The Literary Salon with Damian Barr

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On 8th September I attended one of Damian Barr’s celebrated literary salons. The event was held in the Victorian splendour of the Ladies’ Smoking Room (!!) of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Ably hosted by the effervescent Damian , it is an opportunity for bookish people to come together, discuss literature and drink gin.

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Having completed a London to Brighton charity bike ride the day before, Damian professed himself to be both chuffed and chafed to be hosting the 6th Birthday event and possibly the last salon for which he will not require a passport to attend ( he is Scots ) !

We then met our guests in turn. I haven’t actually read any of the books under discussion so rather than a review I hope to give a flavour of the evening and the books presented to us.

First up was Alan Johnson, a union leader and former Home Secretary now turned memoir writer who had come to present his latest book Please Mr Postman , a follow up to This Boy, which will be published on 18t Sept.

Alan explained that this book takes up his life story at the age of 18 and just as he had joined the Post Office ( he was the leader of the postman’s union) in Barnes London SW13. His older colleagues were all of a generation that had fought in WW2, with fathers that had fought in WW1. There was much that was very militaristic about the post office then. Everything was done by hand with no mechanisation and, in terms of working practices, very little had changed since the First World War.

In This Boy, Alan detailed his deprived childhood in West London, abandoned by his father and blighted by the early death of his adored mother, Lily. As this new book opens, Alan is married to his first wife ,Jackie, becoming a step father to her child and a father in his own right. Damian remarked that this seemed like a lot to take on aged only 18.

Alan explained that he and Jackie were allocated a council house in Slough, which they loved, he had a job for life with a pension and a union to defend him. In many ways they were not facing the uncertainties that young couples face now.

He spoke movingly of his time in the postman’s union ( then called UPOW but now the CWU) most particularly of the educational opportunities it had given him.

He doesn’t miss his time in politics and is now very much enjoying his new life as a writer. His is unsure about his next project. He doesn’t want to write a political memoir and hinted that he may be working on a novel.

Next up was Esther Freud whose book Mr Mac And Me, already published, had not been on my radar , although it certainly is now.

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Set in 1914 in the Suffolk village of Walberswick, it narrated by 12 year old Thomas, son of the local publican and recounts the friendship that grows between him and Charles Rennie MacIntosh who is visiting .Esther read an extract from the book, which Damian described as spooky with the past echoing in the present.

The inspiration for the book came from Esther’s own house in Walberswick which had formerly been the village pub. The house had in fact been in her family since the 1940s and she bought it fully furnished. She immediately felt a ghostly presence at the back of the house. She knew this was a young boy and used to greet him whenever she became aware he was there.

She had originally started to write the story of the house with the ghost appearing in it. As a writer it is horrible to admit but sometimes you just have to accept your story isn’t working. Her narrative had become boring and she was bogged down by domestic detail . She started to give the ghost a voice and Thomas emerged, after that she just wanted to be with him.

MacIntosh had actually visited Walberswick in 1914, just before the outbreak of war.He was at a low point in his life . He had been a rising star in his youth and had won the commission for the Glasgow School Of Art for his firm.By the time he visited Walberswick however his life was in decline.

He had become known as difficult and a drinker. He was a perfectionist and difficult to work with. Although he was well regarded in Europe ( crucially in Germany and Austria) he was pretty much overlooked in Britain and very short of money.

He came to Walberswick at the invitation of Frances Newberry, Director of Glasgow School Of Art, who had a house there.Shortly after he arrived , war was declared and spymania took over. He was regarded with suspicion because of his foreign ( Scottish!) accent and had also written some letters in German ( to his benefactors there) and so was arrested. He was eventually freed after the intervention of his English and well connected wife but was banned from ever visiting Norfolk, Suffolk or Essex again.

Esther felt she had known the story of Thomas for a long time before writing it as he had been present in her home but she was surprised by the many parallels in his life and Mac’s as she researched for the story.

She was asked by a member of the audience how she managed to still her critical voice in order to work.The only way to do this is ‘ Just do it’ ! The only was to still the criticism is to continue to write.

Our final guest was David Mitchell, there to discuss his latest, Booker long listed novel The Bone Clocks.

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This is David’s 6th novel and ranges in time from 1984 to a near future dystopia. He read us three extracts , the first set in 1991 with a ‘West London posh kid’ ; the second an hilarious encounter between a celebrated writer and a would-be fan at Hay Festival in 2014 and the third narrated in 2025 by Marinus a character who also appeared in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet.

