Book Review : Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum



‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

Anna Benz is a bored housewife .An American, she is married to Bruno, a Swiss, and finds herself stranded as an ex-pat in Zurich. Following a crisis , she is undergoing Jungian analysis ( well this is Switzerland) with Dr Messerli and is finally resigned to trying to learn German. As a distraction, she has started an affair with a fellow student in her German class. So begins Essbaum’s impressive debut novel.

Gradually we learn more about Anna’s past whilst her present slowly begins to unravel.

Anna’s marriage to Bruno is loveless and held together by convention just like her namesake’s with Karenin. Bruno’s mother, Ursula, watches over her like a hawk, judging and waiting to trip her up – there are obvious echoes of Countess Ivanova in Tolstoy’s novel.

The narration is broken up by excerpts from Anna’s therapy sessions with Dr Messerli, providing a sort of moral conscience. I thought these were the least successful sections of the novel and they felt a little heavy handed at times. More interesting were Anna’s musings on German grammar rules and the way they seemed to mirror her life .

“This is basic, class. Present tense. That which happens now. Future tense. What will occur. Simple past : what was done. Present perfect? What has been done.”

But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect? Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn’t trust.’

Just like her namesake, Anna’s life begins to run away from her and she finds herself unable to control events. 

This is described on the backcover as a literary page turner and it is exactly that. Whilst Anna’s story has obvious comparisons with those of Anna Karenina and, to some extent, Emma Bovary, this is a strong work in its own right. An immensely enjoyable read.

Hausfrau was published on 26th March by Mantle and my thanks to Sam Eades for the review copy.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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There’s been a problem on the line. The 17.56 fast train to Stoke has been cancelled, so its passengers have invaded my train and it’s standing room only in the carriage. I, fortunately, have a seat, but by the aisle, not next to the window, and there are bodies pressed against my shoulder, my knee, invading my space. I have an urge to push back, to get up and shove. The heat has been building all day, closing in on me, and I feel as though I am breathing through a mask. Every single window has been opened and yet, even while we’re moving, the carriage feels airless, a locked metal box. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel sick.

This passage from Paula Hawkins’ new thriller will chime with anyone who commutes regularly. I am not a big fan of the thrillers and I don’t read very many. It remains a genre that produces big sales and the publishing industry is now on a quest to find the new Gone Girl, whose ( to me inexplicable) success recently led to a Hollywood film. There are several highly publicised thrillers coming out this year which like  Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train are by women and feature female protagonists.

Hawkins’ staring point is the monotony of a daily train commute – you see the same faces, stop at the same stations and pass through the same landscapes day in day out. One way out of the boredom is to invent fictional lives and names for the people whose lives cross ours everyday , albeit briefly.

This is how we first meet Rachel, one of the three female narrators of the book. She is a commuter but with a difference. In the wake of a failed marriage, her drink problem has caught up with her and she is now taking the same train every day to hide from her flatmate, and maybe from herself too, that she has lost her job and her life is approaching meltdown.

On the train she relives the moment that she discovered Tom was cheating on her with his now wife, Anna :

I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days : an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message ; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar.

Rachel is obsessed with Tom and is accused of stalking him. Her alcoholism means that she can’t always remember exactly what happened the night before. She is the classic unreliable narrator….or is she ? We also hear from two other female characters Anna, Toms new wife, and Megan, a young woman Rachel glimpses from the train every day, who each add a different perspective to the story. It is not really possible to say much more without running the risk of giving a spoiler.

I enjoyed The Girl On The Train very much. None of the characters are particularly likeable but the book is tightly plotted and kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.As with any thriller, there are a few red herrings that kept me guessing and the plight of Rachel ,who descends from social drinking to full-blown alcoholism, is sympathetically told.

An ideal book for a long winter’s evening…..or, indeed, a long train journey.

The Girl On The Train was published on 15th January. My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld for the review copy.

