C by Tom McCarthy

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C by Tom McCarthy

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Don't be put off by the literary labels that critics have used to describe this book. It's a totally readable and fascinating book that can be read at many levels and one that is deservedly on the Booker shortlist.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224090209

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C follows the life of Serge Carrefax. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, the reader encounters Serge at various key moments in his life and each of these is quite fascinating and engrossingly related. It's one of those books that is like Dr Who's Tardis - so much happens that when he recalls an earlier part of his life, I found myself thinking 'oh yes, that was in this book too, wasn't it?' The book has been described as post-structuralist but don't let that literary labelling put you off. Yes, it's a complex book that can be read at many levels, (and one which I know I'll come back to), but it's completely readable and not at all 'difficult'.

You will probably be wondering what does C stand for? Well, so am I and I've finished the book! There are a lot of contenders - perhaps it stands simply for Carrefax, but it could also stand for Communication, as this features throughout the book. C also features at one point as a symbol for a place where it's possible to buy Cocaine. Symbols are another recurring theme. McCarthy likes his recurring themes and images. Or perhaps C stands for something else entirely....

Serge (English father and deaf French mother) is born into a house in rural England that serves both as a silk production factory and a school for the deaf. His father is obsessed with experimental wireless communication. If you start there, it's not too surprising that your life is going to be a little strange - and his early life is filled with cryptic signals of various kinds. But it's all very grounded in reality.

Later, following a personal tragedy, Serge finds himself in an East European spa before the next time we meet him serving in the Air Force as a radio operator in World War One. Although we jump from stage to stage in his life, each one is so perfectly told and beautifully described, there's no discordant sense to the reading experience. The descriptions of what it felt like to be an early aviator in the Great War are frighteningly real. If you enjoyed Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, then you will find equal terror here above ground. It's here that drugs start to appear as cocaine is used to heighten the eyesight of aviators.

Drugs remain on the scene upon his return to 1920s London and weird communication and signals again re-appear with public seances as bereaved parents seek to contact their lost sons. Finally, Serge finds himself again in communication, this time in Egypt.

If this all sounds rather deep or dry, fear not. There's plenty of humour too. Discussing losses to friendly fire and experimental flying during his stationing in France in the War, Serge, chewing on his omelette, wonders if it's really necessary to fight the Germans after all: they could all just lounge around, each on their own side, dying in random accidents until nobody's left and the war's over by default.

And while set in the early part of the twentieth century, the idea of inventions that are supposed to help, ultimately ending up harming is perhaps one that we have yet to learn from. If the book has a weakness it could be said to be in character development - I never got much of a sense of Serge's character, but this isn't a character-led book.

It's one of those terrific books that reads well but which also stands up to a more critical analysis. It's only 300 or so pages, but reading it, I felt like I'd lived Serge's life. I urge you to read it too.

If you enjoyed this, I'd imagine you'd enjoy A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, or indeed any of his earlier works, notably Birdsong. Also well worth checking out on this year's Man Booker shortlist is Room by Emma Donoghue.

Booklists.jpg C by Tom McCarthy is in the Man Booker Prize 2010.

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Buy C by Tom McCarthy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy C by Tom McCarthy at Amazon.com.


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