I know that Brendan had a dream to go and live in Venice when he retired. And did so. And found that dreams sometimes are best kept at just that. I guess a lot of people have a similar dream – go somewhere different, beautiful, sunny – the sort of place we’d go on holiday and enjoy… but for Brendan the reality fell far short of the dream. As a true writer, he made stories out of his experiences. And ‘the Preservation of the Olive Branch’ is a truly brave book. It’s the opening of his soul to the reader. Neither of these works are ‘simple’ fiction and both challenge the reader’s expectations – if you stick with them, you learn something really quite profound, not just about the nature of the written word as communication but about the heart of a man.
Venetian Lives reviewed by McRenegade Cally Phillips
I know Brendan as a man who writes from the heart and so I know his heart must be in Venetian Lives. But this is a collection quite different from his ‘Ferry Tales’ and indeed most of his short stories set in Scotland. Which in itself is interesting. Perhaps part of the problem of a life in Venice for Brendan was that he could never be a local and he wouldn’t be a turisti. But there’s still a sense of distance which you don’t usually find in his writing. Normally he’s right inside the work and here we sense a man standing back, observing and being challenged by what he sees.
In this selection of four short stories (beautifully written by the way) Brendan gets inside the skin of four people (should we call them characters?) to look at the crumbling Venice. He quickly realises that the beautiful sunsets, while captivating, are not enough to sustain. But looking for Brendan in these stories is as fruitless as trying to hold on to a sunset. From the Priest who has suffered a terrible shock from which he has never recovered, to Tomas the Dreamer ‘Just another sad dreamer in a city full of dreamers’ , to Luigi the Shopkeeper who cannot reconcile his relationship with his town and the turisti who invade it and the man whose partner has left him because Venice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – who now has to reassess his life choices – we see Brendan at work trying to make sense of it all while making meaning. I know that many of the ‘meanings’ for him will be personal, and that his whole experience of Venice must be at the very least bitter sweet – and that’s what sent me to this collection again at this time. Cliches like ‘it’s better to have loved and lost’ swirl around my head, but not prompted by this collection. Brendan is as ever, uncompromising in his delving down to the heart of the emotion, be it pretty or be it sad. He’s a man well built to face realism. And he not only deals with disappointment, he can write well about it too. So if you’ve ever thought of giving it all up and emigrating to a beautiful place somewhere else to live out your dream – read Venetian Lives first and take time to think it through. And then read it again – there’s a lot of hidden depths in this short volume – if you take time to look beyond the beautiful language, the beautiful descriptions and the well drawn characters – to the crumbling edifices on which they stand.
And when you’ve read it, why not go and put your thoughts into a review on Amazon. Strangely, amongst Brendan’s writing, this ebook has fewest reviews. Maybe we’re all so infused with Brendan’s Scots writing that we are feart to go our holidays with him, in case we find some unpalatable truths about that beautiful sunset!
"We choose to go to the moon... and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." (JFK, 1962)
The Preservation of the Olive Branch is quite remarkable. It does not just defy genre, it almost defies definition. It is not just a work of fiction, it is a reflection on the creative process. If you don't grasp this you will not get to grips with the power of the narrative. The best way I can put it is that in this novel the author undergoes an exercise in the art of `seeing ourselves as others see us.' But that's not all.
There are two journeys running through the story. One is the simple narrative: a thriller that wants to be a political novel - which fails in its endeavour because of the lack of skill of its young writer - and the other is the life journey of that writer as he revisits his creation some thirty years later. Putting these journeys together you get the life not just of the writer/ narrator but also to some degree of the author. And this is a compelling idea. It is an exploration of the layers of narrative found here which both challenges and rewards the reader in equal measure.
The potential problems for a reader are that the original `novel' is quite weak in places as the preserving narrator/writer himself acknowledges. An inability to see that the story is not just the novel can prejudice the reader - here is the narrator telling him/her that the story is not good and yet inviting them to read on. Why should they? Initially it's because the narrator himself is quite captivating and his story is considerably more compelling than that of `The Olive Branch' itself. And this is what the reader needs to appreciate. It is the act of preservation which elevates the original novel way beyond what it was. And this is a key and important concept to grasp. The narrator is not just preserving a text, he is revisiting his youth and reassessing his former opinions, strengths, weaknesses and issues of confidence. And he is brave enough to lay this bare for the reader.
As the story goes on, the narrator is drawn back into a reassessment of his past and his relationship with his creative process and we as readers are similarly moved. It is when we get drawn into the subtext, the creative process and the reflective aspect of this work that it really comes to life.