Damian asked him how he had conceived these six interconnecting novellas, did each come as a character?

David has come to realise that he is not actually a novelist.He can only write in small units and his optimum form is between 70 o 130 pages. He sees this as his getaway car in which to escape the tedium of writing a long novel.

Asked about his main character,Holly Sykes, David explained that a comprehensive school had been a very scary place for a bookish 13 year old. It had , however, provided him with much material as a novelist. Holly was based on some of the girls he remembered from school who he admired but felt scared of.

As a teenager, Holly starts to hear voices which might , of course, be the onset of schizophrenia but what if the voices are real? Her life is then turned on its head by the disappearance of her younger brother.

Damian asked  how he has constructed the novel. David replied that as a writer you sometimes find that what you are actually writing turns out to be the ‘wanky scaffolding’ on which a better piece can be constructed, rather as Esther had described earlier.

Originally this was going to be a series of short stories showing Holly throughout her life. He found that , novelistically anyway, children are not really interesting until the get to about aged 8.

He also had to accept that short stories read differently to a novel. They  are almost like poems, each word must be gleaned for significance and you can’t use literary devices such as foreshadowing or backstory. It is very difficult to sustain that over 600 pages – as a writer or as a reader.

Damian noted that many characters reappear from novel to novel. To what degree is that preplanned or does it just develop? David has been holding Marinus in his head for a while. He is acutely aware that our lifestyle now is funded by deals for which our children and grandchildren will have to pick up the tab.

He was then asked about Crispin Hershey who has been likened to Martin Amis. David denied that he was a caricature of Amis, he hasn’t got the time or energy for confrontational literary spats . He considers Amis to be a great writer. He doesn’t think about fandom and hero worship, which to some extent Crispin experiences. He is honoured that people will give him their time and money but does find it alarming that some people can be so devoted.

He enjoyed his experience of working on the opera librettos not least  because of the pleasure of working in a collaborative way. The work of a novelist is very lonely. He has no plans for any more however. He is rather in love with this big, baggy, gentle, vicious form the novel and wants to explore it some more.

He has been quoted as saying he has his next 4 or 5 books already inside his head. David explained that by this he means he knows enough about them to start hoarding research material. He can reveal that his next project is a short book.

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This was a magical evening which I enjoyed enormously. The kind of occasion at which you find you are standing next to David Mitchell and he is carrying a water-melon. The guest list was star studded – I saw Tracey Thorne, Ben Watt, David Nicholl and just tried to look nonchalant, like this was a pretty average night out for me.

Many thanks to Damian Barr for a fabulous soiree.

 

 

Book Review : The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

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I hadn’t intended to write a review of this book at all……in fact I hadn’t intended to read another Martin Amis book at all………but it has made such an impression on me that I felt I had to write a short piece about it.

I WAS a Martin Amis fan, up to round about Yellow Dog. I gave him another chance with The Pregnant Widow which I rated 1 star on Goodreads and then vowed I would never open a book of his again. A review of this latest novel on the Asylum Blog site made me think again.

In this Amis revisits territory he explored to some extent in Time’s Arrow. The title refers to the area surrounding a large , and unnamed in the book, concentration and death camp somewhere in the Eastern outreaches of the Nazi Empire.

It is also a metaphor for the aspect of human behaviour that Amis wants to explore in the novel. The central question posed here is that of Primo Levi, to whose memory the book is dedicated : Is This A Man?

Amis uses three very different narrators to guide us through The Zone.

Szmul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who are detailed to take arrivals to the gas chambers and then collect together their belongings and dispose of the bodies. He is also, unbeknownst to his captors, keeping a written record of his time there to outlive his now shortened life span . As he says :

‘ I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives  that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour , every minute of human history , you would find no exemplum, no model no precedent.

Martyrer, mucedni, martelaar, meczonnik, martyr, in every language I know the word comes from the Greek,martyr, meaning witness. We, the Sonders, or some of us, will bear witness. And this question , unlike every other question, appears to be free of ambiguity . Or so we thought.’

Szmul is the only hero in the book and Amis allows him to die a hero’s death….it is no spoiler, I think, to reveal that he does not outlive his gaolers.

