A selection of reviews (with the gristly bits left out) of:
The Physician of Sanlucar
The Craft of Fiction
True Love and Bartholomew
Topokana Martyrs’ Day
The Hummingbird Tree
THE PHYSICIAN OF SANLUCAR
It might have become a cloud-swept sexathon with syringes and flashing machetes to heighten the action. But The Physician of Sanlúcar, although charged with compelling drama and moral edge, eschews both melodrama and bathos.
We begin on the cusp of the First World War… Matthieu Macanan, a young French physician in the backstreets of Punta Arenas, tending the woes of native Indians, raddled farmers, and the sex-starved sailors… He is an altruist, aloof, obsessively private.
Macanan flees to Sanlúcar to bury himself, to begin again, with his handful of volumes of poetry, his shack, and an outhouse to work in… Falla weaves a teasing chimera: Who is this doctor? What is his past? Why is he here? Is he indeed a doctor at all?
The cloistered, secretive doctor is soon prised open by the sylph-like Silke Kahn who, with her husband, plans to link Patagonia’s communities. Their plane, the fragile Dove, is a daring, almost incongruous symbol of their hopes… Matthieu’s principles are overwhelmed. He treats Silke’s migraines by giving her heroin. Hooked on the object of his love, he can’t see that she in turn is becoming addicted to the drug.
Their affair is touchingly brought to life. Falla allows the lovers sufficient space in which to grow before the world wakes up to… a cargo ship carrying gold which has run aground off Sanlúcar. Its cargo attracts Patagonia’s pioneer thugs.
Matthieu realises that Silke must hear the truth about his past; his revelations are poignant, tragic, all too believable… and make his inevitable fate and that of Silke the more touching.
Falla’s construction and execution of the novel are beautifully judged… it’s carried out with poetic subtlety, hard to spot because the writing itself is so joyously accomplished, light, almost airborne. And witty too, a wry, anachronistic treat for fans of the movie Casablanca.
The Scotsman 22 June 2013
THE CRAFT OF FICTION
How to become a novelist
A tremendously rewarding read and a wonderful book. It draws its wisdom from such well chosen examples – the points are proven time and again, to cover all the bases in a style that is both accessible and erudite. Nessa O’Mahony, The Open University
This book is great. It is comprehensible to complete amateurs, while simultaneously speaking to people who have an idea of what they are about. I’d recommend it to my students any time. George Green, Lancaster University
Extracts from a review by Mandy Haggith of The Craft of Fiction: How to Become a Novelist by Jonathan Falla (together with The Art of Writing Fiction by X, Univ.East Anglia), printed in the Scottish Review of Books (vol.3 no.7)
– The popularity of creative writing courses was underlined recently by the publication of two guides to the subject written by experienced teachers… Both Falla’s and X’s handbooks are aimed at prose writers, rather than those interested in poetry. In the case of Falla, he pitches his lessons specifically at would-be novelists. The difference in their approach is indicative of the various ways in which creative writing can be taught. X’s book is a guided course, which starts with easy tasks and grapples with progressively larger issues, offering a plethora of ‘try this’ exercises that will keep a new writer busy for a year. Falla’s book begins with the bigger picture, the overall story that a novel writer is seeking to tell, and works his way inwards with a brisk rather than professorial tone and with ‘work points’ presented as suggestions rather than homework…
Someone who is in the early stages of creative writing may find X’s book helpful, especially if they are unsure about grammar or how to harvest material from the world to draw on in their fiction. A writer needing serious help with a novel will find Falla a more suitable adviser. Whereas X takes until page 143 to reach how stories work, by page 7 Falla has begun to tackle the issue: ‘When you are considering a story to tell, the first question must be: where is the tension, and the source of conflict? Who wants what, and why is that going to be difficult?’ From the start, then, there is no doubt that Falla’s reader is already well past the basics and wants to grapple with the challenges of a big story. Unlike X, Falla expects that the reader has at least a degree of literacy sufficient enough that he or she understands the difference between direct and reported speech as well as a number of other grammatical matters (‘You don’t know the Oxford comma? Look it up.’) Thirty pages in, X is still advising the reader on how to keep a notebook to capture moments of real life, in order to demonstrate ‘how journals can act as a source for material for fiction.’ By this point, Falla is asking, ‘Are you prepared to lie? To change the facts, the motives and the order of events? If not, you shouldn’t be writing fiction.’
