Book chat

Books that Made Us: TV series about Australia’s literary canon set to screen on ABC in November

Earlier today, I was excited to learn (via Instagram) that a new three-part TV series about Australian books will screen on the ABC next month!

Books that Made Us, about great works of fiction and Australian writers, will be hosted by award-winning actor, scriptwriter and producer Claudia Karvan.

Some of the novelists that will feature include Richard Flanagan, Alexis Wright, Helen Garner, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Christos Tsiolkas, Thomas Keneally, Liane Moriarty, Trent Dalton, Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko. What a line-up!

A book to accompany the series will also be published. It’s billed as “a cultural history of Australia told through our fiction”.

According to the blurb, it will touch on…

colonial invasion, the bush myth, world wars, mass migration, the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and the emergence of a modern, global, multicultural nation. Carl [Reinecke, the author] examines how these pivotal events and persuasive ideas have shaped some of Australia’s most influential novels, and how these books, in turn, made us.

You can find out more about the TV series via this ABC podcast that was first broadcast in August.

Books that Made Us will premiere on ABC TV and ABC iView at 8.30pm on 23 November.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Virginia Feito

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 304 pages; 2021.

I have been reading some quite serious and heavy books recently (some of which are yet to be reviewed), so how delightful it was to pick up Virginia Feito’s Mrs March for some wickedly good fun!

Set in New York’s exclusive Upper East Side, this debut novel tells the story of the titular Mrs March, who is married to celebrated author George March, a man 11 years her senior, to whom she is devoted, mainly because of the status and wealth his success brings. (They’ve been married a long time and it’s fair to say her love for him has waned somewhat.)

So imagine her horror when one day, out buying her regulation olive bread from the local patisserie shop, she discovers that readers believe that Johanna, the lead character in George’s latest bestselling book, is based on her. She’s outraged because Johanna is a whore past her prime, and Mrs March is a fine upstanding citizen, albeit slightly fake and needy, who believes that appearances are everything.

Distraught by this news, she comes home and pulls George’s book from the shelf. In the acknowledgements she notices that she has been thanked as “a constant source of inspiration”:

Mrs March clutched her breast, breathing hard, faintly aware that tears were falling amidst convulsive gasps. Then she shook the book, smashed it against the desk, opened it to the author photograph on the jacket flap, clawed out George’s eyes, scratched out the threaded spine, and pulled out fistfuls of pages—which flew around the room like feathers.

Losing her grip on reality

From this moment on, Mrs March’s behaviour becomes increasingly more bizarre and deranged. Having snooped in George’s study for more evidence, she discovers a newspaper clipping of a young woman who has gone missing and she somehow gets it into her head that her husband has murdered her. What follows is a slippery slope of mental anguish and upset, morphing into paranoia and a conviction that her husband is guilty.

Mrs March’s behaviour becomes farcical. But there’s nothing she won’t stoop to — including impersonating an investigative journalist from the New York Times — in a bid to get to the truth.

Of course, a story like this can’t help but be wildly funny. I tittered a lot through this novel. The abhorrent behaviour of Mrs March, her undisguised but unconscious snobbery, made me laugh. Take this simple example:

As the party progressed, the living room fattening with each new arrival, Mrs March tasked Martha with attending to the guest bathroom regularly, to fold the towels and freshen the toilet seat and floor with a light ammonia solution. The sharp antiseptic vapors merged with the sticky, sappy scent of pine, creating a smell so distinct that guests would, on future visits to hospitals or upon passing a storekeeper emptying a bucket of mop water onto the street, instantly recall that last party at the Marches.

Or this little snide remark about the noise of clacking high heels in the apartment directly above:

She didn’t know who owned the apartment right above theirs, but every time she saw a woman in heels in the lobby she would consider approaching her, maybe befriending her so that one day she could mention, in a casual, offhand manner, the surprising benefits of house slippers.

As you can tell from these quotes, the story is written in the third person, but very much from Mrs March’s point of view. We really have no idea what goes on in the head of her husband, nor her young son, Jonathan, with whom she has a rather detached relationship.