 

An Evening With Marilynne Robinson

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At this time of the year, the blogosphere is filled with favourite books of the year and so  I thought I would finally get round to writing about my favourite author event of 2014.

On 13th November, Marilynne Robinson was interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank Centre following the publication of Lila, the third of her novels set in the mid West town of Gilead and following the fortunes of the Ames and Boughton families. What follows is not a verbatim account of the interview but will, I hope, give a flavour of the evening.

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Lila is a repeat of the story in the earlier books Gilead and Home but told from a different point of view, that of Lila, wife of Rev John Ames who is the narrator of Gilead. One of the issues of storytelling, Robinson finds, is to get sufficient dimension. In John Ames’ version [ Gilead] he is writing a letter to his young  son and therefore he is necessarily writing to his son’s mother. It is really like parents telling different stories.

Is Lila, though uneducated, intuitively wiser than her husband John Ames? Lila describes knowing a place before it was known. She is not self-aware in a conventional way. She is outside the sense of things and outside consciousness .

Runcie pointed out that taken as a whole, the stories of Gilead, Home and Lila feel like a parable and the Book of Ezekiel and the Prodigal Son come to mind.

Robinson is haunted by Biblical paradigms . The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that if you absolutely love someone you see them in a state of grace. God sees you more purely . The father sees his son at a distance and runs to him. If you love someone, you want to stop them from hurting themselves but it they do, you still love them.

Runcie remarked that there is a high moral seriousness to Robinson’s writing. She replied, dryly, that she was glad to be assured of that. She prefers to call it aesthetic . Good behaviour is beautiful. Humans are an amazing flowering on a planet. We have the freedom to care for one another and to forgive. She calls this a beautiful uniqueness.

Jack Boughton specifically asks for forgiveness and John Ames cannot give it to him. Robinson explained that she has created a theological Rubik’s cube. Jack Boughton may be at odds with his culture but he sees something John Ames and his father can’t. Gilead is a small self-blinded community. Jack lacks the moral confidence to point out that they are violating Christian standards. They are both wrong and both right.

Runcie asked why Lila feels such shame. Lila is fallen in the sense we all are. People who are in poverty, who are ignorant, feel shame. They are embarrassed and this, in Robinson’s view, is the major part of the cruelty of poverty. Shame reinforces injurious cultural norms.

Lila’s baptism is central to her story. Robinson’s own tradition is Congregationalist. There are only two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. They both symbolise deep care.The cosmic force of water has always fascinated her. A member of the audience asked about the response of a younger readership to the biblical references. Robinson replied  with a flash of humour that she writes what is on her mind and she doesn’t find resistance to it. She can’t write something deliberately to be appealing.In the writers’ workshops she teaches the Old Testament from time to time. It is part of our inherited culture, for example, why is a book called Absalom! Absalom!

Runcie felt that whilst there was tentative hope in Lila, all the Gilead books are quite sad.Robinson doesn’t like the word pity and she objects to the word sad. We live in the knowledge of our own mortality. This is a profound thing. It is a fact of humaness, indeed it is what dignifies it. Runcie wondered if there is another word for pity or sad. Robinson cannot find an alternative word……..that is why she has to write novels.

Runcie wondered about the sense of loneliness there is in Lila and , indeed, in all the Gilead books. Robinson’s roots are in N. Idaho. People went there and no-one followed them so she is programmed to think that loneliness is a great Idea. She was brought up to be self sufficient.

Is she done with Gilead? She can’t be sure. She starts to write when a voice is clear in her mind.If a voice speaks to her persuasively then she may return there.All three books so far are free standing, they cast light on each other. In her view it is perfectly legitimate to read them in any order.

When she writes, Robinson needs solitude. She also needs hope, she doesn’t want to succumb to cliché . When she is writing and she likes what she is producing she can work for twelve hours. If she doesn’t feel engaged, she doesn’t work at all.She has to feel that there is a nucleus around which something is gathering to gain weight.

