Glancing Across Huge Plains

A Wilderness of MirrorsA Wilderness of Mirrors
Trusting Again in a Cynical World
by Mark Meynell

Available from Ten Of Those

The Bible is a book that exposes a man’s sin.  ‘A Wilderness of Mirrors’ is a book that exposes a man’s ignorance.  Or a woman’s, or let’s be honest here…mine.

This book is a tour de force of political, historical and sociological research which bravely tackles the issue of broken trust in a cynical world and presents the gospel’s answer to our deepest intellectual and emotional struggles.

Mark Meynell has a first class Oxbridge mind, so first class in fact that bears of very little brain may get lost amidst the dense forest of references, quotations and allusions.  Nevertheless, the central message about trust, broken and rebuilt, is compelling because it is honestly framed by the writer’s own personal experience – a profoundly moving section which I wished had been developed further.

If you, like Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright, wish to make ‘intellectual and explanatory sense of the world we live in’ then this book is for you.

If you want to know why a culture of suspicion has grown out of the last century and what its social consequences have been, then this book is for you.

If you want a refreshing and attractive presentation of the gospel’s solution to the human condition in its current manifestation, then this book is for you.

However, if ‘thus’ clauses or long words bother you, as they bothered Pooh Bear, then you need to be prepared to be liberally peppered and may want to read the book with a pencil in hand and a dictionary by your side.  A good dictionary.

But do read it.  Written in academically mellifluous prose, it’s an education in 200 pages which the writer self-deprecatingly describes as a ‘cursory glance across huge plains’ and which he attributes largely to the giants from whom he has learned.  He is far too modest.


The Sunrise


The Sunrise
by Victoria Hislop

More famously known for her first novel, The Island, Victoria Hislop, wife of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, is a writer whose work I’ve only recently tasted.

They say you should not judge a book by its cover but I just can’t help it.  With repeated romance/beach motifs adorning her books I’m afraid I assumed that the books wouldn’t even qualify as ‘intelligent trash’.  However a trip to Greece this summer required something ‘light’ so I took and devoured ‘The Sunrise’, published this year.

Far from being ‘low brow’ this novel thoroughly and intriguingly traces the tumultuous political background to the Turkish invasion of Famagusta, Cyprus after the military coup by the Greek Cypriots in 1974.  This political drama provides a backdrop to the front-stage action set in the Mediterranean’s most glamorous resort dubbed ‘the millionaire’s playground’ on an island where Greeks and Turks have, until now, worked harmoniously alongside one another.   For a full review, see Susan Elkin’s article in The Independent.

Hislop begins her account with descriptions of Famagusta, this ‘most important port in Cyprus’ where ‘residents, workers and visitors alike enjoyed almost immeasurable contentment.’  It is along the sea-front of ultra modern hotels that ‘The Sunrise’ is being built.  ‘Fifteen stories taller than the rest’ with ‘imposing gates’ and ‘high railings’ I’m reminded of the Tower of Babel and further biblical echoes come to mind as the first impressions of the hotel are described.

The first thing that should impress was its size.  A man would be reminded of a football pitch.  A woman would think of a beautiful lake.  Both would notice the impossible gleam of the marble floor and experience what it might be like to walk on water.

The man behind this ‘vision’ is Savvas Papacosta, married to the impossibly beautiful and intelligent Aphrodite whose enviable glamour is, by the end of the novel, stripped from her along with her money, her jewellery, her home and her dignity.  The only seemingly fulfilling relationship in Aphrodite’s life with her husband’s colleague, Markos, ends in abandonment, theft and betrayal of the most negligent kind when he witnesses her rape by a Turkish soldier but passes by on the other side.

Two families, one Greek (the Georgious) and one Turkish Cypriot (the Ozkans), know a contentment never experienced by the nakedly ambitious Papacostas.  ‘Instinct told them that extravagance did not equate with happiness’.  They laugh and enjoy friendship ‘bemused rather than jealous’ of the opulence by which they are surrounded.  They seem to have unconsciously grasped the biblical exhortation to ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.’  They do not seek the limelight.  Indeed there is none to seek when they become the only two families left on the island after the Turkish retaliation.

Living in hiding there is no audience for their lives in real terms but as readers we witness their daily struggles, courage, decision-making and emotional turmoil.  The two matriarchal figures of these families exemplify simple hard work, passionate love and commitment to their sons and daughters and the ability to overcome prejudice and boundaries to friendship in the face of extreme danger.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy.’  So much of this novel is redolent of Christian truth.  By the end of the story, the coastline of Famagusta is littered with the ‘shells’  of deserted, unused hotels with outdoor building works frozen in time.  How quickly something man made can be destroyed.  How fragile money, power and influence turn out to be.

The book has been described as a tender and well researched treatment of ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’.  It is just that and sparked far more reflection that I would have anticipated from a holiday read.  My son’s English Teacher was right when she said at a recent address to parents that we should not be ‘snooty’ about our children’s reading choices.  I need to take her advice in my own reading!

A memoir of a childhood

This Boy
by Alan Johnson

This Boy Alan JohnsonA book that I would not normally have chosen, I bought this on a 3 for 2 offer at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge along with a detective novel and a book on literary theory. And now I never want to be heard complaining about my circumstances again – ever. To my shame, I wouldn’t normally go for biography.   Particularly not the biography of a Labour politician.  I’m too easily drawn by the escapism of fiction. However, I was humbled and inspired by this account.  I was left with a sense of having met with the character of Lily, Alan’s mother, named Lily throughout, never ‘mum’ or ‘my mother’ and also with Alan himself.  Not the boy Alan that the writer describes, but the Alan who wrote the book, Alan the writer.  The adult Alan.  Like Pissarro in his impressionist paintings,  he only just peeps into his own work.  I love a person free from the shackles of their own ego and there was a wonderful absence of ego in this piece of writing.  No self-glorification, nor self-congratulation or self-anything.  Just a frank description, at times humorous, at times painfully bleak and moving of a childhood which I for one would not have survived.  Oddly, despite her key role in the story, Alan’s sister Linda did not come alive for me despite being very much alive herself.  It was Lily’s courage and vulnerability and perseverance and unselfishness that came to the fore. Continue reading