Paul Doll. the camp leader, is a much more typical Amis creation. Brutal, sodden with alcohol , vain and deluded through Doll we explore the Orwellian language used by the Nazis to describe the ‘ final solution’ as well as the cumbersome noun construction of the German language itself. His already tenuous grip on reality deteriorates as the book goes on. Increasingly he is tortured by his wife’s disdain for him and  the logistics of what he has to achieve :

‘ And mind you, disposing of the young and the elderly requires other strengths and virtues – fanaticism, radicalism, severity, implacability, hardness, iciness, mercilessness, und so weiter. After all (as I often say to myself) somebody’s got to do it……’

In Golo Thomsen , nephew of Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, Amis poses the question how did a nation so cultivated and urbane perpetrate such an horrific crime against humanity?  Speer is mentioned many times by Thomsen in the course of his narrative. In fact as a character, Thomsen reminded me of Jonathan Littell’s narrator in Les Bienveillantes , Max Aue, although I read this weekend that Amis was not an admirer of that novel. Golo is the classic outsider, coldly observing the horror around him whilst taking advantage off what any situation can offer him :

‘It was time to introduce and emphasise my theme.Under the political system that here obtained, everyone had soon got used to the idea that where secrecy began, power began. Now, power corrupts : this was not a metaphor. But power attracts, luckily (for me).was not a metaphor either; and I had derived much sexual advantage to my proximity to power. I wartime, women especially felt the gravitational pull of it; they would be needing all their friend and admirers , all their protectors.’

The Zone Of Interest is a remarkable achievement . It is meticulously researched and movingly and respectfully told and a long-awaited return to form.

 

An Evening With Ian McEwan

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Today sees the UK publication of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. On 1st September I attended the Guardian Reader event at The Cadogan Hall at which Ian McEwan was interviewed by journalist and novelist, Jonathan Freedland.

I haven’t read The Children Act as yet . I only picked up my signed copy last night and so I can’t review it at all.  I also can’t say whether this little report of the evening contains any spoilers – I’m just recording some of the things discussed at the event.

McEwan began the evening with a reading from the very beginning of the book (pp1 -8). The main character of The Children Act  is Fiona May, a High Court Judge in the Family Division. At the opening of the book Fiona’s personal life is about to enter a crisis as Jack, her husband of many years, announces his intention to have an affair with ‘ A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife.’

Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t want the marriage to end but, Fiona wryly reflects ‘ The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later,’

Just as her private life goes into turmoil, her professional life becomes challenging when she is asked to preside over two very difficult cases, most particularly a case concerning a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are withholding consent to life-saving treatment for him.

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Freedland opened the interview by pointing out the strange coincidence that this book is being published just as the sad news of Ayasha King and his family is all over our TVs and newspapers. McEwan was quick to point out that although that case did involve a Jehovah Witness family it did not , as far as he could tell, involve religion per se. Rather, he thought, it was best described as a ‘cascade of chaos’ .Terrible consequences have been unleashed by pushing bureaucratic buttons and now a poor child is languishing in a hospital without his family.

His novel concerns a rather different scenario of a teenager who knows his own mind and is refusing life saving treatment. The title of the book refers to actual legislation, The Children Act 1989, and the over-riding principle appears on its flyleaf – ‘ …the child’s welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration.’

Over the age of 18 one can refuse medical treatment but where that person is a child, the courts become involved in any dispute  and so we have the collision between the secular mind and sincerely held religious beliefs. We seem to be undergoing  a national period of soul searching concerning the welfare of children at a time in which it has become clear that terrible abuses have occurred .

Freedland pointed out that in the book McEwan seems to be very critical of the role of so called experts in such cases. McEwan agreed that he particularly wanted to highlight the role of Roy Meadows on whose say so more than one woman had been wrongly sent to prison. This was also a failing of the judiciary. Judges can be both brilliant and awful. Terrible miscarriages of justice do occur.

Freedland remarked that he seemed remarkably well disposed towards lawyers. McEwan agreed that lawyers had had a bad press since Shakespeare but he finds that on the whole they speak eloquently and write well. They enjoy jokes about lawyers and he would rather stand in a British court where the separation of powers offers protection against the perversity of whatever government is in power. This, of course, is not the case in many parts of the world.As a lawyer myself, I felt my admiration for him grow!

The language of the best judgements is, he has found, quite extraordinary. He mentioned particularly the judgements of Sir Alan Ward. The tone of these can be both witty and sceptical and the range of historical and philosophical references is vast. Rather like novelists, judges read and criticize  each others work…..and rather like novelists, they are toughest on those who are foolish enough to have left the conversation.