She had great happiness when she was writing her first book Housekeeping. She was in Brittany in France and she felt being there helped her to focus on Idaho. She never thought that it would be published. She showed her manuscript to a friend, who in turn showed it to the person who became Robinson’s agent. When she is writing she starts at the beginning and then she does what seems to be the next required thing. She never even writes an outline.

This was a remarkable evening. Robinson’s serenity leaves a long lasting impression and it was fascinating to have a glimpse at her method of working and to hear her discuss the themes in the Gilead novels .

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Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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There is plenty of atmosphere in Jo Bloom’s novel set in London’s East End in the Summer of 1962.

Vivien Epstein , a young Jewish hairdresser, has left her hometown of Manchester after the death of her father and come to London in search of fame, fortune and Jack.

Jack ,a young Jewish journalist ,had visited Vivien’s father, Phil, shortly before his death to talk about Phil’s days as an organiser in the ’43Group’. Phil had been instrumental in  the group’s fight against Moseley and the fascists in the East End decades before. Jack, so Vivien was told, was researching for an article. Jack and Vivien had a brief but intense affair. Jack promised he would come back for her but has since fallen off the radar.

 

Viv gets a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. The seedy world of Soho at this time with its prostitutes and strippers is lovingly recreated. The air is thick with the smell of hair lacquer and there are frequent references to the fashion styles and music of the time.

In fact the hit by Helen Shapiro, a young Jewish singer, became a bit of an ear worm for me when reading the book.

Vivian soon finds Jack but their relationship is fraught with danger. Jack is working undercover for the 62Group and has infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. The 62Group , like like their fore-runners, are Jewish activists working to defeat the fascists who are again openly campaigning on the streets of the East End.

Masquerading as a fascist, Jack is feeding back details of the NSM’s plans .He is finding the pressure unbearable but it is imperative that he doesn’t betray himself. The NSM are a group of violent thugs who openly boast of their hatred of Jews and Blacks.

Again, Bloom is expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and menace that surround the party. These passages read like a thriller and I found myself anxious to turn the page in order to find out what would happen next.

The NSM hold rallies and campaign meetings which the 62Group aim to disrupt. The violence of the fascists is sickening :

At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all.When a cricket bat cut through the air close by and someone screamed, he knew it was time to run, but after a couple of steps ,a hand shot out of nowhere and punched him in the face.

“No, not me -” he shouted.

He tried to stay on his feet but his attacker hit him again.He cried out, expecting another punch, but it never came. Instead a big man with heavy cheeks took hold of his attacker’s arm, threw him to the ground and kicked him until he couldn’t get up. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Bloom explains at the end of the book that the NSM did exist and was on the rise in the 1960s ,led by the vile Colin Jordan. Similarly, the 62Group really was part of the Jewish community’s fightback to keep the fascist off their streets. The characters and events in the book whilst realistic are , of course, the product of Bloom’s imagination.

Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December and has a wonderful cover – not that I would ever judge a book by that, of course !!

My thanks to Jo Bloom for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Getting Colder by Amanda Coe

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As we move into December, the title of this novel seems particularly apt.

Screen-writer Amanda Coe examines the fall out in an already fractured family after the death of the mother, Sara. Nigel and Louise, her children, are both grown up now with their own difficult families but 35 years earlier, Sara abandoned her children to live with Patrick, now an old man but at that time a fashionable playwright and darling of the Left.

In the aftermath of their mothers death , Nigel and Louise descend on the ramshackle cottage in Cornwall which Sara had shared with Patrick to pick over her possessions and also the reasons their mother left them all those years ago. Getting Colder is in fact the name of a hide-and-seek type game they used to play with their mother when they were children.

