2014….My Reading Best Bits !

Rather than compile a list of my ‘best’ books of 2014 , I thought I would write a short piece about two ‘box sets’ I have read this year and which have had a massive impact on me.

Both of them are translated fiction which is interesting as I don’t tend to read much fiction in translation. I do read a lot of Francophone fiction, which of course includes Canadian and African fiction, but I read that in the original.

One of my choices is by an enigmatic woman and the other by a man now famous for letting it all hang out so that is quite a nice balance , as it happens!

The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante :trans Anne Goldstein

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These tell the story of Lena and Lila born into the Neopolitan slums just after the second world war. Three volumes are currently available in English, a fourth volume is to be published in Italian in early 2015 with , hopefully, the English translation following towards the end of the year.

Why are they so compelling ? Ferrante creates a ghetto that you can almost smell and taste, the characters fizz with life. Lila and Lila are the two central figures but many of the other characters reappear throughout the narrative , all caught in the web which pulls both women back to the neighbourhood they try to escape.

Ferrante explores the tensions and the joys of a female friendship. She also looks at the political history of Italy in the late 20th Century, still reeling from WW2, and the impact of feminist thinking on the lives of women during that time.

Ferrante herself refuses all interviews and very little is known of her personal circumstances. There has even been speculation in the Italian press that “she” is in fact a male writer. Ferrante herself remains impassive :

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard : trans Don Bartlett

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In terms of self publicity, Knausgaard is about as far away from Ferrante as you can get.His six volume opus, ironically titled Min Kamp in Norwegian, has been a publishing sensation in his native country, although the writer now lives in Sweden, and throughout the world.

So far only three volumes are available in English with the fourth expected in Spring 2015.

I am going to see Knausgaard at Foyles in January 2015 and I expect I will have more to say after that ; I did, however, listen to a recording of an interview with him over the summer. In it he described how he decided that instead of taking things out when writing fiction, he wanted to see what would happen if you left it all in.The novels are all finely crafted but the minutiae of life is recorded. As well as bringing him unexpected fame, the novels have also brought Knausgaard into conflict with his family as he describes his father’s descent into alcoholism, violence, his own marital problems as well as his wife’s mental illness with an almost brutal honesty. What results is a modern day Scandi Proust.

Books 1 and 3 are very bleak, but I hadn’t expected the humour in Book 2. I defy anyone who has had small children to care for not to recognise something of themselves in those pages. Karl Ove adores his kids but describes his battle to cope with the every day grind and drudgery of life at home with small children when he is a stay-at-home parent. Eventually he conquers his own resistance and surrenders to domesticity.

What had once irked me, walking through town with a buggy, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby buggy with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminised nature of what I did; now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or refusals to go any further or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon.Once a crowd of Japanese tourist stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look ,and tell your grandchildren what you saw!

There goes a Scandinavian man has become a catchphrase in our family !

Whilst Ferrante and Knausgaard have been the outstanding reads for me during 2014, I feel I must give an honourable mention to the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard who died in January 2014.

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The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family from just after WW1 through to 1958. Martin Amis has credited Howard,his step-mother, with encouraging him to read more seriously and become a writer.

I came to EJH late , only starting the series after reading her obituaries. Whilst I think it is fair to say that some volumes are stronger than others, I was swept up in the lives of the family, their hopes, love affairs and treacheries. Much social change is recorded too and I wished I had discovered the books earlier as they were a window into the world in which my parents grew up and gave me a greater understanding of some of their anxieties. I dreaded starting All Change as I knew that would finally be the end of a fantastic journey.

Happy New Year and happy reading in 2015 !

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

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I have found this book quite difficult to review as my opinion of it kept changing as I read.

Chicurel’s debut novel is set in the summer of 1972 in Elephant Beach , a seaside resort in the USA which has seen better days. It is narrated by Katie , a disaffected teenager on the verge of adulthood . I was expecting a classic ‘coming of age’ tale ….but if you like your novels to be strong on plot you may feel a little disappointed.

Chicurel is excellent at creating a sense of place. This fictionalised Long Island setting is crumbling around its residents. The location permeates the whole book and also serves as a symbol of the decay and breakdown of US society at the time.

Nobody promenaded by the boardwalk anymore because you could trip on a rotting board and break your leg during an after dinner stroll. The wonderful old hotels were crumbling castles, left to dust after the stars and bootleggers discovered air travel. Elephant Beach might have been only fifty-two minutes from the city by car or rail, but if you could fly to Santa Barabara or Cuba or The French Riviera, why would you spend our summers here? The hotels and the great mansions by the bay went on the market at severely reduced prices , but the taxes were monstrous and nobody could afford the upkeep of so many rooms. Their glorious floor-to-ceiling windows were broken and boarded up, taken over by squatters or converted into housing for welfare recipients.