Freedland asked about the significance of Fiona’s childlessness to the novel. The absence of children is something McEwan has written about before and here he referred to A Child In Time where the absence of a particular child is harrowingly described. He feels we are all the owners of the children we once were and carry our own lost childhoods with us. In his view we are still that child to some extent. That was very much in his mind when he wrote A Child In Time.

Fiona has faced a dilemma that many women at work now face, she has delayed having children  and now finds herself without a family. The point of Fiona’s childlessness, though, is that in the boy she finds the hint of the child she never had. Fiona is very intelligent but she is not emotionally articulate.

Freedland then alluded to McEwan’s own brush with the family courts and wondered whether this had in anyway influenced his choice of subject. By way of explanation, McEwan went through a very bitter divorce and custody dispute with his first wife. McEwan found his own experience immensely painful and he doesn’t want to speak or write about it at all. There is a passage in the book where he talks about the ease with which adults persuade themselves that to divorce will be best for their children. He thinks there is an almost consumerist rush for a younger wife or a richer husband which he refers to as moral kitsch.

McEwan was asked about the significance of the world of work in his novels as several feature particular professions. He explained that the background is never the first inspiration for him , it is always the story but that he felt work was extremely important. Work went missing in the modern novel for which he blamed Henry James. James preferred his characters to have a private income so that he could explore the human condition without distraction.  McEwan is not persuaded by this. Work is often the key to our identity, it is where we meet our friends and often our lovers.

He revealed that the professions of airline pilot and architect particularly interest him.He had been thinking of William Golding’s The Spire whilst contemplating the Shard the other evening and wondering whether the building  was a triumph or a disaster ……..he had come to the conclusion that it was actually rather brilliant. Bermondsey needed something like that on its skyline!

He is more and more interested in a form of social realism in the novel, to look at where we are going now and , it seemed to him, work must be part of that. In the 70s he had flirted with the post modern , existentialist style . For example in The Cement Garden he deliberately didn’t say when or where it was……he can now reveal it was Stockwell in 1976! At this time he thinks there was a mistaken belief that  not specifying the time or place made the work more universal. That he now rejects, you only have to think of supremely regional novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to see that that is not the case.

McEwan was then asked about the length of this novel, like several of his others it is short at 55 thousand words. Did he feel that a story is best told concisely? He joked that he resented the implication that he couldn’t write a long novel , it is almost as if we were discussing sexual prowess. At one time of course we didn’t know the word count of a piece of writing, now it is there at the bottom of the screen.

He finds it interesting to move between the space and patience of a longer novel and a shorter one ,where necessarily there is a paring down of sub plot.He thinks Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were masters of the art of the short novel. In fact  the close of this novel pays tribute to Joyce’s The Dead. He thinks this is the supreme example of a novella and he couldn’t end without acknowledging it.

The evening was then opened up to questions from the floor and I have chosen just a few of the ones I found most interesting as I am mindful of my own word count.

A member of the audience revealed that he had studied Enduring Love for A-Level and he wondered what McEwan felt about being a set text author and whether there were any of his books he felt were unsuitable for study in school.

He does have mixed feelings about being ‘forced ‘ to read a book and wonders whether any of those readers will ever come back to him. His own son had studied Enduring Love and he found it most disconcerting to find notes lying round the house starting ‘ McEwan thinks…. McEwan is trying to say…..’. He also told us that on one occasion he had given his son the benefit of his thoughts to help with an essay. His son had come home with a D grade !!

In his opinion,  his first two volumes of short stories and The Comfort Of Strangers are unsuitable to study in school. They are so dark and depressing and you have enough to contend with when you are sixteen. He is really not sure about being a ‘ set’ author, it makes him feel dead.

A female member of the audience asked him about his favourite female authors since often his protagonists are female but all the authors he had mentioned were male.

He is very fond o the writing of Rose Tremain. He is also re-kindling his affection for Virginia Woolf. He fell out with her in Atonement but recently visited Charleston and felt her presence. His disenchantment was caused by what he thought at that time was a lack of backbone in the narrative although he feels differently now. He particularly recommended her Diaries.