Both Nigel and Louise have been left damaged by their mother’s betrayal. Nigel’s years at boarding school have left him with an anxiety related digestive problem. Louise, dumped with a godmother as her carer, has constant feelings of unworthiness. Her neediness is spilling over into her relationship with her own two children. Patrick is an intensely unlikeable ,self-obsessed and self pitying bully and it is hard to see what Sara had ever seen in him.

“I’ll never forgiver her, you know. Leaving me like this.”

He meant Mum. Well, rampaging end-stage cancer was hardly running off with the milkman. Nigel pushed the sugar bowl his way appeasingly.

“Ashes,”said Patrick. “O God.” And to Nigel’s dismay, he wept. Nigel hated this, always had,the way Patrick detonated instantly into high emotion, winding you in the backdraft.

Into this heady mix comes Mia, an attractive young student apparently researching Patrick’s almost forgotten writing  but someone who has an agenda of her own.

“My cock doesn’t work,” he had told her, a few days into the blouse-button routine. ” Shut up shop years ago”

It had made everything more possible. Even at its most enjoyable, sex always made Mia feel she was missing the point of something other deployed to enhance their status by claiming to find it transformational – much like those who trumpeted their love of the theatre.Well, she was different, as usual. Her pleasure was mild enough when she fancied someone, like Jonathon; it would have been downright impossible with Patrick.

Each chapter of the novel is seen through the eyes of Nigel, Louise or Mia. Each episode is prefaced with an extract from notes, letters and cards written by Patrick and Sara over the years and through which the trajectory of their love affair and its consequences can be traced,

Given the subject matter this could be an extremely depressing read however Coe’s witty style saves the book from becoming gloomy. Here, a young Louise , who has recently been shown a sex education film in school, tries to work out why her mother has left her father for Patrick :

But Louise knew, unlike her friends that any or all of the improbable facts imparted about adult sexual behaviour had to be true. The weirdness must take place, because why else would Mum leave Dad, and them? Since nothing made sense, you had to believe in a compulsion you couldn’t understand. It was all because Mum wanted Patrick’s penis in her vagina. Dad’s penis wasn’t good enough for some reason.

The clue to the result of Nigel and Louise’s search is found in the quote from Ted Hughes which appears on the frontispiece  :

‘What happens in the heart simply happens’

A very enjoyable read and thank you to Ursula Doyle and Virago for the advance copy.

 

 

 

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

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Crooked Heart tells the tale of Noel Bostock, twice abandoned and then evacuated in the mass exodus from London of September 1939, he finds himself billeted with Vera Sedge and her hapless son , Donald, in St Albans.

This book came as an unexpected pleasure to me. I had wondered what I might make of it. Instead it is a refreshingly light-hearted and warm hearted tale , very similar in atmosphere to The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day- Lewis.

Evans gives us a picture of wartime London not often acknowledged.One in which some men are actively trying to avoid being called up and are willing to pay to do so ; one in which bombed-out houses are ransacked for hidden valuables and air-raid wardens collude with the thieves.

It is hard to believe today how little attention was paid to the welfare of the child evacuees wrenched away from home and sent to live with strangers. No background checks were done on the hosts who were selected by the authorities on the grounds of perceived available bed space. Children were stood in a church or school hall to be chosen by the  hosts. Just like my father at that time, Noel finds himself unchosen at the end of the session and so is marched round to a local household and foisted on Vera. Luckily she is a much more benign guardian than the woman my poor Dad ended up with and together Noel and Vee embark on a series of adventures around the N London suburbs.

Evans captures entirely the bewilderment of a child like Noel. Already orphaned, he is removed from the care of his godmother , Mattie, as she descends into dementia only to be parachuted into a life with strangers. Although narrated, the story is seen through Noel’s eyes and therefore will probably appeal to the ‘ young adult’ market as well.

Noel stood by the side of the lane, next to Ada, and watched the billeting officer talk to the scrawny women in the headscarf. He was so tired that his eyes kept closing and then jerking open again, so that the scene jerked forward like a damaged film.