For Falla, story is primary and it is about character conflicts. On setting, he says, ‘There is no such thing as a neutral landscape; it will be charged with human tension.’ Using all the senses is not a matter of providing ‘colour’, but rather a way into the experience of characters. Take an urban soundscape: ‘Whether it be buskers or musak or the radio playing high upon scaffolding where builders are at work, or the sudden physical thumping through the open window of a boom-box car: are these things a matter of pleasure or distress to your character?’ As well as providing good advice, the book is full of vivid writing like this.
Falla is at his best examining what makes writing difficult. He skips over the laundry list of attributes the author should know about every character, and instead focuses on where in the narrative a character description can do most work. His chapter on plotting provides lucid summaries of issues like pacing out information, foreshadowing a crisis, and handling multiple time-frames. He systematically dismantles traps that a learner writer is likely to fall into: flashbacks, for example, or surprise revelations towards the end of a story. ‘Explanation for its own sake is tedious and should be cut,’ he says. ‘Most things don’t need explaining anyway.’ Shocks, he says, ‘are often very boring.’
The most striking difference between the two books is the novels they reference. Within the first few pages, Falla has mentioned Austen, Shakespeare, Homer, James, Pasternak, Golding and Pamuk, and throughout the book he illustrates points with examples ranging from Hitchcock movies to soap operas to new novelists like Jason Donald. … So, while both books present a range of useful knowledge and writing practice, as guides to further reading the choice is between X’s shelf of other handbooks or Falla’s signposts towards a world of great writing.
TRUE LOVE AND BARTHOLOMEW:
REBELS ON THE BURMESE BORDER
The best book about the Karens to appear in many years. Falla has done the Karens a tremendous service by providing them with the first unbiased account of their own history and culture. Bertil Lintner, Far Eastern Economic Review
His absorbing account, with its wealth of research and firsthand observation, is far more than a travelogue and merits its description as ‘a portrait of an ancient culture remoulded to the purposes of ethnic rebellion.’ Falla’s KNU protagonists are an appealingly human mismatch of rebels. In particular, the conflict between Colonel Marvel, the District Commander, and Edward, the maverick Education Chief some thirty years his junior, is compellingly described.
Martin Smith, Times Literary Supplement
Mr.Falla has a remarkable picture to paint, and he does it vividly – which cannot have been easy, because he has to be at once political analyst, historian, anthropologist, medic and traveller. The Karen’s political, economic and military plight may be pretty well hopeless but they make, in Falla’s rendering, delightful company.
William Rivière, Catholic Herald
A book saturated with loving detail, unpredictable and opulent.
Roger Clarke, Sunday Times
This splendid volume is the best thing available for trying to understand the complex, confusing and apparently unending conflict between the Karen and the government in Rangoon. It is also an excellent read. Once started, few will be able to put it down until the end.
Robert H Taylor, Pacific Review
An intensely personal account of a human landscape in considerable jeopardy. Refreshing, unapologetically subjective and original. He’s a writer who has a natural ability to capture the essence of an individual in a few brief lines.
Douglas Kennedy, New Statesman and Society
Both the poignancy and the sense of urgency pervade the text of this poetic and deeply felt book. The reader will be captivated and, long after finishing it, haunted by many vivid images.
Journal of Asian and African Studies
He is sad for them, at times sad with them. But he honours their grasping for a life that seems more and more utopian, even admirable, as it slowly disappears.
Jon Swain, New York Times
A truly marvelous book; by any measure it is an extraordinarily good read.
Anthony R Walker, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
TOPOKANA MARTYRS DAY
A stage comedy about famine in Africa
An original, unflinching piece of work on a subject of desperate importance… [The] recurrent pleas for individual justice in an unjust world become pathetically funny… The strength of the writing and the subject carry all before them.
Walter Goodman – New York Times.
The work of a man who knows his subject – the dilemma of the field worker in an international organisation. Indeed, if at times the story seems improbable, that is only because reality itself seems less probable as the years go by. Mr.Falla does not spare our sensibilities. Much of what is referred to is gruesome, but the point of the play is not simply to try and convey the sense of moral numbness of people faced daily with starvation, but to look at the way aid workers try to keep sane. I found it the most interesting piece of new writing in months.