A black comedy of manners

This is a book about manners, a black comedy, if you will, with a dark twist, and it’s written with a big nod to Patricia Highsmith and perhaps even Michael Dibden.

I really loved following Mrs March’s increasingly outrageous antics, but I also worried for her sanity — and wanted to let her know that maybe she should just take a chill pill! It’s unsettling and disturbing, hugely suspenseful and a terrific page-turner. Most of all, it is simply great fun.

A movie adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, has been slated. I suspect it will be a hoot!

For other takes on this novel, please see:

Book review

November reading plans

My pile of novellas

I don’t usually plan my reading that too far ahead, but next month there are various reading events hosted by some of my favourite bloggers all happening at once, and I don’t want to miss out.

I’ve dug out all my novellas so that I can participate in Novellas in November (#NovNov) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and to ensure I can kill two birds (or is it three?) with one stone, I have ensured there’s some in the pile by Australian authors for Brona’s #ReadingAusMonth and a few translated from the German language for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth.

I’m not going to read everything in the pile photographed above, but it’s nice to have plenty to choose from depending on mood and time. Here’s what’s in the pile:

AUSTRALIAN BOOKS

  • ‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton
  • ‘The White Woman’ by Liam Davidson
  • ‘The Long Green Shore’ by John Hepworth
  • ‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley
  • ‘Girl with a Monkey’ by Thea Astley

GERMAN BOOKS

  • ‘You Would have Missed Me’ by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
  • ‘Two Women and a Poisoning’ by Alfred Doblin (translated by Imogen Taylor)
  • ‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
  • ‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

OTHER BOOKS

  • ‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated from the Icelandic by Borg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)
  • ‘The Man I Became’ by Peter Verhelist (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer)
  • ‘Untold Day and Night’ by Bae Suah (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)
  • ‘The Faces’ by Tove Ditlevsen (translated from the Danish by Tina Nunnally)
  • ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown
  • ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez
  • ‘One Fine Day’ by Mollie Panter-Downes
  • ‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amoz Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange)

I’m really looking forward to reading as many of these as I can in November, but where to start?

Have you read any of these books? Recommendations for what to read first are very welcome!

Algeria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Andras, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Verso

‘Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us’ by Joseph Andras (translated by Simon Leser)

Fiction – paperback; Verso; 136 pages; 2021. Translated from the French by Simon Leser.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a short, powerful novella by French writer Joseph Andras.

Set at the height of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), it is based on the life of Fernand Iveton, a Communist working for the National Liberation Front (FLN), who was the only European executed during the War.

A highly unusual case

Fernand Iveton’s case is highly unusual for many reasons, so it is easy to see why an author might wish to tell his story. First, Iveton was a “pied-noir”  — a person of French origin living in French-ruled Algeria  (his mother was a Spanish Catholic and his father was French) — working on the anti-colonialist side.

Second, the bomb he planted in his locker at the power station where he worked was designed to go off when no one was in the building. He claims he did not want to kill people; he simply wanted to send a message to the authorities. In any event, he was arrested and the bomb located and defused before it ever went off.

And third, his trial lasted a single day, after which he was sentenced to death despite the fact he was not responsible for killing or injuring anyone. Attempts to have his sentence commuted by the then French president René Coty failed, and he was executed by guillotine on 11 February 1957.

Condemned to death

The story opens with Iveton preparing to plant the bomb provided to him by his accomplices, Jacqueline and Abdelkader Guerroudj, and closes with his death. (His accomplices were arrested and tried later, but neither were executed.)

In between, we learn about his arrest, interrogation and the ways in which he was tortured (mainly by electrocution and waterboarding). Later, we see how his lawyers tried to push for his death sentence to be commuted, but a high profile campaign in France had painted him as a terrorist and murderer and there was no room to sway popular opinion.

