Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Spooky Story : The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

FullSizeRender-3I first read this short story over thirty years ago whilst I was a student and it scared the living daylights out of me! Since then I have seen a couple of screen adaptations and fallen out of love with Henry James’ wordy style of writing. I wanted to do a Halloween related post so a reread of The Turn of The Screw seemed appropriate.

IMG_2202This has the classic Victorian ghost story set up. A group of people are sat round a fire telling ghost stories on a winter’s evening. One has just concluded their story, which we never hear, but which concerned a ghostly appearance to a child. Another listener, Douglas, then pipes up that he can provide the ultimate scare, the turn of the screw, a ghostly appearance not to one child but two.

Then begins a rather laboured build up with much foreshadowing of what awaits and several red herrings.

Douglas wants to tell the story from the self penned words of one of the players in it , a woman who recounted the story to him during the course of an unhappy love affair.

Douglas is adamant that the tale must be heard in the words of his lady friend but the had written account she sent him is at his address in London. It must be sent for and he can give no further clues. All the prospective listeners agree that this will be the most dreadful tale.

The notebook arrives and so we hear over the course of the next few nights the weird and terrible tale of a young governess sent to be in charge of an orphaned brother and sister, Miles and Flora. Her employer, the uncle, wants no contact with the chidden and the young governess has only the old housekeeper , Mrs Grose, for help.

The plot is cleverly narrated first by the all-seeing author, then by Douglas and finally we hear the words of the confused and unnamed governess. Gradually we begin to discover what happened to the children before her arrival whilst under the care of the evil Peter Quint and Miss Jessell. Many questions remain however. Why was Miles expelled from school? Why is Mrs Grose so reticent about speaking of the past?

This is not a conventional ghost story at all. It was some very modern themes. Above all, it is about perceptions. Who is seeing what? Who is abusing who?

James employs all his skills as a dramatist and there are some genuinely heart-stopping moments. I nearly screamed out loud at one point, even though I had read the story before. Of course his writing style can be a little laborious but the short story format has meant that his verbosity is kept under check.

If you are looking for something spooky to read this All Hallows evening, I can thoroughly recommend The Turn Of The Screw.

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.

 

 

 

 

An Evening of Indian Literature with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao

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On Thursday 9th October 2014, Waterstones Piccadiily played host to an evening with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao in conversation with Claire Alfree, Literary Editor of the Metro. Neel’s book,The Lives Of Others is shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize as well as the Green Carnation prize for LGBT writing; Mahesh’s novel, The Smoke Is Rising, is shortlisted for the 2014 Not The Booker prize, hosted by The Guardian.

The evening began with a short extract from each book read by the author. Neel explained his novel spans 3 generations of one family narrated in the third person but interwoven with the first person narrative of the grandson, a Naxalite guerrilla and who is keeping a diary.

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Mahesh explained his book is set in the now buzzing city of Mysore which has become something of a yoga mecca. At the beginning of his novel turmoil is caused by the announcement that India’s largest theme park, Heritage Land ,is to be built there. The novel is the story of three women. He then read a very witty extract in which Sushila, a very middle aged , upper class widow contemplates internet dating.

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Claire asked both writers why they had wanted to make the female experience so central in their novels.

Mahesh explained that when he is writing characters just arrive and you can’t really say why that is. Once they had arrived it was crucial for him that they were from different backgrounds. In The Smoke Is Rising one woman is an upper middle class widow, one more ordinary lower middle class and the third is a maid. What binds them together is that as women they all face very circumscribed situations and live in a deeply conservative society.

Neel found writing about women was much more fun. In his novel he is trying to deconstruct notions of family. The family is central to Indian life, in the West this concept is more eroded. A family can’t exist with out women . He didn’t have trouble writing his female characters at all, two of his characters did present problems for him but they were males.

Claire then asked about the issue of male violence which has a major role in Mahesh’s novel.

Mahesh explained that he had moved to India 5 years ago. Of course he had read reports of domestic violence but until you are there and here direct accounts of male violence it is hard to appreciate the size of the problem. Once he was exposed to this he just couldn’t let it go.

He wrote the novel in 2010. Of course in 2012 there was the tragic and highly publicised abduction and rape case. That was very much in the media but until then it was out of public consciousness.

Neel confirmed that when he was growing up in India in the 70s and 80s the term domestic violence was never heard. No-one talked about violence against women as that.

Claire wondered whether India has now woken up to that issue.

Unfortunately both writers agreed that they felt it had not. Mahesh explained that the Delhi rape case was stranger rape, domestic violence happens at home. There is still a notion that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. The language used is complicit in this, men refer to giving a woman a ‘ couple of slaps’. Neel agreed and protested that each time he says something about this issue he is accused of being anti-Indian.

The two books are almost companion pieces as both concern popular uprisings. Neel explained that India has a very polarised class system. The criss crossing of lives, such as occurs in Mahesh’s novel, can happen in India.He couldn’t remember what had come first when he was planning his novel, the family or the Naxalite uprising. He wanted to look at the moral imperatives of the modernist novel form so he wanted the political movement as a contrast to the family.

There is still upheaval within modern India. Mahesh felt he writes from a position of being almost complicit in this. Even a small project like a road widening involves a displacement of people because of India’s demographic. A large number of people have no political voice at all.

Both writes get accused of being anti-National for expressing such views. Mahesh felt that there was a suspicion within India that the world wanted to continue seeing it as a slightly mystical and plagued by poverty.Neel pointed out that Indian vernacular literature has a long tradition of criticism, fired by anger and empathy and is very powerful.

Claire pointed out that both books are rich in the detail of everyday life, its texture and smells. Was this something each writer had enjoyed writing?