James Fenton – The Sunday Times.
A very witty writer with a gift for gallows humour. Victoria Raidan – The Observer.
Famine relief is not exactly a subject one thinks of in terms of comedy… takes you into uncharted theatrical territory.
Michael Billington – The Guardian.
Delightfully stinging, double-edged comic jab at your typical relief team… the tension brooding beneath the surface gloss of wonderfully incongruous humour keeps one’s nerves constantly a-jangle before exploding.
Sheila Fox – City Limits.
Falla’s play is exceptionally mature and multilayered and walks a fine line between reality and nightmare, naturalism and satire.
Steve Grant – Time Out.
A gripping first play… The camaraderie of an international holiday club permeates as an Irish nutritionist remembers singing ‘We’ll meet again’ when redundant in Biafra, and cheering up on hearing that things looked bad in Bangladesh… The violent climax is totally convincing. Martin Hoyle – Financial Times.
If we are speaking of ‘public plays’, it would be hard to nominate any with greater bite and pertinence than Jonathan Falla’s. Irving Wardle – The Times.
THE HUMMINGBIRD TREE
Feature film set in Trinidad in 1945
Produced by Gub Neal, directed by Noella Smith (BBC Screen One Films)
Reviewed by Daniel Johnson – The Times:
Post-Colonial settings for British television films have been fashionable for years, but The Hummingbird Tree was the first to be shot entirely in Trinidad, using a largely local cast. Based on Ian McDonald’s 1969 novel, it told the story of Alan, a privileged white boy aged 12, and his friendship with two Indian servants, 11-year old Jaillin and her older brother Kaiser, during Trinidad’s first general election in 1946. A combination of sensitive direction, good dialogue and several fine performances resulted in a memorable fable about the loss of innocence.
The three children were utterly convincing, especially when Alan found himself torn between his loyalty to his friends, symbolising Trinidad itself, and his obligations to English values. Jaillin’s acquiescence in Alan’s inarticulate, boyish admiration culminates in her banishment from the paradise of the sea, after the two of them bathed naked together and are found by Alan’s father Stephen (an impressive Patrick Bergin).
The background to this prepubescent idyll was provided by Trinidad’s political coming of age. The underlying tension is religious as much as racial. The relationship between Alan and his parents, the tolerant but blind Stephen and the stubbornly Anglo-centric Marjorie (Susan Wooldridge superb) is a microcosm of the division within the white community. It is Alan, not his father, who notices Marjorie’s adultery with the white candidate of ‘experience and integrity’ in the election. The boy grasps the hollowness of their way of life, but he is unable to bridge the cultural gulf which separates him from the villagers.
When both Indians are sacked after the bathing incident, Alan seeks approval by telling his father: ‘I was getting not to like them anyway’. But in the poignant epilogue, six years later, Alan meets Jaillin again and both feel a pang of missed opportunity. ‘You was white and I was a brown girl.’ Pascal was right: the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
City Limits: ‘An enthralling drama.’ Observer: ‘Sweet performances from the children… divine locations.’ Time Out: ‘This well-appointed adaptation… extremely evocative music.’ News of the World: ‘An enchanting tale.’ Sunday Times: ‘Patrick Bergin and Susan Wooldridge are superb.’ Telegraph: ‘An engrossing story.’
With Patrick Bergin, Susan Wooldridge, Tom Beasley, Desha Penco, Sunil Y Ramjitsingh
REIMS TELEVISION FESTIVAL 1993 JURY PRIZE: BEST FILM.
LAON FILM FESTIVAL 1993: PRIX DE LA VILLE DE LAON.
LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL selection 1993.
A novel of Tibet
A gripping and moving love story that shines a revealing light on the brutal invasion of Tibet by China. Inga McVicar – Bookseller of the Year
Kenpo Nima is a physician-lama in a run-down monastery protected by four dead dogs. He protects Puton [a crippled widow] from villagers who fear she will bring them bad luck. Jamie Wilson is a wireless operator sent to a Tibetan outpost. It is 1948 and the threat of Chinese invasion is real… Initially their story is told in concentrated bursts, creating immediacy. As the love story expands, so does the writing. This is an accomplished story, as good as any we’ll see published in Scotland this year and a distinguished addition to the 11:9 list. With works of such quality, the Scottish literary renaissance may at last be upon us.