‘…..and you get ten and sixpence a week,’ he heard the billeting officer say.’ More if he’s a bed-wetter.’

She looks nice,’ said Ada hopefully. She had said this about every housewife they’d seen that day, and they’d probably seen a hundred. After a morning in the Mason’s Hall, during which the smaller and prettier children had been picked off, a crocodile of the plain and badly dressed had been marched from door to door in a widening spiral, gradually leaving the centre of the town behind.

India Knight has called Crooked Heart the best book she has read in 2014. I found it a welcome change to the usually downbeat atmosphere of modern fiction. I defy you not to have a tear in your eye by the end of it.

Crooked Heart is published by Doubleday. My thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

 

Book Review : Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is Pulitzer Prize winning Jane Smiley’s latest novel. It is the first part in a trilogy following the Langdon/Vogel family for a century beginning in 1921 with parts 2 and 3 to be published in the UK in May and October 2015 respectively.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy via Pan Macmillan and Netgalley and also to attend the ‘ Meet The Author’ event at the London Review Bookshop on 4th November.

As Some Luck opens we meet Walter Langdon and his young wife Rosanna. Walter has not long since returned from Europe and WW1 and has bought his farm with the help of a large bank loan.Rosanna is a local girl but of German Catholic stock and their first child Frank is just a few months old.

The book spans the years 1921-1953 with each year being given an individual chapter. During this time we get to know not just Walter and Rosanna but their 6 children born at various points and the wider family, in particular Rosanna’s younger inter Eloise.

We learn a lot about farming. The novel takes us through the dust bowl years during which time Frank sees his harvests dwindle and his loan looms large.

But it was no secret to Walter as he drove the tractor from one end of the twenty-acre cornfield to the other that a tractor was a pact with the devil. How could it be that when they woke up one morning they found dust caked on the west side of the house, and the air so thick you had to wear a wet bandana outside, keep all the windows shut, and wipe the inside sills ant yaw? Iowa prided itself on no being Oklahoma, but how much of a sign did they need?

Towards the end of the book new methods are being introduced into farming with chemical fertilisers and pesticides which perhaps foreshadow the events to come in the next volume.

World events impact as well, most notably WW2. Frank enlists and becomes a sniper. At the end of Some Luck McCarthyism is beginning to cast a shadow perhaps with consequences for Eloise, who has married a left-wing English Jew.

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On 4th November Jane Smiley was skilfully interviewed by journalist Alex Clark who opened the evening by announcing that Some Luck was being hailed at the new ‘Great American Novel’. Smiley rather wryly remarked that this was not the case back home. America was reserving its judgement at this point.

After giving a short reading, Smiley was asked about the structure of this novel. She would categorise it as mainly history and gossip.The novel is centred in Iowa but the family necessarily spread out from there. They engage with historical events . Frank in particular wants to escape and he is always looking for ways to get out. He finds a way to get to High School and to College, before enlisting.

As a novelist though, she was surely in control of her characters and must have planned in which events they would engage and how these would impact on their lives? Smiley laughed. Any novelist who thinks they are in control of their characters has a dead novel.She finds that characters seize and shift a novel by their own energy. She frequently sets to to do one thing then the characters take it their own way. For example in this book it was clear that Frank would go to WW2 but the character took that in his own direction. She didn’t go back and fix stuff later.

Smiley has always been interested in he social and political possibilities of the novel. She grew up reading Dickens, The Scarlet Letter and Giants of The Earth. She is fascinated by the idea of art as a revealer or even as an agent for change. In a novel we share the experiences so we can better understand them.

A novel doesn’t have to be overtly political, this can be done in other ways. The example she would give is Nancy Mitford whose work she greatly admires. She is of the view that Mitford’s work has stood the test of time better than many of her peers as her beliefs are expressed through her characters who voice hilariously funny opinions.