To offer some light relief, the narrative also traces Iveton’s romance and subsequent marriage to Hélène, a Polish woman who grew up in France and was a partisan in the French Resistance during the Second World War. They met when Iveton came to Paris to get an X-ray for a lung problem (which turned out to be tuberculosis) and she was a waitress at the hotel in which he was staying.

Fernand sits down and orders the set meal. Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…

When he returns to Algeria, he paves the way for Hélène to join him, along with her son, Jean-Claude, from her first marriage, and together they set up a happy home.

Armed struggle

The strength of the story is to highlight how the “armed struggle” is never black-and-white and that people choosing to pursue violence for political ends have their reasons for doing so.

Our client is conscious of fighting for more than himself [Iveton’s lawyers tell the President of France]. He’s fighting for his country, which he wants to see free and happy, a country which guarantees to each and every one of its citizens, Muslim or European, freedom of thought and equality. Our client wants nothing else.

I came away from it thinking how history just keeps endlessly repeating and how it’s just the countries, and perhaps the religions, that change. This story, for instance, could so easily be transferred to Northern Ireland in the 1970s or the Basque Country at any time in the 50 years leading up to 2011.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us was awarded France’s top literary prize for debut novels, the prix Goncourt du premier roman, in 2016, but the author declined to accept it, claiming that he didn’t believe writing should be a competition.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Karen Herbert, Publisher, Setting

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 256 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Karen Herbert’s The River Mouth is an impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

An old case is re-opened

It has been 10 years since local teenager Darren Davies was murdered. He was shot dead and found floating face down in the Weymouth River. No one has ever been convicted of the crime.

But now his mother, Sandra, receives some unexpected and disturbing news: her best friend, Barbara, has been found dead in the Pilbara, in the north of the state, and forensics have discovered a match — her DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails all those years ago. Did Barbara kill her best friend’s son, and, if so, why did she do it?

The story alternates between the present day  — following Sandra as she tries to make sense of the situation and the newly reopened police investigation (she refuses to believe her friend had anything to do with the murder of her son) — and the past when Darren and his friends hung out together in the 25 days leading up to his death. The case is clouded by a series of rapes (or attempted rapes) of teenage girls around the time that Darren was killed.

As these twin narratives unfold, the author provides a steady drip-feed of new information and clues to help shape the reader’s perception of what might have happened and who might be involved. There’s a list of potential culprits, including Darren’s trio of teenage friends and his adopted father, which is only matched by a series of well-kept secrets involving everything from teenage romance to money made in illicit ways. The small-town intrigue resonates off the page.

Great cast of characters

The story is populated by a strong cast of characters — the teenage boys are particularly well-drawn and Sandra, who is a nurse at the local hospital, is a strong, resilient lead, the kind of woman who just gets on with things and sees the best in everyone.

The sense of time and place, swinging backwards and forwards by a decade, is expertly done. There’s plenty of cultural references — to movies, music and TV shows, and even the ubiquitous visit to a video store — to provide the right level of historical “flavour”.

The River Mouth also brilliantly captures the minutiae of small-town life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do).

It’s incredibly well-plotted, so much so I failed to guess the culprit. But this is not a twist-driven novel (thankfully); its pacing is gentle as the twin storylines take their time to unfold. And the resolution, which caught me by surprise, feels believable, unlike so many other crime novels which tend to tie things up in preposterous ways.

I really look forward to seeing what Karen Herbert comes up with next!

This is my 23rd book for #AWW2021. I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Geraldton on the midwest coast of Western Australia and now lives in Perth. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Book chat, News

A literary cause to support: the ‘Freadom Inside’ project

Image by Maaark from Pixabay

 

Imagine being stuck in prison with nothing to read. No opportunity to escape to a different world. No opportunity to better yourself.

This is obviously something that has crossed the mind of Australian writer Bri Lee (whose books I have reviewed here). Bri has set up the ‘Freadom Inside’ project, which is designed to provide women incarcerated in NSW jails the opportunity to read books that have been bought for them by the public. It is being backed by Independent bookseller Glee Books, in Sydney, which is covering the postage and dispatch of the books.