He was then asked about Will Self’s article in which Self accused George Orwell of being a mediocrity. McEwan hadn’t read the article so couldn’t comment on it specifically but felt that Orwell was just about as far away from being a mediocrity as it was possible to be. Orwell captured the sensible voice dealing with difficult issues. His ghost can be heard in the voices of James Fenton, Timothy Garton-Ash and his very dear friend Christopher Hitchens, all fine journalists . Orwell of course was the first to bring pop culture under scrutiny.

The evening then ended with some general musings on current affairs.He felt that this summer has seen the darkest news cycle that he can remember. It has turned him into a news junkie……he starts the day with the Today programme, moves through the news channels during the evening , ending with Newsnight. In between he reads all the broadsheets and the New York Times. He may never find the time to write another novel again.

His current project is a screen play, first conceived in 1991 with a neuroscientist friend. It deals with the subject of deep brain stimulation. At the time it was originally written, of course, we didn’t even carry mobile phones but it foresaw in some way Google and the impact of the internet. He wants to see if this can be revived and brought up to date.

This is just a flavour of the evening we also discussed the effect of trauma on the psyche, whether he had read The Goldfinch ( he hadn’t!) and Scottish Independence. It was a fabulous evening , McEwan is an intellectual dazzler and a gifetd raconteur  and was ably coaxed on by Freedland. I am really looking forward to reading The Children Act.

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.

 

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

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We Are Not Ourselves is Matthew Thomas’ debut novel. Although not yet published, it has already won him a nomination for The Guardian First Novel Award as well as, reputedly, a million dollar book deal.

The title comes from King Lear :

We are not ourselves

When nature, being oppressed, commands the Mind

To suffer with the body

This is a very difficult book to review without giving spoilers.

It tells the story of Eileen Leary née Tumulty. Born in 1941, Eileen is the daughter of Irish immigrants who lone to escape her dull background and becoming part of the American Dream.

One New Year’s Eve she meets Ed Leary whose quiet scholarship and gentle manner seem to offer her all she has dreamed of. Years later Eileen thinks back to their first meeting :

‘She thought of the night they’d met, the way he’d leaned in to kiss her when the hour struck. She’d been waiting for him to do it all night. They’d been on the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by hundreds of couples. When he kissed her, she experienced a sensation she’d heard described a thousand times but always dismissed as malarkey: that everyone around had disappeared, and it was just the two of them. And now it really was the two of them, and everyone had more or less disappeared.’

The book follows the course of their marriage and so ,through Eileen’s eyes, the history of middle class America in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Marriage doesn’t bring Eileen all she had hoped for. Ed is not ambitious enough for her and has no aspiration to move away from their working class  neighbourhood even as the area changes around them. Throughout their lives together, Eileen is forced to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

This is a grand , sweeping American classic which has brought the inevitable comparisons with Jonathan Franzen. It is not, however, an ‘issues’ book despite what you may read in other reviews or press releases. Thomas certainly takes a cold, hard look at the American healthcare system as ill health descends on the family :

‘ And if she got sick without benefits, she’d be looking at losing everything. She’d worked her whole life and diligently socked away, from the age of fifteen on, 10 percent of every pay check she’d ever gotten, and still her family’s fortunes could be ruined overnight because the American healthcare system – which she’d devoted her entire professional career to navigating humanely on behalf of patients in her care, and which was organised in such a way as to put maximum pressure on people who had the least energy to handle anything difficult- had rolled its stubborn boulder into her path.’

The novel is more a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary family life and the everyday heroics of individuals in the face of life’s challenges.Although as the book runs to to 640pp perhaps snapshots a misleading description. The writing is sensitive and Thomas convincingly inhabits Eileen’s mind. At the end of her marriage Eileen reflects :

‘She’d never remarry : This was life: you went down with the ship. Who was to say that wasn’t a love story?”

The final section of the book shifts the point of view to Connell, the couple’s only son. He has struggled to live up to the expectations of his mother and his father as well as to meet the particular challenges the family’s circumstances have presented. His father’s tribute to him in the final passages of the book is a heartbreaking and powerful piece of writing that had me sobbing aloud.

We Are Not Ourselves is published on 28th August. Thank you to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for the review copy.

Book Review :The Incarnations by Susan Barker

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As Wang Jun drives his taxi through the streets of Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, he reflects on how busy the city has become.

‘The rush-hour crowds disappear into the subway; the masses, shrieking into cell-phones, treading on heels and fighting their way through the scrum. Stalled in traffic, Wang watches them, his head throbbing with the engine. There’s no harmonious society, he thinks, only the chaos of people with crooked teeth and no manners, trampling on each other.’