The novel is inherently political because  the relationship between the protaganist and his world must be developed or the reader will abandon it. Her view is that the novel as a form  is born not with Don Quixote but with Madame de La Fayatte’s Princess of Cleves. The princess has an inner life which we share. By the time we get to Pamela, even the servant girl has an inner life.

She was asked about her research for this trilogy and the conclusions she had reached about the state of society by the end of it. She had read the New York Times archive fairly extensively. The conclusion she had reached was that we were in deep shit. She had a pretty good idea of when the shit  had hit the fan………but we would have to read the books and draw our own conclusions.

She was asked about her views on publishing today. Earlier in the evening, Smiley had explained that she regarded her first 2 or 3 books as practice novels, but that they had appeared in the 1980s when that had been possible. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux. There are perhaps more ways to get your work out there, and she gave the example of self-publishing, but not necessarily more ways up. Publishing has always been idiosyncratic in her view.

Her daily writing routine is one of interruptions and chaos. She has 4 horses and 3 dogs.Her day begins with reading the paper, eating granola and looking at the internet.She will then go to her barn and ride. She enjoys eating and cooking so starts looking forward to dinner at an early stage in the day.

She always commits to a certain number of words per day. She finds getting out with the horses prevents her from getting stuck. Her study has 2 doors and a telephone and the dogs are constantly in and out. She is not a writer who needs solitude.

She was asked by a member of the audience for her views on the ‘great’ American authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow.Apart from Updike , she has not read much of their work and is not a huge fan of what she would call the WW2 generation. She tells her students that in fact your best readers and critics are your peers and not the generation that preceded you. She certainly found this to be the case herself.

I then asked which books she felt had influenced her the most. She thinks that the books you read as a teenager have the greatest impact and so would say David Copperfield and The Giants Of The Earth. Later, when she was researching  13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel ( her readers’ and writers’ handbook) she came to admire Zola and Trollope.

The most important thing to remember when writing is that no novel is perfect. Even The Good Soldier is not perfect as the protagonist does not even sound American! She always has in her mind a sign a friend keeps above her desk ” No-one asked you to write this novel’

Novels are inherently imperfect but each novelist thinks they can do better.

Some Luck was published by Mantle on 6th November.

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Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.

 

Book Review:Six Stories And An Essay by Andrea Levy

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This not perhaps the most exciting title for a new book from the prize winning author of Small Island but it does do exactly what it says on the tin!

The book brings together six of her short stories , most of which have been previously published elsewhere, and all of varying lengths , as Levy points out ,

Because short stories are short it is often mistakenly thought that it does not take long to write them. I was once offered a week to write a story by an editor with the words, ‘It doesn’t have to be long.’ But as the famous quote ( Pascal? Twain? Goethe? Cicero?) says. ‘I’d write you a shorter letter, but I haven’t the time”. Short stories can be as consuming as any novel.

I find it difficult to review collections of short stories…….are you supposed to review each one individually, write an overview of the collection or just pick the couple you liked the best?

In this collection all the stories are written in the first person. Not all of them deal with the ‘immigrant’ experience directly but all of them have the sense of the protagonist being on the outside of what surrounds him/her.

The search for identity is important to all her characters but whilst the stories often have dark undercurrents they do not lack humour. Levy explains the importence of humour in her work which she discovered in the very first writing class she attended ;

But what I really enjoyed when I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that.

Each of the stories is preceded by a short introduction by Levy, setting it in a context or giving an indication of what inspired her to write it.

The collection opens with an essay entitled Back To My Own Country . In it Levy sets out her ‘ manifesto’ and details her personal journey as a working class black girl growing up in Britain to her realisation of the importance of the culture her parents had come from and her own need to embrace it.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another. It is a very rich seam for a writer and it is, quite simply, the reason that I write.

