Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Polly Samson, Publisher, Setting

‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ by Polly Samson

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2021.

Polly Samson’s novel A Theatre for Dreamers was very much inspired by Charmian Clift’s extraordinary 1950s memoir Peel Me a Lotus, which is about her time living on the Greek island of Hydra.

Clift was an expat Australian who decamped to the Greek islands with her husband, the celebrated war correspondent and budding novelist George Johnston, and their two young children in the mid-1950s to focus on her writing.

Samson mines Clift’s experience to create a lush story about the tangled lives of an eclectic collection of writers, poets, musicians and artists escaping the trappings of ordinary life to follow their dreams and creative yearnings.

Teenage narrator

A Theatre for Dreamers is narrated by Erica, an 18-year-old who has inherited a sum of money from her late mother to “chase her dreams”. Escaping the claustrophobic confines of her London life and a cruel, overbearing father, she travels to Hydra, accompanied by her older brother, Bobby, and her boyfriend, Jimmy, harbouring the idea of becoming a writer.

Here, she tracks down Charmian Clift, who was her mother’s friend, and is welcomed into the Johnston family like a long-lost older daughter.

But as much as Erica plans to focus on her writing, she gets sidetracked by endless summer days, drinking wine and going to parties with the Bohemian set, exploring the island on foot, swimming in the sea and sleeping with her boyfriend with whom she’s deeply in love.

I climb to the top road, up the twisting steps that rise between ever more tumbledown houses, some lots marked only by rubble and boulders clad in vines, occasionally a brave bread oven or a chimney left standing where nature reigns. Crumbling stone walls host fig trees and passion fruit, sudden clear vistas to the sea, wild squashes and capers, a family of kittens. The low sun burnishes every tuft and seed head softest gold and releases the scent of night jasmine. From above, a donkey is playing its violin face at me and I clamber up the loose wall to its tether and scratch all the places it tells me are itching.

Not much happens plot-wise in this novel, which is essentially a coming-of-age tale, but its vivid descriptions of the island and its characters — all clearly inspired by Clift’s own writings — make for a deeply evocative read.

The increasing tension within Clift’s marriage to Johnston is a central focus, as is the growing love affair between Canadian poet (later turned singer-songwriter) Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ilhen. These relationships, filtered through the eyes of a teenage Erica, are embued with a romanticism and sheen that perhaps only the young can see.

But as events unfold slowly over the summer, Erica begins to realise that appearances can be deceiving and that the heart can be wounded so very easily. And she begins to see that idyllic island life is but an illusion: humans and their relationships are messy and convoluted and happiness can be fleeting.

Immersive reading experience

Admittedly, I do not generally get on with contemporary British fiction (which is why this blog tends to focus on literature from other parts of the world), so it came as a bit of a surprise that I liked this one so much. And yet I think if I had not read Peel Me a Lotus immediately beforehand, much of the power and beauty of Samson’s novel might have been lost on me. There was something about reading Clift’s work followed by A Theatre for Dreamers that made it a cumulative and immersive experience.

This effect, I hasten to add, was heightened by having watched on Apple TV earlier this year Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love about Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ilhen’s love affair  (and which is now screening on Netflix Australia and which I highly recommend if you are in any way interested about Hydra and the Bohemian set at that time).

It could be argued that a novel must be able to stand on its own, so I’m not in a position to judge whether this one can do that given that I felt like I already knew the characters in it. Yes, their lives have been fictionalised here, but so much about them felt rooted in fact, providing a ring of authenticity — and charm — to the storyline.

Regardless, A Theatre for Dreamers is a wonderfully sensual read about love and art and the challenge of living a creative life. It’s a little like a soap opera in the sun, complete with heightened drama, troubled characters — and a tragic ending.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it earlier this year after I watched the Broomfield documentary cited above. 

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Rob Doyle, Setting, TBR2020

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 304 pages; 2015.

Rob Doyle’s Here are the Young Men should come with a warning: this is a very VERY dark novel. But it’s compelling and page-turning, and one of the most visceral books I have read in a long time.

A Dublin summer

Set in the Dublin summer of 2003, it focuses on a group of teenage boys — Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney — who have just finished school and are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results, which will determine their future lives.

But these boys are Trouble. Matthew, for instance, has been barred from attending his graduation ceremony for “unacceptable behaviour” throughout the course of the school year, while Kearney, who has an obsession with death, has disturbing fantasies about killing people as if he is living in a violent video game.

Now thrust into a post-school void, the gang of four hang out together, filling their time with drugs and booze and parties. They drift from day to day, dislocated and alienated from their communities and their parents, struggling to see any future for themselves despite the abundance of jobs and opportunities open to them. (The book is set at the height of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland was awash with cash and affluence.)

