in a narrative spell.
We felt quite sorry for those who were missing out on appreciating it: Mark, Sarah and Neil who were all away on holiday, and Madeleine, who had read it long ago and had been trying for ages to get us to do it, but in the end couldn’t make the meeting.
Don had one quibble: he felt that the book really only got going when the ship sank. This was where he really got emotionally involved, and in fact then forgot all about the earlier chapters accounting for Pi’s life up to that point, which made him think they were perhaps superfluous. The rest of us strongly disagreed that they were in any way superfluous. For one thing, we said, Pi’s relationship with his family, so vividly and humanely portrayed, coloured the post-shipwreck section, giving a real texture to his loss. More importantly and crucially, it is only through having followed his education in the ways of animals as the son of a zookeeper, that we can find believable the situation and events on the lifeboat.
Trevor, who arrived late in the discussion because we’d clashed with his Spanish class, had what he called another small criticism. Unlike the rest of us, he found that the biologically-strange but theoretically biologically possible island which Pi encounters broke the spell. No island like that could exist, he declared. We didn’t find this a small criticism. We all rounded on him. How did he know it couldn’t exist? Because, he said, if there was, we’d know about it: there’s nothing unknown existing on the Pacific Ocean which US military satellite surveillance wouldn’t have picked up by now. We all cried: you can pick up a green blob on the ocean, but you wouldn’t know about its precise physical characteristics without stepping on it, as Pi did!
One thing was for sure: the rest of us wanted to believe in its possibility, or at least in the possibility of the yet undiscovered. Our message to anyone who hasn’t read this book yet is, do so: it will make you believe in the power of fiction!

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October 2003
If This is a Man by Primo Levi (1947) (Abacus)

Trevor chose this, our first non-fiction book, Primo Levi’s account of the two years he spent in Auschwitz from the ages of twenty-four to twenty-six, until its ‘liberation’ in 1945.
It was a difficult book to discuss, we found, and I, for one, found this a very strange meeting, very different from all our others.
Every single member was present, including two new ones, Martin and Anne. Most felt that this was not a book which could be discussed in literary terms, that matters of style, structure etc were quite beside the point, since it had been written as an urgent message of testimony.
Indeed, at the start of the Afterword included in our edition, Levi states that it had been his intention to avoid any emotive techniques which could open him up to accusations of bias, but set out to report and analyse the facts as he witnessed and experienced them.
Don differed from this general view held by the group. It’s a short book, in terms of pages, yet most of us had felt that it was a gruelling and difficult read, and there was general agreement that this was a result of the extreme bleakness of the situation recounted and of the overall message. Don, however, said that he had found the reason to be partly a certain lack of vividness which often prevented him from seeing clearly the situation Levi was describing, and from fully identifying with it. He had found himself comparing it unfavourably to the novels of Solzhenitzyn about the camps of the Russian Gulag.
John endorsed this by noting that there were certain things which were revealed towards the end of the book, and even only in the sequel (included in our edition) about Levi’s return journey from Auschwitz – such as the fact that there were women in the camp and a vivid description of the way the prisoners were plagued by bedbugs – which, had they appeared earlier, would have helped us appreciate more fully the quality of the earlier experiences as we read them.
These were things I had thought beforehand and had intended to say, but in the climate of the group’s discussion had felt I could not. I realised with horror that what I was experiencing was the chill wind of political correctness in its negative sense: the feeling of a brake on intellectual and emotional honesty.
Don said, rightly, Well, we’ve got to be honest about these things, our reactions to books, and everyone nodded (a real fear of dissent seemed to be creeping into the room). Nevertheless, Jeanne pointed out that in the Afterword Levi writes that the Nazi death camps, designed specifically as centres of extermination, can’t be compared to the camps of the Russian Gulag, which were prison camps set up without such express intention. Everyone murmured assent, and the assumption in the room appeared to be that therefore the writers and their books could not be compared, and even Don apparently felt unable to challenge this.
I plucked up courage and pointed out that the idea of writing about anything purely objectively is a nonsense: that even scientific papers are structured and shaped by choice of words and arrangement of information.
Everyone chorused agreement, although I had thought I had been countering the general assertion.
I also said that it’s impossible for us to read Levi’s book in the way it must have been read at the time it was first published, when people didn’t know of the full horror he was revealing.
Everyone nodded again, but I have no idea whether they understood my implication – that when a book is revealing something new and shocking and true, then literary considerations are irrelevant, but that now, in competition with all the fictional accounts which have followed it, the book can have less impact – and I didn’t dare elucidate.
John did say something similar: that he, for one, had not found the book a gruelling read or shocking since the material was so deeply familiar to him. The news of the death camps had emerged into the world at a very formative time in his childhood and had grimly coloured his mental landscape ever since.
This statement was received with what I felt to be an embarrassed silence, as if the group had interpreted him as saying that he did not find the events themselves morally shocking, or that they felt that not to be shocked by this book was an obscenity. Nobody said anything, however, and it did not seem possible to me to unpick the matter.
The crowning moment for me came when Sarah said that not a single one of us in the room could swear that we’d not shop a neighbour to the Nazis if the alternative was being killed ourselves. Although I thought she was right, that indeed none of us could honestly swear to this, she said it with such conviction and passion that I felt I couldn’t have said so if I hadn’t agreed.
John appeared to endorse her. He said that he had worked all his life in local government where the only way to get on was to agree with your superiors, whatever they said or did. Only afterwards did he tell me that he had meant to go on to say that he had spent his working life resisting this temptation, often to the detriment of his career. But he had stopped, and hadn’t said this last. He had broken his lifetime’s habit of speaking his mind because of the sense that what he had to say was unacceptable in this context and couldn’t be believed.
For once, no one raised their voice. For once, no one was sarcastic or dismissive of anyone else’s opinion. I was not in the least comforted by this. I felt that - ironically, in view of our subject - for once some of us at least were in the grip of intellectual fear, the fear of dissent: the very thing which can allow ideological evils like Nazism to arise and thrive.