Life in China has changed completely over his lifetime but Wang’s past is about to catch up with him.

Wang lives with his wife, Yida, and young daughter, Echo, in a cramped flat. He is virtually estranged from his father. Wang Hu was once a powerful party official but is now a helpless invalid cared for by the malicious Lin Hong, his former mistress but now his second wife.

Wang begins to find mysterious letters planted in his taxi cab. We are then taken on a journey from 7th Century  through the Opium Wars right up to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as the shadowy correspondent tells the tales of seemingly unrelated lives.

Wang Jun’s own tragic story following the death of his mother also unravels and he finds himself unable to to escape from his past and his first love.

This book was an unexpected delight. Barker offers us a window into what is still a closed world. Her picture of life in modern China is fascinating. Despite its nominal communism, the disparity between those who have and those who have nothing is wide and growing. Wang and his co-driver, Baldy Zhang, struggle to make a living , their flats are dingy and overcrowded whilst the new elite drive fast cars and live in opulent apartments.

‘The darkness and corruption is everywhere, at every level of society. Greed is the beating heart of our people, and morality is overruled by the worship of money. Anyone can be bought and sold, Driver Wang. Even your own wife.’

She also captures the arbitrary brutality of the Cultural Revolution with its Orwellian language and ferocious Red Guards spreading fear throughout the country.

 A third-year girl called Shaoli shrieks the headteacher’s crimes through a loud speaker: ‘Headteacher Yang Attempted to Overthrow the Communist Government and Take Over The Military! Headteacher Yang Attempted to Assassinate Chairman Mao!”

Headteacher Yang is stony faced and unrepentant. Shaoli calls over Teacher Wu and tells him to slap the head teacher. When he refuses a second year girl beats him with a broom.. They call over Teacher Zhao and, scared of being beaten too, she slaps Headteacher Yang to loud cheers. “Harder! Harder!’ shout their former former pupils. Shaoli orders Headteacher Yang and Teacher Zhao to knock heads, and they headbutt each other like rams. “Harder!” Shaoli shouts through the loudspeaker, like a ringmaster in a circus of humiliation and cruelty.

Keen to lead the Anti-black Gang Capitalist rally, you take the loudspeaker from Shaoli, punch your fist in the air and shout,”The iron fist of the proletariat will crush the enemies of Chairman Mao! Heads will roll! Blood will flow! But we will never let go of Mao Zedong Thought! Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!”

The Incarnations could have read like an informative and well researched history of China but nothing could be further from the truth. Barker has created a set of characters who jump off the page and Wang’s heartrending story is sensitively told. It is hard to say too much more without spoilers …….I definitely recommend reading it.

The Incarnations is published by Doubleday and thank you to Susan Barker for sending me a copy.

Book Review :Quarter Past Two On A Wednesday Afternoon

Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon

The title of this book marks the point in August 1990 that Anna Taverner’s life changes forever. Her adored elder sister Rose who has just finished her A-Levels is last seen sipping a drink and sunbathing in the back garden. She then disappears from the lives of her family without a trace. No body is ever found, no letter from her ever received.

Rose was the cool one, attractive and self-assured with boyfriends devoted to her. Anna feels inadequate compared to her sister and as Anna grows into adulthood Rose’s absence haunts her, making her feel she hasn’t quite measured up in her relationships or her career.

‘ Is that it ?Rose whispered.Your man , your relationship? Is that good enough?Are you settling for that?

Standing, Anna slid into her shoes. ‘Shut up Rose’ she said aloud.’Leave me alone.’

Anna and her mother never believe that Rose is dead. They are both convinced that one day she will walk back into their lives.

If Rose came back everything would be different. For Anna, for their mother. Life would pick up;not where it had left off, she couldn’t expect that, but on a steadier more purposeful course. Anna told herself this, yet the Rose of her imagination was fixed forever at eighteen. Anna had drawn level , then overtaken, and Rose was stranded at the age of young girls she saw on the street and on the Underground.

As the book begins Anna is an adult but paralysed by the past she decides that she must find out what happened to her sister.

Anna’s story is told through flashbacks and  is interwoven with that of her mother , Sandra, who lost her own brother at a similar age. Sandra’s tale serves to remind us that the 1960s were not a swinging time for everyone and that plenty of ‘Victorian values’ still held sway.