Through her writing Levy has researched Caribbean history and has come to realise its importance in explaining Britain today

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

I want to highlight the final story in the collection. This year marks the centenary of World War One and I have already reviewed a number of books dealing with this on the blog. In Uriah’s War, Levy gives us the story of two young recruits from Jamaica who find themselves on the battlefields of France. Walker explains,

You see, the Empire was our protector, that is how we thought. England was great, sort of thing.And she was under threat. You should have heard the stories of the barbarous Germans that swept the breeze. They were burning houses and churches and women and children. Some were eating babies. Well, that was one of the tales. Looking back now perhaps that was a little…..embellished. But everyone believed it at the time.

Of course Walker and Uriah discover that Mother Empire has other ideas about the nature of their contribution to the war effort ,

But our colonel made it quite clear that we West Indian troops would be labourers in France. Now, who wanted to come all tat way and be in a labour battalion? Running back and forth with shells and what-and-what for the front line. No rifle, no combat, but just as likely to die. That would have been a humiliation.

Walker and Uriah instead are sent to Palestine where they fight bravely in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, it is the end of the war and return to ‘normality’  that proves their undoing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection which gives much food for thought with the lightest of touches. The collection is published on 23rd October. My thanks to Tinder Press and to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Man Booker Prize 2014 : The Shortlist

The closing event of the London Literary Festival at the Royal Festival Hall was also the final reading event before the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 on 14th October.

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All six shortlisters attended to read from their novel and the evening was compered by Kirsty Wark who will also be interviewing the eventual winner on Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

First up was Joshua Ferris reading from To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.I have also heard hi reading from this at The Hay Festival. He has a beautiful reading voice and had chosen a very witty piece in which his protagonist ruminates on the sort of passengers he sees on public transport intently reading from heavily highlighted copies of the Bible.

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Ferris explained that he feel a sense of community is very important. What his character lacks is the ability to commune with people and the novel describes his attempts to build himself a community. Ferris had felt a great sense of community with all the shortlisted authors and for him the time spent with them will be more important than who actually wins the prize.

Kirsty then asked him whether his book was a warning about the dangers of online life. Ferris feels a deep ambivalence towards the internet. It can certainly give us a lot of information but can it provide real knowledge and wisdom? He thinks that iPads and iPhones etc are in direct competition with books.

Next came Richard Flanagan who introduced his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North as a story about the human spirit and the nature of love.He feels that writing is a journey into humility. There is a very good argument for any of the six books to win.He just wanted to say that when he loses he will feel much happiness in drinking deeply and well with the winner.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan

He then read a very emotional and moving extract describing an ex-serviceman’s struggle with what we now know to be PTSD. Written in the 3rd Person it captured his inability to express his love for his children although he could feel love. He was also tormented by the guilt of the survivor.

After the reading Flanagan explained that his father was a survivor of the death railway in Burma. In many ways he feels he grew up a child of the death railway as those who come back from such experiences continue to suffer from the wounds they bring home.

He realised that he needed to write the story when he happened to be walking across Sydney Harbour bridge in 2001. He was suddenly reminded of a story his parents had told him about a Latvian survivor of the camps in World War 2. After the war he had returned to his village to find it raised to the ground and no trace of his wife and childen. Eventually he emigrated to Australia and settled there. One day in 1957 he was crossing Sydney bridge when coming towards him he recognised he wife holding 2 chidden by the hand. Flanagan immediately felt inspired, rushed into a bar and wrote a chapter on the back of beer mats.

Karen Joy Fowler then read to us from her audacious novel We Are All Completey Beside Ourselves.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

She wanted to say that she actually feels very competitive, she is quite sure that she likes everyone more than anyone else in the group.

She then read an extract fro her novel that is narrated in the acerbic voice of the younger daughter of a family.Now an adult ,she is reflecting on a traumatic event that occurred in the family unleashing a chain of events.

Fowler had wanted to explore a family where things had gone horribly wrong but not for the lack of love. In her novel the whole family has to bear the consequences of one decision.