Carl MacDougal – The Herald
One of the more enjoyable aspects of Blue Poppies is Falla’s refusal to bow to Hollywood-sponsored clichés. Far from being the baby-eating Commies of popular imagination, the Chinese here are shown as tough but not unnecessarily cruel… The Tibetans are as capable of great harshness as they are of great kindness… Before long, their differences boil over, resulting in a massacre. The villagers who perpetrated it are forced to go on the run. This is where the book really comes alive, with the Tibetans struggling to flee the invading Chinese through a landscape spiked by the kind of winter to which the word ‘harsh’ hardly does justice. Falla is a fine and unflowery writer who delivers a punchy plot free of misty-eyed sentiment, yet it is crowned by one of the year’s saddest endings. Colin Waters – Sunday Herald
In what is at times a very dark and harrowing tale, Falla manages to enchant with his characters. Falla makes this a bewitching read which stirs up a multitude of emotions from love and longing to anger and disgust.
Jane Hamilton – The List
The Chinese occupation of Tibet remains one of the most emotive and high-profile foreign policy issues in the West. Blue Poppies, however, is neither a paean to Tibetan resistance nor an anti-Chinese polemic. Falla does not gloss over the infuriating and cruel aspects of Tibetan life… Blue Poppies is an engaging historical tale, intelligently and imaginatively told.
Julia Lovell, Times Literary Supplement
Falla seems set to establish himself as a novelist of considerable skill. One of the biggest novels to come out of Scotland for many years, a dramatic story and a vivid picture of Tibet life in the 1940s. Throughout the book there are beautifully crafted snapshots of Tibetan life, and powerful descriptions of the remote Tibetan mountain ranges, culminating in a breathtaking sense of the challenge involved in moving a caravan of exhausted people across the mountain passes. The true romance of this novel resides in the love of a stranger for a foreign land. Capital Letters Magazine
An admirable benchmark for Falla’s future potential… An evocative portrait of the centuries old Buddhist traditions and beauty of the country before the Communists invaded, alongside a heart-grabbing forbidden romance.
Carson Howat The Scotsman
The first year of publisher 11:9 draws to an impressive close with Jonathan Falla’s Blue Poppies. – Caledonia Magazine
The novel is finely paced and plotted and has plenty of exciting action, conveyed in short, crisp, sentences. Its true hero is Khenpo Nima, a Buddhist monk whose breadth of vision eventually leads him to a step which looks unprincipled, even base, but embodies the deeply humanitarian convictions that have animated him throughout. Chris Whyte – The Scotsman
Blue Poppies is written in a lyrical, deceptively simple way – a masterly piece of story telling. Jim Miller – Northern Times
A dashed good thriller. It has the derring-do of Rider Haggard and John Masters but it’s beautifully written and good history too… [and] mercifully free of fashionable swear-words. Jack McLean – The Herald
It’s often quite easy to spot a first novel… Jonathan Falla’s Blue Poppies utterly confounds the stereotype. It is assured, self-confident, without a trace of self-indulgence. It knows where it is going from the start, and that is nowhere near home… This is an epic love story, but at first there are no signs and there are never any of the usual clichés. Love is not expected, not portentous, and yet stalks Wilson even when he doesn’t notice it, even when his head is full dizzying images from the exotically strange culture that surrounds him…. The Tibet Wilson uncovers is an altogether fabulous and enticing country. From the streams running milkily opaque with glacier ice in the valleys to the prayer wheels clattering on the monastery terraces high above, it is utterly, crazily visual. In simple, unadorned prose, Falla describes this world so convincingly that you would bet large amounts of money that he’d lived in Tibet for years. You’d lose: Falla has never spent a day there. Blue Poppies began life when he was studying at the University of Southern California. The emphasis on narrative drive his Holywood tutors imparted nearly a decade ago is still there in the novel, which plays in the mind exactly as an epic film. A fine first novel. David Robinson – The Scotsman
At the heart of Blue Poppies there is a tender love story, but the book is as much about the will to survive as it is a tale of passion. It centres on three characters, a Scottish wireless operator, a young woman and a monk, who are all, to varying extents, outsiders in the remote village where they meet. Lucid and with breathtaking descriptions of the Tibetan landscape, this is a superior first novel by a writer who is already an accomplished dramatist, short-story author and travel writer. Sainsburys Magazine
Nothing satisfies like a good old-fashioned adventure story, and Jonathan Falla’s first novel is a model of the genre. Falla creates some exquisite suspense here, while managing to avoid either sentimentalizing the doomed Tibetans or demonizing the occupying Chinese. The many descriptions of the towering snowscapes are dazzling. Coolly and confidently written, this is adventure fiction at its most bracing. Dona Rifkind – Baltimore Sun
Imagine it’s 1950 in Jyeko, a village remote even by Tibetan standards. Two outsiders, one welcome and the other barely tolerated, live here at the beginning of the Chinese invasion. Against the backdrop of a corner of Tibet where ‘the village lanes were stony and narrow, steep and twisting, full of rubbish and excrement,’ and ‘the animals moved lethargically through the streets,’ Jonathan Falla’s expertly crafted novel conveys what life is like for ordinary people living through events that will later be known as history. Blue Poppies is one astonishing book.
