Monthly Archives: February 2015

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris

Of the six members at this get-together, half of them found that the subject matter did not make for an easy read over the Christmas holidays and they did not finish the book. However, the other readers found it to be a compelling read and very much enjoyed both the story and the way in which it was told.

The narrative was found to be a slow burner at the start, which picked up pace as Picquart’s investigations progressed.

The majority of the group’s members had not read any Robert Harris before and opinion was divided over who would try another of his titles (e.g. Enigma, The Ghost Writer, Archangel and so on). This led to a side conversation on Bletchley Park (where Enigma was largely based) and people expressing an interest in visiting this location. While most found the style of the novel very readable, some found the large number of characters to be confusing. The ‘cast list’ was helpful here.

Picquart was admired for his strong moral code and his courage in being willing to give up his career, his relationship, and even his life (when he realised he was being led into a desert ambush) for his beliefs, in pursuing his investigation into the truth of the allegations against Dreyfus.

In contrast, while we felt sympathy and compassion for Dreyfus and his appalling treatment on Devil’s Island, Dreyfus himself was quite an unsympathetic character, especially at the end of the book, when, in the climactic meeting with Picquart, he did not express any thanks for the efforts to release him but wanted restoration, and even promotion, of his rank instead. He was a broken man after his imprisonment, but he did recover, and the belief of his family and the support of the French liberal intellectuals meant that he was never forgotten.

Jacquie remarked how interesting she found it when an author takes real events and fictionalises them. However, this also raises the question: how much is the truth massaged; for instance, was Picquart’s affair with Pauline true?

Comments were also made about the senior army officers – their self-satisfaction and the scale of the conspiracy constructed around Dreyfus, who was a perfect scapegoat.

The political background of the novel was also interesting to the group – the French/German tensions of that period, and the ‘outsider’ status of the Alsatians (Picquart/Dreyfus) – against our foreknowledge that the First World War was not far off.

Jacqui likes historical fiction and biographies, so this title appealed to her and she could envision it as a powerful TV miniseries, in which the courtroom aspect of the narrative would work especially well.

The author’s use of the present tense throughout gives the story a particular sense of immediacy. By the conclusion, Harris makes it clear that none of the main protagonists in the story were untouched by what had happened, whether it was the initial cover up or the subsequent conspiracy, with some dramatic consequences (for example, the fates of Henry and Labori).

Towards end of the meeting, Jacqui mentioned that, knowing that the characters were real people had inspired her to need to see them. She circulated pictures from a website ( & of the main characters, and told us that Picquart died in 1914 as the result of a fall from a horse. People commented on how closely the individuals resembled their expectations. Copies of the original documents (the ‘petit bleu’ etc.) are also available there.

It was fascinating to think that this case was one of the first high-profile media causes célèbres, such that it was subsequently studied by schoolchildren in their history lessons. It is hard to think of a modern parallel, although comparisons were drawn between Devil’s Island and Guantanamo. Reading this story made the current publicity surrounding anti-Semitism in Europe particularly resonant.

Overall, the volume provoked a lively discussion and was an interesting contrast with the genres covered in recent meetings.


A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String by Joanne Harris

This is the second collection of short stories (the first being Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm Fairytales) that the book club has done, but this one spanned many genres and subjects in its deceptively slim body: fantasy, realism, retellings, even horror. Even as everyone had their favourites, the two stories we agreed on were those starring Hope and Faith, the two indomitable residents of the Meadowbank Home. The opening story of the collection, River Song, was considered one of the less successful ones.

This led to a conversation about whether the ordering of the stories worked. For some people, it reinforced the sheer breadth and vitality of the writer’s imagination, and helped fire up their own. For others, it amplified the sense of reading snippets, rather than getting their teeth into a satisfyingly meaty narrative; a lack of amity with the short story genre magnified by the book’s ordering.

Which stories could have been extended? The two Aspects stories: Rainy Days and Mondays and Wildfire in Manhattan star characters already present in her full-length ‘Rune’ books. The stories involving Faith and Hope, as well as those about the nameless narrator we first meet in There’s No Such Place as Bedford Falls could also bear the weight of additional details and fleshed out back stories. But some of the others, such as Cookie, or The Game, derive their effectiveness from the horror of not letting the reader know, leaving them in the presence of multiple possibilities and ambiguities. What is that ‘thing’ Maggie holds? What actually is the game, and is the danger (and the fear of the attendant consequences) internal (addiction) or external (someone else manipulating addiction)? There were little details that jumped out at the reader: the station cafe from where the unnamed writer acquires his cat muse resonated with those who had encountered places like that, whereas the story Would You Like to Reconnect brought about a discussion about memorialisation in the digital age.

The covers of the American and British editions of the books differed substantially, a phenomenon we have noticed with a lot of the other books too. The American edition was brightly coloured, and seemed to feature the bench on which most of Dryad is told (lived?). The British edition was more sombre in its use of colours; even though it too featured a bench, it also featured a bird pecking at something just out of focus. This also led to a conversation about colours used on covers: bold gold type seemed to be associated with thrillers, as if signalling their ‘sensationalist’ content, whereas light (or white) covers weren’t encouraged because of their propensity to get soiled or marked easily in their physical editions, or merge into the background of most website designs in their digital formats.

Those who had read Joanne Harris’ work before (the three books in the series which started with Chocolat, as well as the Rune books) found flashes of her trademark style in this book too. Opinion was divided amongst those for whom this was an introduction to her work as to whether they would go on to read more.