Wark asked her if she shared the animal rights sympathies of her characters Rosemary and Lowell. She confirmed she did. Her father had worked as a psychologist experimenting on animals and the memory of the part of the lab she was not allowed to enter had haunted her.

Howard Jacobson was next with a reading from J , a love story where a ‘quiet catastrophe’ has already happened.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Before beginning to read he just wanted to say, ironically, that he loves all these guys and he is quite sure that he loves Karen more than she loves him.

Wark asked him if he was describing something he felt could happen. This is not a prophetic book but you would have to be a fool, in his view, to believe such things don’t occur. We appear to live in the midst of catastrophe all the time.

Does he believe that people are relatively quiescent in these catastrophes ? This is the conclusion that one has to draw when one reads about these terrible occurrences. J is not a retelling of the Holocaust in Germany. He is more interested in what we are left with when these things have happened – the survivors and those who let it occur.

Neel Mukherjee then read from his book The Lives Of Others . This is a family saga spanning several generations of the Ghosh family in Bengal.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

Wark asked him whether the sort of family he describes in the book is now lost to Indian culture. He explained that the extended family is still very much the main model for the family in India. In some of the more urban areas perhaps it has been eroded but India as a country is so vast that the very numbers of people work against new ideas taking root.

Wark observed that he wrote about the Ghosh family with such affection, she wondered whether he misses living in an extended family. He replied vehemently that he did not…..for reasons which are apparent if you read the novel!

Finally came Ali Smith to read to us from How To Be Both. Her novel exists in 2 versions and so which story you get first depends entirely on which copy of the book you pick up.

Ali Smith

Ali Smith

Smith read an extract from each of the two possible openings of the novel.Both extracts were written in an energetic, stream of consciousness style.

Wark wanted to know what had captured Smith’s imagination and inspired het to write this story. She had wanted to write a book that does the same thing as a fresco. As a restorer works on a fresco and starts to remove the upper layer, they find another painting underneath. The basis of every narrative is an understory. In great books, the story is the thing you realise after you have read it.

The other strand in the book captures the feisty relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter. Smith explained that she has great hopes for the 15 year olds of today. They are able to multi task admirably…looking at two screens, whilst texting and reading a book! Such versatility will surely lead to great things.

The evening then ended with a few questions from the audience.Smith was asked about the duality and multiple versions of things in her novel. Were they in fact many drafts of an idea?

In fact, she replied, the novel had been edited very tightly. She had had to take a lot out. She had to split up lines to make a visual spiral in one part. An opening to a book is very important and causes great stress, she wanted to ask her fellow panellists about that.

Ferris remarked that the opening of his book had been buried half way through. He hadn’t realised that was the opening until someone else had pointed that out so had been spared the angst!

Flanagan’s rule is that one should rip out the first three pages of what you have written, in his experience the story generally starts there. Jacobson and Mukherjee both agreed that openings are best found when you have come to the end of writing a novel. Fowler said that she always dislikes her first draft. She tends to rewrite, then rewrite and then discover that what she has written does not belong in that novel at all.

Jacobson was asked whether characters can act as role models for life. Books certainly shape us. He has said before that no-one has ever been mugged by someone carrying a copy of Middlemarch. In literature we are taken outside ourselves and that can only be good for us.

Finally, Flanagan was asked what had happened to the Latvian man he had talked about. Did he go up to his wife or just keep on walking? He replied, mysteriously, that we would have to read the book to find out.

This was a wonderful evening. I had been feeling much less enthusiastic about the Booker than in previous years but hearing the authors read from and talk about their novels has sparked my interest anew. I can’t wait for the result and to read all the shortlisted novels.

I guess a prediction is now expected from me. I have only read Karen Joy Fowlers book from the shortlist. I really enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but on the basis of what I heard last night ,I would say that Ali Smith must be the winner, although Richard Flanagan must be running a close second. No doubt the judges will have a completely different idea!