The depiction of the women of Tibet is one of the book’s great strengths… Blue Poppies is a meditation on the nature of home [and] also an exploration of the escalation of war. Historical fiction at its best, a profound and rivetting tale of romance, faith and struggle.
Josephine Bridges – The Asian Reporter (USA)
Glacial and elegantly understated, Falla’s prose has analmost mythicalquality.Beautifully evocative and utterly engrossing, Blue Poppies conveys intense emotions and appalling hardship while Falla holds us in thrall in his wonderful storytelling.
Clare Simpson – Textualities
Exciting and moving. This book smacks of authenticity from the outset… Rather remarkably, Falla has never been to Tibet. That he can conjure up the world of the Tibetan plateau so convincingly is a testament to his powers of imagination. It is also a testament to the way in which a story, told with passion and conviction, can bear more truth and meaning than any amount of careful research.
Will Buckingham – Dharma Life: Buddhism for Today
Brilliant – I read it in one sitting! Sue Corbett, newBOOKS.mag
A novel of Sudan
Compelling and tragically relevant.
Mark Lawson – ‘Front Row’ (BBC Radio 4)
Falla’s harsh, precise and constantly sensual portrayal of a cruel world is partly offset by his evocative descriptions of its extreme climate and landscape, and still more by his sensitive handling of the characters. Poor Mercy is an outstanding novel and it is no surprise to learn that it took many years to write.
John Spurling – Sunday Times
A novel that explores the ebb and flow of humanity at its most fundamental level. Poor Mercy fulfils an important function, preserving a wretched moment in history, giving substance to events that would otherwise soon be forgotten.
Claudia Pugh-Thomas – Times Literary Supplement
[Falla’s] second novel treats a subject of which he has intimate experience: famine in Darfur. Poor Mercy is a vivid, engrossing work of fiction. Falla’s central character, the indefatigable Mr Mogga, is a creation worthy of immortality. Comical but never ridiculous, he tackles the impossible with zest. “We are whizzing along!” he calls boyishly as the team’s jeep rattles towards humiliation. “The road is open before us!” The grim irony does not make him less admirable or lovable. Indeed, one of Falla’s most significant achievements is a cast of characters who are all inherently good – and yet not dull. Christa, the food emergency officer, unhinged by fevers as she pits her Germanic will against the “shit bastards” who siphon off supplies, is a typical Falla altruist.
Michel Faber – The Guardian
Jonathan Falla’s Poor Mercy is a profound and engrossing novel that works on several levels – emotional, political and moral. An unusual love story told with insight and tenderness, it is studded with beautifully observed descriptions of place, ranging from desert to fertile valley to mountain gorge, landscapes as disparate as the ethnic groups that people them.
Strongly plotted and electric with personality, Poor Mercy, whch takes its title from The Pilgrim’s Progress, shows Jonathan Falla to be a mature storyteller in full command of his craft. Provocative and moving, it is an altogether memorable piece of writing.
Jennie Renton – Scottish Review of Books
Falla’s remarkable novel is also old-fashioned, with themes like honour and duty embedded… It is a beautifully written personal story about love and the impossibility of surviving in a place where the sun is a taker, rather than a giver, of life.