The only thing that holds the group together is their shared need to escape reality:

The buzz from the hash made everything warm, like the world was coated in a soft, amber light. Everything felt more vivid and more interesting than usual – the hash was like a tool to drain the banality out of life. (p30)

Interesting structure

Told in alternate chapters from Matthew, Kearney and Rez’s points of view, the structure of the book gives us insights into each character’s take on life. Matthew is academically bright and wants more out of life but he’s bored, lonely and doesn’t know how to change things; Kearney is violent and volatile, lacks a moral compass and is oblivious to the fact that he is not well-liked; while Rez is bookish and clever but thinks too much and is sliding into a dark depression.

Over the course of the summer, things change: Cocker drifts away to another set of friends (we never actually hear his side of the story); Kearney goes to America to hang out with his older brother; Matthew takes a part-time job in a petrol station and becomes romantically involved with a girl from school; and Rez begins working as a nightwatchman, which turns his world a little upside down.

Rez worried. He worried that he was losing it, smoking too much dope and falling out of orbit with the world. For as long as he could remember, he’d had the sense that he wasn’t as fully connected to reality as you were supposed to be. But he had always struggled to express the specifics of this condition, even to himself. Recently, so much had fallen away, no longer trusted as being real: emotions, pleasure, music, art, even gestures and expressions. Nothing was simply itself; everything was a reflection of something else. Nothing was to be trusted. (p51)

Veering towards violence

It’s only when Kearney returns from his time in the States that life takes on a harder, more dangerous edge for them all: Matthew has fallen in with a drug pusher; Rez has become suicidal; and Kearney has become mentally unhinged thanks to a heavy diet of hash, hard drugs, booze and aggressive video games.

While the trio have never been violent —  “Fighting had never been our thing, despite the punk-rock attitude and the cynical agenda. In fact, we were against it.” — Kearney’s grip on reality means the game has now changed.

This is how Matthew describes it:

Lately I’d grown depressed at the thought – which not long ago would have felt exciting – that most of my friends were twisted, volatile outsiders. You started out playing with this stuff – the extremism, the chaos – and it felt vital and exhilarating; but then suddenly you couldn’t control it, you’d gone too far and it wasn’t exciting any more, only frightening. (p210)

Confronting story

It’s at this point that Here are the Young Men slides into confronting territory. There are scenes and actions here that are disturbing and abhorrent, providing the reader with glimpses into Kearney’s deranged mind. But it’s not done for shock value — it’s to make us realise that when people fall through the cracks, when society turns its back, the repercussions can be devastating.

Reading this book is a bit like taking a dangerous rollercoaster ride: you hang on for dear life and hope that you can get off with all your limbs intact. But for all its nihilistic tendencies, its pessimism and its harsh depiction of teenage life, it’s not without hope. I will leave the last word to Rez:

The challenge was to live in this weird, catastrophic, haywire world and ride it out, create your own pride and meaning within it, to face up to the nihilism and not be crushed by it. You had to keep yourself alive: through hate, through loving whatever there was left to love, through music and art and inspiration, through passion and intensity and feeling. (p284)

I read this book as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books

This is my 8th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle on 21 February 2015, proving that sometimes it takes me many, many YEARS to read things on my TBR!

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Author, Benjamin Myers, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

What a joy and balm for the soul Benjamin Myers’ new novel, The Offing, turned out to be! It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War, and I’d be really surprised if it didn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year.

Summer of love

The two main characters are Robert, the 16-year-old son of a coal miner, and Dulcie, an eccentric well-to-do woman who lives alone in a cosy cottage by the sea.

The pair meet by accident when Robert heads off on a solo trek with no real plan other than to escape a pre-ordained life in a Yorkshire coal-mining village, hungry to live life having seen what happened to boys not much older than himself who had gone abroad to fight for England. When he finally reaches the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay, he spots a vine-covered cottage.

The house was built of local stone and was covered by Virginia creeper that clung to it like an octopus to a rock in a storm, its tangled vines reaching tentacle-like around corners. I came upon the house from the rear and traced the strangulating plant’s root as it rose from the ground to run around the side of the building, its leaves fluttering in succession when a light breeze ran across it. It appeared as if in a dream.

Here he comes across Dulcie (and her large dog “Butters”) in her somewhat overgrown garden. She greets him warmly, as if it was perfectly normal to come across a boy on her private patch of land, and invites him to join her for a cup of nettle tea. During their one-sided conversation, for Robert is shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers unless it is to arrange odd jobs for which he’s paid in food and lodgings, Dulcie suggests he could help weed her garden.

He ends up staying the entire summer.

Close friendship

Over the course of the novel, the pair develop a close friendship and Robert blossoms under Dulcie’s tutelage, for want of a better word.