Writing on her Instagram account last week, Bri said: “What I found when researching #WhoGetsToBeSmart [her latest non-fiction book about power, privilege and education in Australia] was shocking, and I have chosen to commit to this work as one concrete way I can help share learning + resources instead of hoarding them.”

The project will be officially launched next week, on October 28, via Zoom. You can find out more and book tickets here.

In the meantime, if you would like to donate a book (or books) to the project, visit this page on the Glee Books website, choose from the preselected range (which has been approved by Corrective Services), purchase online using the “freadom” coupon code and Glee Books will cover the postage and dispatch. Find out more here.

As someone who has a TBR that spans two continents (!!), I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to exist without access to reading material. I tend to buy at least a couple of books, both new and used, per month, so I have put my money where my mouth is and ordered Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, a book I read last year and really loved, for the project.

[Hat tip: I first read about this literary project on Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s Instagram account.]

Author, Book review, Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 73 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Claire Keegan is a well regarded Irish writer best known for her short stories, which include the collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007), and her novella Foster (2010), which you can read for free on the New Yorker website if you wish to get a feel for her writing.

Her latest book, Small Things Like These, is being marketed as a novel, but it’s only 73 pages in length and feels more like an extended short story. It’s written in Keegan’s typical economical prose, but addresses big themes and big emotions.

It’s a beautiful portrait of a man carrying out a small act of defiance against the Catholic Church at a time when it controlled almost every facet of Irish life.

Ireland in the 1980s

The story is set in Ireland in 1985, a period of economic deprivation and political instability, when  “the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York”.

Bill Furlong is a hard-working coal merchant who is married with five young daughters. But he’s stuck in a rut and is beginning to wonder what his life is all about. Christmas is approaching and there’s a lot to do to get all his deliveries completed on time.

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of progress and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

His mind keeps returning to his upbringing by a single mother, who was a domestic servant in a Big House when she fell pregnant at 16. At this time, unwed mothers were condemned and their children stigmatised. Bill was fortunate that Mrs Wilson, the widow who owned the Big House, was kindly and maternal.

When his mother’s trouble became known, and her people made it clear that they’d have no more to do with her, Mrs Wilson, instead of giving his mother her walking papers, told her she should stay on, and keep her work. On the morning Furlong was born, it was Mrs Wilson who had his mother taken into hospital, and had them brought home. It was the first of April, 1946, and some said the boy would turn out to be a fool.

But even now, all these decades later, he still feels tarnished by the knowledge that he was born out of wedlock and that he has no idea who his father is. The only real male role model in his life has been Ned, the farmhand at the Big House, with whom he still keeps in touch.

Where was his father now? Sometimes, he caught himself looking at older men, trying to find a physical resemblance, or listening out for some clue in the things people said. Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it in his company for people were bound, he knew, to reveal not only themselves but what they knew, in conversation.

A visit to the convent

The pivotal moment in the story happens when Bill makes a delivery to the local convent — “a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river” — run by the Good Shepherd nuns. The nuns run a training school for girls on-site, along with a successful laundry business. Bill is aware of local rumours that the girls are of “low character” and that they work demanding hours in the laundry as a form of penance, but he has no proof, and what would he do about it anyway?

But when he discovers a thin, dishevelled and clearly frightened teenage girl locked in the coal shed, he begins to join the dots. Aware of his own five daughters at home and the knowledge of his own mother’s fate, he decides it’s time to do something to help. He is, in effect, paying forward Mrs Wilson’s kindness.

Small Things Like These is a short, powerful read, one that will linger in the mind for a long time. The author has dedicated it to the “women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries” and her afterword provides a brief history for those who aren’t aware of these scandalous Catholic institutions that housed unwed mothers and abused them.

Small Things Like These will be published in the UK on 21 October 2021 and in the US and Canada on 30 November 2021. In Australia, the Kindle edition will be available on 19 October.

Book chat

When should you give up on a book?

