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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 1, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Archer, Prisoner, Rocannon

Jeffrey Archer has had a checkered career, to say the least. He has long been one of those rare hybrids -- a writer who has had some success in politics. The most notable previous example was Benjamin Disraeli, one of Britain's most distinguished prime ministers.

But instead of being a novelist who ran for Parliament, like Disraeli, Archer had already been a Member of Parliament for five years when personal financial problems led him to write his first novel. Soon he was a prolific and financially successful novelist, the author of Kane and Abel, First Among Equals, and many others, leading to his most recent book, A Prisoner of Birth.

But along the way, he was convicted of perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice -- crimes that, if you're Bill Clinton, lead to a slap on the wrist and huge speaking fees, but if you're Jeffrey Archer, a sentence of four years and release from prison after two.

Thus Archer's career diverged irrevocably from Disraeli's. But that's all right -- he's a better novelist.

Not that anyone is overpraising Archer -- as a conservative, there's almost no chance of his being favorably reviewed by London's critical establishment, since the British intelligentsia are, if anything, even more leftist than the American. The surprise is that Archer has received as much critical acclaim as he has.

No doubt about it, Archer writes for the masses. But he does not write stupidly; on the contrary, as I listened to Roger Allam's fine reading of A Prisoner of Birth, I was struck again and again by the fact that whenever I wondered about a seeming hole in the plot, Archer was already ahead of me, making the thing work.

One thing about having an ex-con write a novel that includes a lot of time in prison, you can be reasonably confident that he knows what he's talking about. But Prisoner is far more than a prison novel.

Danny Cartwright's proposal of marriage to his pregnant girlfriend, Beth Wilson, went perfectly -- until a chance encounter in a bar that same night led to the murder of Danny's best friend (and Beth's brother).

It seems incredible to Danny and Beth when Danny is arrested for the crime. Yes, he was there, holding the knife and covered in his friend's blood -- but there were witnesses who saw another man do the stabbing, at the end of a nasty fight that the murderer had picked.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the murderer is a distinguished young barrister, and his four friends -- the one who helped him in the fight, and the other two who merely looked on -- are all equally distinguished. In fact, one of them is a famous actor in a British soap.

Danny is lucky enough to have a first-rate lawyer defend him, and two jurors believe his and Beth's story. But the other ten believe the other guy, and under British law, ten is enough. Danny is sentenced to twenty-two years in prison.

This much, the book jacket will tell you. What it doesn't say is that even though we know this outcome before we even start reading, it's only the beginning. In fact, I sometimes thought it was taking an awfully long time to get him convicted -- but none of the time was wasted.

Nor is this a prison novel, though key events take place in prison. Danny never gives up on salvaging his reputation; neither does Beth. And they begin to gather allies, good friends who make it possible for Danny to do the impossible.

Does the plot depend on coincidence? In one key point, yes, the fact that two characters resemble each other a bit too much for their own good. But Archer is very careful with this very point, explaining how the resemblance passes the tipping point where one can pass for the other.

More than that I will not say, except that this is a gripping story without relying on constant violence; characters matter, and the book is full of good ones. Even the bad guys are opened up to us and we understand them -- or some of them, at least.

The ending is completely satisfying. The book never pretends to be great art -- but since I have no patience with books that do, this is not a bad mark as far as I'm concerned. Archer is a much-better-than-average writer, and I'll be reading more of his novels in the future.

I also recommend Roger Allam's reading -- he's a superb reader, and I frequently had to remind myself that there was only one of him, the characters were so well distinguished.

*

I recently had occasion to reread Ursula K. LeGuin's first novel, Rocannon's World. LeGuin is best known for her award-winning novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, which are intelligent, passionate stories with feminist and political agendas that nevertheless don't stop the books from being good reads.

She also wrote the children's classics, A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels, so it's not as if she lacks for steady sales and public acclaim. If in recent years her writing has veered into kinds of fiction I'm little interested in, that is not a fault in her or in me -- writers should not be required to keep writing the same kind of thing just because readers like it.

However, I had forgotten, in the thirty-five years since I first read it, just how good a book Rocannon's World is. I had a memory of it as a watershed reading experience for me -- as a young man contemplating a writing career, I read Rocannon and thought, over and over again, "So this is possible!"

But as time passed, I remembered almost nothing of the story except that sense of wonderment. So when I listened to Stefan Rudnicki's brilliant reading of the book, preparatory to speaking my own introduction to Audible.com's featuring the book online, I was prepared for the book to be good.

It was more than good. In fact, by the end I could only say that in some very important ways it is, once again, my favorite of LeGuin's work.

A heroic story of a human ethnologist trapped on a world with several sentient near-human species, LeGuin carefully shows the process by which Rocannon "goes native" without ever losing sight of his objective.

This nameless planet (its inhabitants simply call it their version of "earth") has been caught up in a war between worlds, though few people on it understand that. The invaders killed all of Rocannon's co-workers and destroyed his means of communicating with his home world. The only way Rocannon can even notify headquarters is to go straight to the enemy's settlement and use their communication device.

But this is merely the premise; what makes this novel so very good is the complicated societies LeGuin creates along the way. Rocannon learns to be a member of another species, and to value them as his friends; no, as brothers and sisters.

He has lived a life that skipped through time, cutting him off from everyone he knew; now, on this world, he puts down roots.

I realized, near the end, that in certain key ways I have spent much of my career recapitulating Rocannon's World; there's no shame in that, all writers do it, and I'm proud that one of my models was a book this good.

I would call the book unforgettable, except that I had forgotten almost everything about the plot. What I didn't forget was the impression it made on me; and this time through, especially with Rudnicki's deeply emotional reading, it made just as strong an impression.

It's well worth becoming a member of Audible.com in order to get this performance of the book. In print, it isn't so easy to lay hands on. But since the audio is the best way to experience it, there's no harm done.


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