They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but how else can you choose when you are in a shop with thousands of different volumes? The title? The author? A review? One answer is the blurb, that little text on the back cover which describes the book and tells you how wonderful it is. This is the equivalent of the businessman's Elevator Pitch, a 30-second impromptu presentation you make to someone you meet in a lift.
The blurb for the brand new book Out of the West, by Kevin Sullivan, is really very bad. The first sentence lost me immediately as it mentioned two Greek names - both of which I instantly forgot - and then it describes their convoluted love affair in WW2 Greece, with some action taking place in Scotland.
But the blurb wasn't a problem as I had been sent the book by the author, a Scotsman living in Sarajevo, whom I had been having an interesting email correspondence. Kevin Sullivan is a war-journalist who's been living in Bosnia for years, ever since he was seriously injured by a land-mine in the early 1990s. To cut a long story short, Kevin sent me a copy of his his new book and my first impression was that I didn't like the blurb, the cover, or the title.
But these things don't matter as Out of the West is an excellent book. It reminds me that old editions of classic English literature, published before sensational covers and compelling blurbs became de-rigueur in the publishing industry. My parents' house is full of great literature from many years ago, old books that have no cover images and no blurbs at all.
Out of the West opens just after the First World War, on the coast of Turkey - probably the worst place on the planet to have been at the time. Turkey was in the process of expelling its entire Greek population (while the Greeks were expelling their ethnic Turks) and it was a nasty, destructive, bloody process that debilitated both nations for a century. In the chaos of Izmir harbour we meet Thea, a young Greek girl who swims with her mother out to a Japanese troop ship and is plucked from the water by friendly troops. The mother is also dragged on-board but she is found to be stone-dead.
Thea, the main character, in Out of the West, is sent to a Greek orphanage where she learns to sing in the choir. When she reaches adulthood she becomes a folk singer and, as WW2 rumbles along, she ends up working for the Greek résistance as a courier. A young British officer called Ian comes out to help them during WW2 and much of the action takes place in a rather gloomy Scotland two years after the war.
What really struck me about this book is how much it reminded me of some of the best literature that has come out of Britain in the last century. The Scottish scenes have a curious combination of dourness and excitement that remind me of both Alasdair Gray, in his seminal work Lanark, as well as the bestselling books of Alexander McCall Smith. The Greek scenes are described sparingly and they feel like they could have been written by Patrick Leigh Fermor, a great-British adventurer/writer who spent his war hiding from the German army on Crete. The battle scenes have an authenticity that come from the author himself, a journalist who was an eyewitness to some real battles in wartime Bosnia.
The book covers a part of our history that most of us know nothing about - Britain's role in the Greek WW2 résistance - and for that reason alone it's worth reading. It's also a very satisfying read and I can't wait for him to write some new fiction about Scotland - a task I am sure he will do brilliantly.
But I am annoyed with Armida Publications for writing such a bad blurb and doing such a rotten cover. The blurb describes a great romance that takes place in WW2 Greece, but the book describes a series of characters who have brief flings but don't spend enough time with each other to develop a proper romance - a scenario that sounds entirely realistic considering that to stay alive in that environment you had to constantly move around, hide and pretend you were someone else. The cover also bugs me as it shows a Stuka dive-bomber that has nothing to do with anything in the book. Surely an old photo from Greece in the 1940s would be a lot more compelling.
The trouble with a bad blurb is that it creates an expectation for a particular sequence of events and when the book fails to deliver you feel rather disappointed, almost cheated. But usually the problem is the other way round: a good blurb succeeds in getting you to buy a bad book.