This book is about families, secrets and how the past can haunt us. Linda Newbery is a prize winning author of Young Adult fiction, this is her first adult book and she captures perfectly the teenaged bewilderment of Anna and Sandra as they struggle to make sense of their emotions and relationships.

This book is certainly a page turner and the ending was a complete surprise if a little contrived. An ideal ‘holiday read’.

A QuarterPast Two On A Wednesday Afternoon will be published on 14th August 2014 nd my thanks to Transworld Books for the review copy.

Book Review :Upstairs At The Party

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Imagine a time before student loans, when tuition fees were paid by the government. This is the world of Linda Grant’s latest novel, Upstairs At The Party.

The novel is an attempt by the main character, Adele, to look back over her life and make some sense of who she has become and why :

‘If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes,acts,or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don’t know how to explain.’

Like Grant, Adele is born into a Liverpool Jewish family not long after the end of the second world war. From her grandfather she learns the value of telling a story :

That is the power of stories, never forget: they make like truth.

Adele uses her story telling skills to wangle herself a place at one of the ‘new’ universities recently opened in an attempt to extend access to higher education. From there she is catapulted into a world very different from her working-class Jewish roots :

‘We were a tiny oasis of unreality in a world that itself is semi forgotten, a time when the university computer took up a whole building and was tended by maths students in white lab coats. On the other hand, we were, I suppose, pioneers of environmentalism , chewing indigestible substances – brown rice, brown bread, brown sugar – while our parents still ate processed cheese and  instant mashed potato and thought it was Progress. A few of us really did hug trees.’

It is the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement, consciousness-raising and vegetarianism. Nothing could be further from her home life. She meets a whole array of seemingly glamourous and sophisticated friends including the enigmatic couple Evie and Stevie.

This is the section of the novel that worked best for me. The period is so vividly imagined that I could almost smell the damp musty student houses and I was convinced that I had known some of the characters at Uni .

An event upstairs at her party informs the rest of Adele’s life and the ripples follow her long after university is over.

This is a brave and complex novel in which the characters develop, grow and change. It is only as she gets older that Adele can see the ‘event’ and the people involved for what they really were. Her maturity brings her to realise that life is just a series of chance occurrences over which we have limited control :

‘ I hate the feeling of determinism . I like the illusion of free agency that the university gave us. But there is no avoiding what might have happened had I not run into Stevie that day outside the library, not gone against my will to the flat and met George.’

It also forces her to reassess the women of her mother’s generation that she had been so desperate to get away from :

‘…the women in their gashes of lipstick and frosted eyeshadow, parade past me and turn and look and smile the bitter triumphant smiles of women who have not surrendered to or been defeated by death.

I wonder if we have done half as well, and how much longer it will take to learn all their lessons.’

This is a bold work that I have thought about long after finishing. At times it is very moving but there are enough witty and insightful observations on life and relationships to keep it from ever becoming maudlin.

Upstairs At The Party is published on 3rd July. Thank you to Virago for the review copy.

 

 

 

Book Review : A Song For Issy Bradley

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Early in Carys Bray’s debut novel ,the Bradley family suffer a tragedy and what follows is a gradual unravelling of life as they understand it.

The Bradleys are Mormons. Father, Ian, is a bishop and has an unwavering belief in the creed of the Church. Claire, his wife, wasn’t born a Mormon , we discover that she met Ian whilst at university and converted to marry him. In grief she begins to question the way of life she has adopted whist Ian is convinced his faith can carry the family through the crisis.

Alma, their eldest son and known at school as Al, dislikes being different. He is embarrassed by his family and desperate to conform and properly belong to the football team. He trains with them but his father refuses to pay the FA registration so he can’t play in matches. At the beginning of the novel he is detailed to welcome guests to the birthday party for his little brother :

‘ It always feels weird when ordinary people come round ; the picture of Jesus in the hall seems to double in size and Al feels like an outsider, someone who has grown up in the country of the house without managing to learn its language. A few of the kids’ mums offer to stay and help but he says, ‘No thanks”. A house full of non-member women expecting forbidden cups of tea would make Mum even more pissy.’

Jacob, the youngest son, is determined to bring about a miracle to make the family well again.His Church teaches him that this is possible and his belief is strengthened by the ‘resurrection’ of his goldfish – in fact a replacement was bought as nobody realised Jacob had noticed the goldfish was dead. Jacob’s zealous pursuit of the miracle ironically serves to highlight the family’s plight as his behaviour increasingly causes concern at school.