The Preservation of the Olive Branch goes way beyond being a novel and enters the realms of asking what a novel is. What fiction is. What creativity is. It's deep and it requires a lot from a reader. But then it required a lot from the author, not just the narrator, and it is the layered narrative and the one step removed aspect of the work that really captivates. Brendan Gisby may still lack the confidence to stand in the centre of his work - the narrator offers a second hand perspective of the author's real thoughts - although when he does this, as in The Bookie's Runner, his writing is truly moving. But it is that lack of authorial confidence which is at the core of Gisby's writing and nowhere more so than in The Preservation - where he bravely tackles this issue for himself and lets us in on the process. The honesty and humility with which he writes is quite unique and deeply moving.
This is definitely not a novice ride. And I would recommend that readers read both The Bookie's Runner and The Island of Whispers before they attempt this book. That way they will have seen the best of Brendan Gisby's writing both his fact as fiction/memoir and his political novel and they will be in no doubt that what he's attempting in Preservation of the Olive Branch is something worth the investment of time on the part of the reader. You need to be reading on at least two levels all the way through. You need to be challenging your own pre-conceptions of writing style and of the importance of class in confidence and creativity. And most of all you need to be unafraid to challenge your own preconceptions and prejudices about the construction and consumption of creativity. You will find out more about Brendan Gisby by reading The Preservation of the Olive Branch. If you read it carefully enough, you'll probably also find out more about yourself.
Lee Carrick on The Preservation of the Olive Branch
Last week I took a four and a half hour train journey from the south of Taiwan to the north. A few days before Mr. Gisby requested that we all help him getThe Preservation of The Olive Branch into the shortlist of The People's Book Prize. I decided it would be a good time to read the book.
This was the fourth book that I've read of Brendan's and so I had no reservations about reading it. I very much enjoy Brendan's writing.
Firstly it is to be said that without the passage of time, some three decades or so, this book would have been impossible to write. So, in some ways, this book is special if not unique. Most writers, especially of my age, do not have work which they have forgotten about, work that has been dormant for such a long period of time.
The book is also set in a time that I have no memory of, The Cold War, I found the story interesting for this reason. The paranoia and the proximity people were total destruction. However, this story lives in Brendan's review of it. An honest and emotional review of a work he had long forgotten.
As the train headed north on its journey so did Brendan take me on a separate journey through his revisiting of the book.
Brendan's reaction, criticisms and praise of a piece of work which had sat in a box for so long is both honest and revealing. At intervals during the story Brendan lets the reader know what he is feeling as he reads it and as we read it together.
The four and a half hour train journey passed in an instant. I was lost in the book for that time. I will be giving The Preservation of The Olive Branch my vote not because Brendan is a friend but because this is a book that deserves my vote.
It is a book which, in part, has waited very patiently for an audience and Brendan has brought it back to life in a unique way.
The Preservation has also received its share of reviews from Amazon:
‘I just finished reading Brendan Gisby's The Preservation of the Olive Branch. The story is told from the viewpoint of an older writer looking at himself through a manuscript he started as a young man. The internal dialogue of the author reflects the fears, doubts and hopes most writers experience. At times this story was hard to read, very intense and harrowing in spots, but the overwhelming desire to see what happened next had me picking it up again momemts later. It reminded me of the movie RED DAWN. By the end of the book you are glad that the "Preservation" was accomplished and delivered.’
‘Admittedly, as an author, I was intrigued by the premise: Duncan Sinclair wrote a book--the novel everyone has in them--that was criticized (by a friend, we call them beta readers nowadays), rejected and set aside for more than thirty years. Life interfered. Now Duncan is retired, with time on his hands and what better way to fill those hours than to tidy-up what had obviously been a failure into something worth salvaging. Duncan will take those old typewritten and hand-written pages, get the words onto his laptop, edit a bit (he calls it `soft edit') and hopefully at the end it will be a legacy of adequacy.’
The book is called `The Olive Branch'. The author-as-young-man is your traditional young turk, ideologically naïve, easily impressed and sufficiently committed to his beliefs to make a statement. And what better way than to write the novel that would, as he put it, `shatter the apathy'. To young Duncan, the Sino-Soviet threat was real, as real as the headlines.
It begins with a newspaper story, then translates to an `intelligence report'. It sets the premise, allocates credibility. Duncan has a plot, or nearly so.