November 2003
A Bend in the River by V S Naipaul (1979) (Picador)

We all drove out along the dual carriageway to Madeleine’s to discuss this novel of a young man of Indian descent who ventures from his East-African home to take over a shop in a post-colonial town in Central Africa, only to become becalmed and impotent there as rebellion and political corruption splutter and unfold around him. (All of us, that is, except Don and Jeanne who were tired and so couldn’t face venturing so far on a wet Manchester night, and Martin who was too busy with his work as a photographer, and Mark, even though it was he who had chosen the book, because his baby was unwell.)
Madeleine was waiting with a torch outside her house to guide us into the unfamiliar territory of her drive.
Only Trevor besides Mark liked the book. The rest of us felt that we had embarked on it with enthusiasm only to be becalmed by frustration and boredom. Although we found the subject-matter itself intensely interesting, the book did not work for us as a novel, reading more like reportage, and leaving us unengaged with the characters and their plights. We had all (except Trevor) found it hard going to read, and several of us had failed to make ourselves finish it in time. Sarah and Anne said, to a chorus of agreement, that they had found the characters thin. Madeleine pointed out why this was: throughout the novel there was very little dramatisation of the interaction between the characters – no dialogue or description, quite often not even a sense of the place in which the interaction had occurred. This meant we were never drawn into the characters’ reality, they never seemed ‘real’ in the concrete and vivid way we expect of characters in a novel, and the narrator’s unsupported comments about them appeared unconvincing and lacking in authority. Don and Jeanne had conveyed by phone that they found the book well-written in spite of its unengaging quality, but Madeleine now said that, while the sentences might indeed be well-wrought, as a novel, in view of the lack of dramatisation, she found the book badly written, and some of us agreed.
I said that I thought the really big problem was the narrative voice, and John agreed, pointing out that although the book takes the form of the first-person account of the shopkeeper protagonist, the voice was not convincing, appearing rather to be that of the author. I added that even the speeches of the other characters suffered from this fault, undifferentiated in voice from the narrative, often three or four pages long and sometimes adopting a somewhat formal or stylised story-telling mode.
Then Trevor talked for some time about why he liked the book, which was that he felt it was politically spot-on, a point with which none of us disagreed.
After which, with some relief, we abandoned the subject of the book and planned our Christmas meal out.