Mahesh said that his book had both been praised and criticised for this. He had moved to India from the UK so he noticed all this much more… the sounds, the smells, the way people speak and the shop signs. For Neel, this made the world Mahesh had created so real. He had laughed at the  name of the beauty shop, Myysstiiique. This is typical of todays India.

The detail in The Lives Of Others was necessary ,Neel felt ,as so much of his book was a restating of bits of the modernist novel and seeing if it could still communicate 100 years after the advent of modernism. A novel can be a mirror to your world and there is joy in recording the detail.

There then followed a fascinating debate about language . The Life Of Others contains a Glossary and Mahesh wondered whether there had been any heated discussions about the inclusion of this.

Neel explained there had been no difficult discussions sabot the inclusion. He was adamant that he would not do Bengali words in italics , that was political on his part. He felt the inclusion of a glossary was necessary not just for Western readers but for Indian ones too as he uses some very specific Bengali word and terminology.

The thinking now is that people will look things up or that context should explain meaning and a glossary is not necessary. Junot Diaz , for example, feels very strongly about this and refuses to have the spanish he uses italicised or to include a glossary.

Both writers agreed that English  is now undoubtedly an Indian language but with its own vocabulary. This led to some very interesting discussions during editing for Mahesh. For example , in The Smoke Is Rising he uses the term Kitty Party. This is now an institution for upper middle class women in India whereby each invitee puts some money into a kitty and one person will win the pot at the end. It required some explanation for a Western reader however.

Neel felt that the title of his novel, The Lives Of Others, tells you what a realist novel does . In order to imagine the life of others you require an amount of detail and some explanation.

The evening concluded with a quick discussion on the rules for the Man Booker prize which changed in 2014. Both writers felt that inclusion of American entrants was a good idea but there appeared to be a lack of reciprocity and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award remain closed to non US entrants.

This was a hugely enjoyable and informative evening. I haven’t read The Lives Of Others as yet but fully intend to soon. I can highly recommend The Smoke Is Rising, which I reviewed on Goodreads. It is a very moving and powerful account of life in modern India which is also incredibly witty in places.

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And just a little insider information. The 5th floor os Waterstones Piccadilly has a bar. Yes, that’s right A BAR!!!!!! Fantastic!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Book Review :Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

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Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love Nina, was an hilarious memoir of her experiences as a nanny catapulted from rural Leicestershire into the literary circles of North London in the 1980s. In Man At The Helm she has turned her comic talents to fiction, albeit with a dash of personal experience.

It is 1970 and Lizzie and her sister find developments at home a little bewildering after her father leaves following a fight :

‘Mother will go 100 per cent crazy on her own,’ said my sister. ‘Let’s pray he comes home soon and they don’t split up.’

‘They won’t split up.’ I said.

‘I bet they will. They have nothing in common – they’re chalk and cheese,’ said my sister. I didn’t agree. I thought they were just different kinds of cheese (or chalk).’

To set this conversation in a context you have to understand that divorce in 1970 was not yet commonplace in the UK. The Matrimonial Causes Act, which introduced the concept of a ‘ no fault divorce’, was not enacted until 1973.

Just a few years after this fictional conversation takes place, I came home from a school trip to Germany to have my sister whisper to me in our bedroom at night that things had been pretty awful and she thought Mum and Dad would have a divorce. My reaction was exactly the same as Lizzie’s – I told her not to be so stupid. It was perfectly normal for parents not to get on.

In fact Lizzie’s sister, just like my own, is perfectly right and so begins the family’s descent into chaos. They become a single parent family , headed up by her shell-shocked mother and regarded by all with suspicion . Lizzie’s sister is convinced that the children will end up wards of court sent to a children’s home their only hope is to begin a quest to find their mum another husband – a man at the helm.

The book is full of period detail. I laughed out loud at references to the feather cut ( yes, I have some hideous school photos of that) and also Chi-Chi the panda. It was mention of My Learn To Cook Book by Ursula Sedgwick that really had me chuckling. This formed part of my own childhood library. My sister still has our copy and our disastrous attempts to make, I think, Apple Crumble directed by the cartoon dog and cat led to a ban on using the cooker when my mother was out at work.

Lizzie is an astute observer of family life and relationships. She writes ruefully about having to agree with her big sister even when she isn’t  too worried about the issue herself :

‘Except that what bothered her bothered the rest of us in the end.’

Her mother had some early and fleeting success as a playwright before getting married. In the turmoil of a marriage breakdown, her mother turns to writing as an outlet for anger and frustration. Her mini plays, plotting the sad trajectory of her post divorce life and acted by the children,  provide some very funny episodes in the book, almost a Greek Chorus ….Lizzie, however, has some mixed feelings :

‘Clever, sometimes funny and always worldly – as good as anything you saw on telly or onstage except perhaps Terence Rattigan, who didn’t do as much explaining and yet revealed so much. Our mother did rather spell things out and her characters occasionally broke the fourth wall, which I considered cheating.

This is more than just a farcical romp through the 1970s, Lizzie is a wonderful comic creation. She vocalises  a child’s bewilderment at the collapse of the world around her,  coupled with the casual ,although usually unintended, cruelty of adults .Lizzie serves to remind us that children are perfectly calibrated barometers of family life.

Lizzie’s voice is poignant , brave and totally authentic. My only criticism would be that she does, at times,  does display a worldly knowledge beyond her supposedly 9 years.

 Man At The Helm is published on 28th August. I am very grateful  for the review copy from Nina Stibbe and Penguin……but I am definitely buying   two more copies, one for my sister and one for another friend of my youth who I know this will speak to.

 

 

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.