It was the character of Zippy, the eldest daughter, that I found the most endearing. She is trapped in a belief system that can see nothing more for her than marriage. Whilst her family falls apart she is trying to negotiate the tricky teenaged path of sex, love and identity and finding that the Church does not really  provide  her with answers.

‘ Girls who choose to be modest choose to be respected. If you check your clothes everyday before you go out you will never be walking pornography. I’m sure none of you want to be responsible for putting bad thoughts into men’s heads. Please think about the men, ‘ Sister Campbell said.

So Zippy did. She thought about the men; with Adam’s thigh pressed up against hers and his warm fingers rubbing her arm it was hard to think of anything else.’

All this may sound more than a touch cheerless but there is humour here too. Sent to help ‘Brother Rimmer’ an elderly member of the Church, Alma is treated to the story of how the three Nephrites, figures from the Book of Mormon, possibly helped his wife change a flat tyre on the side of the M58 :

Alma shrugs. He can’t believe Brother Rimmer thinks three ancient, undead Americans changed Sister Rimmer’s tyre – he may as well credit the three little pigs.

‘The three Nephite’s . First thing we thought of. Can’t say for sure , of course. But that’s what we reckoned – our very own miracle. Sister Rimmer told everyone in Testimony Meeting. She was right proud.’ Brother Rimmer swivels back to the computer screen and minimises the page. ‘It’s a comfort isn’t it? To know the Lord’s looking out for you. He’s a personal God and no problem’s too small to turn over to him.’

Nor is this a voyeuristic look at Mormon life. Bray was born a Mormon but gradually left the Church as an adult. The book is an examination of the nature of faith and how it can act as a barrier  between us and the ones we love. The rigid set of beliefs imposed by the Church only serve to make the family feel more isolated  and vulnerable as things deteriorate. Ian refuses to seek help from outside even as catastrophe again seeks to overwhelm them.

This is a powerful story told from the different points of view of each member of the family. An ideal book for a bookgroup discussion. Highly recommended.

A Song For Issy Bradley is published by Hutchinson on 19th June. Many thanks to them for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

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There have been a plethora of debut novels recently in which the story is recounted by a ‘challenged ‘ narrator ; for example The Shock Of The Fall by Nathan Filer and recent winner of the Costa Prize ; The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion or The Universe Versus Alex Wood by Gavin Extence. Do we detect a trend in creative writing courses?

It was with some trepidation then that I picked up Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth Is Missing, narrated by the elderly Maud,

Maud has dementia and the past and the present are becoming tangled in her mind :

Sometimes, when I’m having a sortthrough or a clearout, I find photos from my youth, and it’s a shock to see everything in black and white. I think my granddaughter believes we were actually grey-skinned, with dull hair, always posing in a shadowed landscape. But I remember the town as being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the green of the pines cutting through it,the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I am sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most of the houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.’

As the story proceeds, Maud’s ability to distinguish between now and then ,to remember what people have told her and even where she is becomes more and more confused.

Maud is concerned about the whereabouts of her friend, Elizabeth. Her efforts to locate Elizabeth annoy and frustrate both Maud’s daughter, Helen, and Elizabeth’s son, Peter.

It becomes clear to us as readers that many of the people Maud questions or places that she visits have become frequent ports of call for her, although she has no memory of this herself .Even her system of post-it note reminders begin to baffle her. She can’t make any sense of the words written on them.

As her memory slips away, Maud’s search for Elizabeth becomes more frantic and is cleverly interwoven with her attempts as a young teenager to find out what happened to her sister, Suky, missing since 1946.It is this family mystery told in flashback that is driving Maud’s obsession to find her friend.

The grim post war world of bombsites, rationing, spivs and petty crime is vividly and convincingly imagined. It called to mind The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis, actor Daniel’s father.

The book raises many issues about how the elderly are perceived and cared for by their families, their carers and society in general. Helen struggles to manage her mother alongside her own teenaged daughter. Maud becomes distressed and confused when a different carer is sent to her home. Helen is left alone with the dilemma of how to look after a mother who increasingly doesn’t recognise her with little support available.

This is not a preachy or depressing work, however , but  a sparky and original debut ,funny and sad in equal measure.A real page turner. Highly recommended.

My thanks to Penguin Books for the review copy.