 

In the background lurks the Vietnam War and many of the young men returning are now damaged and broken.

Katie’s voice is sparky and sassy . She conveys the excitement and power of a teenager teetering on the brink of womanhood as well as the pains and uncertainties.

On those summer nights, after I finished my shift at the A&P and showered, I would look in the bathroom mirror and it seemed to me that my eyes had never been brighter, my hair never shinier, my tan never more even. My peasant shirts hung perfectly off my shoulders and my jeans settled on my hips as though they lived there. Even my teeth seemed straighter. I looked exactly as I had always wanted to look, and sometimes I’d close my eyes and feel so good about it I knew I could never tell anyone because they’d think I was to crazy to live.

This strength of the book  is also, ironically, its weakness .At times I felt the narrative lacked context which could have tied the plot lines together. Of course Katie can’t provide this , she is a teenager in turns superficial and self obsessed and her voice is completely authentic in this regard.

It would be wrong to give the impression that This Beautiful has no story however. The characters are strongly drawn and I really did care what was going to happen to them. I began the novel feeling a little lukewarm but ended by being haunted by Katie and her friends.

If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go is published by Tinderpress on 30th October and my thanks to Georgina Moore 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy

photoIt was not without some trepidation that I began to read the latest book from Rachel Joyce. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry was a big hit in 2012 and long listed for the Man Booker Prize and I couldn’t help wondering if this might be an attempt to recreate that success, a rather half-hearted ‘spin-off’.

Harold Fry tells the story of the eponymous hero’s journey on foot across the length of England , sparked by receiving a letter from Queenie, a woman he had worked with years earlier. Along the way Harold becomes something of a media sensation whilst we learn the story of a life half-lived and the gradual deterioration of his marriage.

In her introductory letter to The Reader, Joyce explains that this latest book is not intended as a prequel or sequel to Harold Fry but rather a companion piece in which we learn Queenie’s side of the story and what compelled her to write that letter to Harold.

Queenie is unlucky in love and leaves Corby ending up in Kingsbridge , Devon to escape another affair gone wrong.  Having obtained a job in the local brewery, she is drawn to Harold when she first catches sight of him surreptitiously dancing in the snow in the brewery yard :

‘ With your left shoulder lifted,your elbows tucked into your waist and your hands poised, you begin a soft shoe shuffle in the powdery snow. You glide a little to the left, a little to the right, sashaying your body this way and that, balancing gently on one foot, then on the other. Once, you even twist your heels and give a full turn. All the time you dance, you keep an eye on your shadow and you’re grinning, as if you can’t quite believe it has the energy to keep up with you.’

So begins Queenie’s infatuation with Harold . Harold is married to Maureen however and so she tries to remain at a distance. Despite her best efforts, Queenie becomes enmeshed  in the tragedy of Harold and Maureen’s life together and carries a burden of guilt even as she tries to build a new life for herself faraway in Northumberland.

Queenie is now resident in St. Bernadine’s Hospice, Berwick-upon-Tweed and dying of a disfiguring cancer. When she receives Harold’s letter informing her of his intention to visit, Queenie, with the help of one of the nuns, begins a series of letters giving her side of the story.

All this could make for a very depressing or even mawkish read but interspersed with Queenie’s confessional, Joyce gives us a compassionate and  sometimes humorous glimpse of hospice life.

In Harold’s story we meet an array of characters that he stumbles across on his journey through Britain. Here the characters we meet are the other residents of St Bernadine’s. A group from disparate backgrounds and with clashing personalties all thrown together by the great leveller. Finty, in particular, is a great comic creation.

As the media circus around Harold grows, the residents all become caught up in the carnival. They are all determined to celebrate his eventual arrival. Queenie’s courage and strength are starting to fail and she begins to refuse the vitamin drinks the nurses bring round in the evening. Finty encourages her

‘ It seems like you have a man walking the length of England.There are some of us here that haven’t even had a visitor. So the least you can do is not kick the bucket. Now, I know you think you look like a monster, but this is hardly a beauty pageant. Look at Barbara here. The Pearly King has a plastic arm, and I am carrying the contents of my bowel in my handbag. Either you take the drinks like we do or you’ll end up on a drip feed. Which is it going to be?

The unpleasant drinks are drunk :

‘Thank fuck that’s over,’ said Finty, rubbing at her mouth and her sweatshirt. ‘Let’s have a game of Scrabble.’

I am not sure that this book is better than Harold Fry, as some reviewers have suggested, but it is at least as good. A very enjoyable read full of warmth humanity and comedy.

The Love Song Of Queenie Hennessy is published by Doubleday on 9th October 2014 and thank you to Alison Barrow for the review copy.