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December 2003
Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Fabers)

This meeting was almost a fight, and indeed one of Sarah’s Christmas-tree decorations got smashed.
Madeleine had chosen and introduced this novel narrated by a Texan teenager whose friend commits a Columbine School-type gun massacre, and who ends up himself on Death Row.
She began by apologising for choosing what had turned out, in her opinion, to be a truly dreadful book.
I immediately put in that I found it absolutely brilliant.
Don reminded me not to interrupt, and Madeleine went on. She said that she had found the Texan teen-speak, saturated with expletives, both impenetrable and alienating, and that she had been quite unable to engage with the book. Thoroughly alienated herself and at a loss, she had found some reviews which she read out to us. Mainly American, they slammed the book as offensive American-bashing and full of ugly American stereotypes, with an uncouth and unsympathetic narrator - at least one of them suggesting that it had won this year's Booker simply because it endorsed the anti-American prejudices of effete British intellectuals.

I said that I found these reviews offensive.
Jeanne and I strongly stated that the narrator Vernon is anything but unsympathetic. His plight is that he is, on the contrary, a sensitive and intelligent teenager in a world in which ‘you are supposed to be a psychopath’, ‘feeling waves’, as he puts it, for everyone, even the policewoman leading him to the cells.
Since the book is a satire or black comedy, a certain amount of stereotyping would be acceptable, but it is in fact subtler than that, displaying a subtle consciousness that a morally bankrupt society does indeed press people into stereotypical behaviour. Vernon notes this stereotypical behaviour – the characters’ obsession with consumerism and junk food and reality-TV culture - but also senses people’s ‘emptiness’ and fears and complexities of character beneath it.
The psychopathy of which Vernon is accused in the novel is in fact that of the society accusing him, a small town steeped in gun culture and corruption and nurturing a paedophile ring which turns out to be crucial to the plot.
The great irony of the novel and its plot is that Vernon can’t absolve himself of the school murders by using his own alibi because he’s staunchly empathising with his mother and protecting her from falling under suspicion for another crime.
I said that it was only towards the end of the book that this last, and the amazing significance of the garden wishing bench, began to dawn on me. I had then read the book a second time and had then seen all the clues and significances I had missed the first time round.
I noted that the reviews Madeleine read out appeared to have missed this central element of the plot altogether, and that it was no wonder therefore that they thought the book simple and offensive.
Nearly everyone in the group agreed that they had found the book difficult to engage with at the start, or to grasp at one reading, and I suggested that there was perhaps therefore a fault of pacing with the book.
Neil however said that he didn’t see why a book should be obliged to yield itself up entirely on a first reading, and that the subtlest books never do.
Madeleine objected that if an author can’t be bothered to engage her the first time round then she can’t be bothered to read what he/she has written.
John said, but you could tell from the first sentence ‘It’s hot as hell in Martirio, but the papers on the porch are icy with the news’ that this is a moral book about morality and judgement and retribution (the references to hell, to heat and cold) and that someone (Vernon) is going to get martyred, and from the symbolic name that it’s going to be a satire and should be taken as one.
Trevor agreed and said that as far as he was concerned this book was a class act.
Everyone was extremely animated. People shouted. Somehow one of the baubles off the Christmas tree, a green one, ended up spinning across the floor.
Only Don agreed with Madeleine. He’d read five pages and shut the book. Like Madeleine he’d found the language bankrupt, with its preponderance of expletives. We all cried that it was an authentic narrative voice expressing (in part) the moral bankruptcy of the society being satirised. He retorted that it most certainly wasn’t authentic: it hadn’t been written by an American and you could tell.
In any case, Don and Madeleine said, it wasn’t enough just to be authentic, that didn’t make for literature.
I said, how could you call the language of a book bankrupt and non-literary when it included the sentence ‘Mom’s whispers sparkle moonlight as they fall to the ground by the wishing bench’?
Madeleine replied that that was ridiculously out of character and inauthentic, and I accused her of wanting it both ways, at which point someone shifted their foot and the green bauble got smashed.


I really enjoyed your comments about Vernon God Little. I also had to read the book a second time.
Other than yours, I have been unable to find any other references to the wishing bench on the web. Weird how no one else has commented upon it. We know that his mother bought the bench at the time his father disappeared and that when Vernon was on death row, his mother told him that the bench was sinking. I have been curious as to whether his father was buried under the bench or whether a wishing bench is actually a bench incorporating a box (but can't find this on the web either!)
I was also surprised at how negatively most US reviewers viewed the book.
Anyhow, thanks! - Jennifer Jones.

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