Man sitting on a park bench reading a book. It is a moody black and white scene.
Image by José Manuel de Laá from Pixabay

Once-upon-a-time I would persevere with a book, no matter how much I was hating it, in the belief that it might get better the further I progressed. Often I was rewarded. Many of the books I considered abandoning turned out to be wonderful reads. Some examples include Peter Fröberg Idling’s ‘Song for an Approaching Storm’,  David Park’s ‘The Truth Commissioner’ and John MacKenna’s ‘The Space Between Us’.

But lately, I’ve abandoned several books^, because I simply wasn’t enjoying them. It hardly seemed worth persevering when there are so many other books vying for my attention. Does this now make me a fickle reader? Or maybe a lazy one? Perhaps it was simply a case of right book, wrong time?

Apparently, crime writer Mark Billingham recently told the Cheltenham Literary Festival that if a book hadn’t gripped you after 20 pages, then it was OK to give up on it and “throw it across the room angrily”. I think we can do without the violence, but I’m beginning to think he’s onto something. But maybe 50 pages is a more realistic measure…?

How about you? Do you have any rules about when you should give up on a book, or do you keep going until the bitter end?

^ I’m not going to mention the titles here (head to my Facebook page if you’re really interested), because it’s not fair on the writers, plus I don’t want to put people off reading something that might really “wow” them. Just because they didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean they won’t work for you. Books are the meeting of two minds — the author’s and the reader’s — and sometimes, for the slimmest or most personal or ridiculous of reasons, the alchemy just doesn’t work.

Anna MacDonald, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Splice, TBR 21

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald

Fiction – hardcover; Splice; 201 pages; 2020.

I don’t think there was any ever doubt that a novel about writers, London, the river Thames and walking — as seen through the eyes of an Australian woman from Melbourne — would appeal to me, but I was rather more enamoured by Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide than I expected.

I first saw this debut novel reviewed on Lisa’s blog ANZLitLovers and immediately ordered it direct from Splice, the UK-based publisher. (Unfortunately, I had a long wait owing to Covid-19, but when it finally arrived, there was a lovely printed note inside offering discounts on future Splice purchases as a thank you for “your support and patience”.)

In the comment I left under Lisa’s review, I said:

This has my name written all over it! I am an obsessive walker! I have lived in Melbourne! I have lived in London, a short stroll from Hammersmith Bridge, and wandered by the Thames every single day for almost 21 years!

Cue extra excitement when I began reading the book to find that the unnamed narrator, who flies into Heathrow from Tullamarine, stays in a bedsit on Rowan Road in Hammersmith. My first job in London (in 1998) was at Haymarket Publishing, based on the corner of Rowan Road and Hammersmith Road, and later when I left that job but still lived in the area, I walked past Rowan Road almost every day en route to the tube station or the High Street. You couldn’t really get a book more local.

It also contains lots of vivid descriptions of the Thames towpath, taking in Putney, Hammersmith and Barnes, that I have walked on (and cycled along) hundreds and hundreds of times. I repatriated in June 2019, but reading this book transported me back to the place I’d called home for 20 years. It was a bit of a discombobulating experience, I must say.

Mesmirising tale

The story itself is mesmirising, written in simple but eloquent prose, and the further you get into it the more hypnotic it becomes. It’s almost like being immersed in someone’s lucid dream.

It details the interior life of a woman from Melbourne who eases her restlessness by walking.

Since my mid-teens, walking had become one way of scratching the itch, and offered a partial remedy to restlessness. I tramped the streets of the neighbourhood where I grew up, learning to read the terrain as I made repeated journeys over the same ground.

An academic, she’s working on a “project revolving around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf”. She’s already spent some time in London, but now she’s planning a second trip to finish her research at the British Library.

But when she returns to London, basing herself in Hammersmith near the river, her research expands to cover accounts of the drowned, whether by accident or intent, and includes everything from anecdotes to eyewitness accounts. This becomes an obsession, to the point where her grip on reality begins to waver.