The words on the page are like a screen-capture of Duncan as the young man. Sinclair-the-elder (and yes this will seem like whiplash, or at the very least like watching a tennis match ... bear with me) filters those words, that memory, and presents it, softly edited, to a far more critical eye ... his own.
The phrasing, juxtaposition of words, the `excesses' of his prose annoy and embarrass Duncan-the-critic. The beginning of the novel fails the precepts of the craft as he now understands it. Duncan-the-younger was naïve, untutored, given to melodrama. His main character appears poorly drawn, inappropriate. But it didn't seem a total loss and perhaps he was too hard on himself.
After all, he was young back then, so very young. And opinionated.
It's a bit like your high school English lit class. Getting into the mind of the author, asking the questions your teacher deems important, then as time goes on you become fascinated with the answers, the insights. Insights that sometimes say more about you than about the author. Now do that one step removed, eavesdropping on a private conversation, sans grading and a report at the end. Become a voyeur in the mind of a man rediscovering not just who he was then but who his characters are, why they are important, why he should care ... now.
This is frustrating. I want to lay it all out so that you can see the exquisite interweaving of layers of stories. On the surface it appears as two concurrent narratives: the younger Sinclair's tale of invasion, heroism and sacrifice; the older Sinclair's `director's cut', a voiceover that critiques, explains and anticipates.
But there is more, so very much more. This novel reminded me of the movie, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman used nonlinear narration to look at the nature of memory. Author Brendan Gisby does something similar here. He gives us magic spectacles with which to view the unfolding of a life, a 3D image if you will, but close one eye and you have the narration-as-life-remembered, close the other and you have multiple paths of discovery.
Perception, awareness, anticipation, empathy ... you feel all these when viewed through the eyes of the elder Sinclair. The author(s)--Gisby, Sinclair-- set you up to travel that road. Comfortably and securely. But what you never see coming, not really, is the story itself and the impact it will have on you, on its own merits.
Make no mistake, the author pulls no punches. There are elements to `The Olive Branch' that are beautiful, lyrical, sensual, brutal, gut-wrenching, terrifying and profoundly observant of the human condition. And as if that weren't enough, author Brendan Gisby, with a masterful hand, ramps up the emotional impact with subtle cues you will barely notice, if at all.
All novels are covenants between the reader and the author. This one was an offer I couldn't refuse. Because Gisby put me inside that novel, made me a part of the process, gave me an acute awareness of the multiple journeys: his own, the younger and older Sinclair, the protagonist, young Jeff Wheeler, and very worthy secondary characters and antagonists.
This is truly a work of literary fiction. It is a book you will come back to time and again, to savor the language, to seek out and find those passages that reveal the hooks, to look at the story with fresh perception, and to discover how a legacy of adequacy elevated a work to the level of extraordinary.’
This novel made me think. It made me ask, "How did he do that?" And then it made me say, "Wow."
For your Kindle, for your bookshelf: The Preservation of The Olive Branch deserves a permanent place in your library.’
‘What are the most overused words in the English language? What if? Okay and how often do we think them? Well now I want to use them and say what if you were a gifted writer as this books hero is and as this books author is and what if you could read your own words on your life as seen through your own younger eyes? Wow! That's what happens here. This book is so well written and so intensely meaningful that it should get a pulitzer that's no exaggeration I assure you!’
‘In 1975, the Soviet Union and Communist China lay aside their differences and form an alliance. Their goal: to take over all of Europe and England. By early summer, 1980, "the combined Communist forces are poised for the initial assault." From there, the action begins, and it is full-scale war, with all the explosiveness, viciousness and suspense that one expects, especially after an active Resistance movement is organized. Some of the scenes are gut-wrenching.
But the war story isn't the only story. The other story, the underlying story, is that of the author himself, who discovers the manuscript in an old box file he hasn't opened in thirty years, and comments on his novel and his editing of it between each chapter. As an author myself, as well as a devourer of books, I found this fascinating, almost like reading a second novel, one the "warp" and the other the "woof" of the whole.
What makes this so fascinating and so important is that this is the way we experience life, the warp of life and the woof of memory, interwoven into our daily lives.
My hat is off to Brendan Gisby, the author of several wonderful books, of which this is the latest. You have a gem here Mr. Gisby.’
Already we've seen an incredible range of writing from the pen of Brendan Gisby, and believe me, there's plenty more to come. I don't normally do words like 'awe' but Brendan, you are truly awesome as a writer and that you've spent so much of your time encouraging others - when others simply use displacement activity when they're not writing - well, its a real tribute to you.