Lesley McDowell – Scottish Standard
Falla lets his tale slip from one participant to another, through aid workers, locals and police chiefs, and it is this breadth that gives Poor Mercy its power. We meet Fauzi, the son of a trader, who supplies alcohol and mismanages the supply sheds; Rose, who drinks tea in public and treats the local police with tremendous haughtiness; and Toby Kitchin, who dons a jellabiya robe in an attempt to blend in and ends up fleeing the souk, laughter ringing in his ears. Falla’s own experience shines through, and this informed, angry book is full of passion and detail. James Smart – Sunday Herald
Literature exists to undermine certainties, to introduce sublety, empathy, doubt, the whole complex human picture. Jonathan Falla’s Poor Mercy does the job superbly. It is the second novel from a Scottish-based writer who has the distinct advantage of having had a life outwith the rarified real of writing – real experiences in the real world, rendered into forceful fiction.
So accurate and unsentimental is his evocation of that remote place, that it forms itself almost physically before me: the scattered souk in the darkness, the unending sand, the nauseatingly clicking cockroaches in the latrine, the sordidness and disease…
[In] a novel peopled with fine and full characters, a drama of personality and belief is played out through Xavier Hopkins, the team leader who asks the hard questions, searches his queasy conscience, fails to summon the sacks of western grain with alacrity expected by his paymasters. In his own terse way, he would not be out of place in a Graham Greene novel.
It is a compelling piece of storytelling, one which closes with tragedy, but not the tragedy now being played out in the press. Reading is about understanding; read this one, and understand a little more.
Catherine Lockerbie – The Scotsman
Novel set in the Scottish Highlands
An intelligent, ambitious, well-written and often moving book. [Falla] is no longer to be thought of as a promising novelist, but as an accomplished one. Glenfarron is a real achievement.
Allan Massie – The Scotsman
It was the war that changed much in Glenfarron as it did to so many other parts of rural Scotland. Life slipped a bit out of kilter after Farron Castle, that great castellated lump of pebble-dashed Victorian ambition, was turned into a military hospital for wounded Polish aircrew. There are descendants in the glen to this day.
Where is Glenfarron? It doesn’t exist – though Jonathan Falla’s imagination sets it somewhere in Iverness-shire. This remote Highland glen provides the setting for three distinctly differing stories, each containing its own particular element of tragedy. Charlie [Dulce], destined to become doctor to the Glenfarron folk, forms the main link between the three overlapping tales.
The publisher describes this novel as “a triumph of storytelling”, and I agree. The author skilfully weaves three very different stories into a kind of word tapestry in which the characters live and love and quarrel against the background of the glen with its people and its villages, its farms and its pub.
An unusual, skilfully told novel which is hugely readable.
Ian Smith – Scots Magazine
Jonathan Falla’s Glenfarron is a fictional Scottish highland rural community whose history from the 1940s is explored in three novellas spaced in three separate time frames; the 1940s, the 1970s and the 2000s. They share a common theme, namely the change in community dynamic as a result of the infiltration of outsiders. The styles of each are dramatically diverse: the first, an historical romance exploring the experience of Polish war wounded recuperating in Scotland; the second, a hauntingly mysterious and psychological tale in the mode of Henry James (is-it-a-ghost-or-is-it-something-else) The Turn of the Screw; the third, a comic tale with an ironic edge.
So, if it’s diversity you want, here’s the book for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it and that was before I heard the author’s inside track. Not only is it an amalgam of styles, entertainingly and stylishly executed, but it is an amalgam of various places in Scotland, rolled up and blended together to form Glenfarron. The novellas are held together not only by their thematic links but by the cast of indigenous characters. Charlie Dulce is a young bemused boy in the 1940s, a newly-qualified doctor, completely out of his depth in the 1970s, and a middle-aged, henpecked husband in the 2000s. The tragic events of the 1940s continue to echo for him, as they do in even more saddening ways for other characters. Objects too make repeated guest appearances, in particular, the bed of the bachelor Gideon Baird, a fantastic pink confection of a bed, obviously symbolic, but of what? Falla refuses to explain this, thus guaranteeing a reread. Not that I begrudge it; Glenfarron is so full of ideas, so rich in its inventiveness, that I anticipate even more enjoyment second time around.
Lizzy Siddal’s Literary Life