Tale of survival

Her story is interleaved with that of a widow who throws herself into the Thames and is rescued by a returned soldier from the Great War. This is an imagined account, told in the third person, of a real life incident that is memorialised on a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge (and which, shamefully, I have never noticed despite walking across the bridge hundreds of times):

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

These two narrative threads, of a woman studying watery ends and of another who survives a near-drowning almost a century earlier, build a deeply contemplative tale rich in metaphor and symbolism, one that examines how water can be both a refuge and a danger.

The narrator becomes so consumed by her work she lets the story of the woman and the lieutenant, along with the many other stories she discovers, infiltrate her own narrative. Space and time begin to lose their meaning. The stories merge and become entwined. It almost feels as if the woman needs to come up for air, to free herself from a metaphysical drowning. It becomes frighteningly claustrophobic before ending on a comforting note.

Note that there’s no dialogue in the book, next to no plot and structurally it meanders like the river Thames. It shouldn’t actually work as a novel. But there’s something about the short chapters, the literary prose and the ideas contained within that makes A Jealous Tide a compelling and beguiling read.

This is my 22nd book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I planned to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. Yes, this review is very late, because I read this book way back in April, jotted down some notes and then struggled to put my thoughts into any kind of order — and even now I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve written.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Ondaatje, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 285 pages; 2018.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is one of those novels that is almost impossible to review because trying to describe what it is about is as difficult as catching cumulous clouds in a butterfly net.

Boiled down to its most basic premise, it’s a story about a son trying to figure out the secrets of his late mother’s life. But it’s also about the shadowy world of espionage and London’s criminal underworld during the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s divided into two parts. The first, set in London immediately after the Second World War, looks at what happens to 14-year-old Nathaniel, the narrator, and his older sister, Rachel, when they are left in the care of a guardian while their parents head to Singapore for a year. The second, set a dozen years later, details Nathaniel’s investigation into his mother’s hidden past following her untimely death: who exactly was she, and what kind of work did she do during the war?

Mystery and intrigue

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

So begins the story, which is a mix of boys’ own adventure, mystery, intrigue and coming of age, for in the first part of Warlight Nathaniel is given pretty much free rein to do as he likes. When he’s not at school, he’s doing part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels (largely as a kitchen hand), mixing with people much older than himself, and exploring sex with a working-class girl who’s a little older than himself. He also accompanies an older man (a longtime friend of his mother’s) on furtive sailings up and down the Thames on a mussel barge, smuggling greyhounds into the country.

But this exciting new world, dangerous and life-affirming by turn, comes to a head in a dramatic way, and so when the second part opens we meet an older, more reflective Nathaniel, eager to piece together his mother’s story. Now working in London for the security agencies, he has access to high-level secret information. And what he discovers, ephemeral and mysterious as it appears to the reader, allows him to make sense of his upbringing and the people with whom his mother associated.

Not about plot

This is not a plot-driven novel. I’m not even sure it’s a character-driven one — although it does have a vast cast of characters involved in the field of espionage who are all wonderfully drawn. It could be defined as a mystery novel, even though it’s not about a murder and it’s not the least bit suspenseful. (See how I am struggling to describe what this book is about!)

It’s the prose, elegant and restrained, and the voice of the first-person narrator, coolly detached but not without feeling, that gives Warlight its flavour and makes it so highly readable.

The story is moody and elegiac and highly evocative of another time and place, making this possibly the most London-centric novel I’ve ever read, with its vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings and canals and waterways.

That first magical summer of my life we smuggled more than forty-five dogs a week at the height of the racing season, collecting the gun-shy creatures from a dock near Limehouse onto the mussel boat, and riding the river in darkness into the heart of London towards Lower Thames Street.

There’s a vein of melancholy that runs throughout, which is hard to shake off whenever you lift your eyes from the page, and days after having finished this one I can feel the mood of it lingering in my mind.

The story is a powerful one. It’s reflective of the role some ordinary Londoners played in the Second World War and how their actions haunted them and their families long after it was over.

Warlight was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

This is my 11th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.