Through their conversations — filled with Dulcie’s forthright no-holds-barred opinions in her trademark colourful (and often laugh-out-loud funny) language — he learns about art and history and cooking and poetry, about compassion and empathy and pain and loss. He learns about the real world outside of Yorkshire and comes to understand that there were two sides to the war.

‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.’

As he gets to know Dulcie — and the people in the local village — he realises that for all her warmth and upbeat nature, she holds a terrible secret close to her chest and when he uncovers it, it serves not as an end to their relationship but cements their platonic love for one another even more.

Dulcie herself learns and grows from her relationship with Robert, whom she comes to regard as the son she never had.

And while The Offing is a lovely and heartwarming portrait of intergenerational friendship, love and forgiveness, it’s also a hymn to nature, beauty and the arts. Myers’ descriptions of the landscape, of the ocean, of the weather and of the transformative power of poetry are beautifully evocative, rich and lyrical. His sentences drip with vivid detail and yet his prose has a quiet, understated restraint to it.

The story is both humble and uplifting. It slips down like hot chocolate — smooth, rich and soothing — and brims with wit and wisdom. I loved it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng: Heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship that develops between a Chinese university student and the elderly lady who provides his lodgings.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Joanne Ramos, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Farm’ by Joanne Ramos

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 336 pages; 2019.

I had no intention of reading Joanne Ramos’s debut novel The Farm, but then I joined a book group here in Fremantle, my new adopted city, and this was their June selection. We had a mighty fine discussion about it on Saturday.

Admittedly, with so much else going on in my life — flat hunting, job hunting, buying furniture, opening a bank account, sorting out an Australian mobile number and so on — my mind has felt too overloaded to read lately. I simply haven’t had the focus and within about 50 pages of this book I considered abandoning it. But, of course, that would mean not being able to go to the book group and, because I was keen to meet some bookish locals, I persevered. The effort was worth it.

The Farm is a dystopian story that’s set just a little in the future. It’s about a powerful American company that has outsourced pregnancy by offering women too busy, too infertile or too old to have children the chance to buy a baby via a surrogate. The surrogates, known as Hosts, are hand-picked and then housed in a secure facility — Golden Oaks, aka “the farm” — where they receive the very best medical attention, albeit with strict limits on their personal freedom and little to no contact with the outside world.

Upon safe delivery of a baby to their Client (who is usually anonymous), the Host receives a substantial sum of money. Consequently, most of the Hosts come from poor ethnic minority backgrounds and the majority are immigrants, mainly from the Philippines.

A female-centric story

The entire story is seen through the eyes of women (indeed, men are barely mentioned in this book) and each of the four main characters takes it in turn, in alternate chapters, to tell their version of events. These are:

  • Jane, the young Filipino woman seeking a better life by becoming a Host;
  • Ate, a 67-year-old Filipino woman working as a nanny to support her family, including a disabled son back home, who is secretly choosing women and putting them forward as potential Hosts;
  • Mae, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who is the powerful and driven executive from the company that runs Golden Oaks; and
  • Reagan, an intelligent white American graduate, who’s decided to become a Host to make enough money to be independent from her father.

Through these wildly different characters Ramos is able to explore different perspectives on surrogacy (though we don’t hear the Client’s perspective except through the lens of the company representing them), babies and motherhood.

In this dystopian world she gives us a glimpse of what life would be like if babies became commodities and poor women were reduced to renting out their wombs for profit. She shows how economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots not only puts pressure on poor women to do things they would otherwise not need to do but gives rich women the false illusion that money can buy them happiness. And she shines an important spotlight on the immigrant underclass who are often trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

As one member of my book group said, The Farm is like a reimagining of  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a capitalistic free market economy. I think that summation is pretty good.

Slow start but becomes a page turner

Style-wise the prose is relatively “flat” but the story moves along at a clip — once you get past the first 60 or so pages — and becomes something of a page turner.

It’s suspenseful and thought-provoking, but it’s also got a vein of dark humour running throughout it. Sadly, I thought the ending a bit weak, particularly as you don’t necessarily find out what happens to all the characters.

But as a novel of ideas — and of talking points for book groups! — this is a superb piece of general fiction with lots to say about race, class and inequality.

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Paris, Patrick deWitt, Publisher, Setting

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt

French exit
UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 256 pages; 2018.

Delightfully kooky is a good way to describe Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, French Exit, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I have previously read deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which was shortlisted for the Giller in 2011, and Undermajordomo Minor, which was longlisted in 2015. It’s fair to say that he has a penchant for the unusual and the peculiar when it comes to characters and settings, and this new one is no exception.

It’s essentially a comedy of errors — think a North American Jeeves and Wooster, except Wooster is a rich morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times and Jeeves is her loyal but hopeless son.

Canadian edition

The laugh-out-loud plot goes something like this: Frances Price, a wealthy 65-year-old widow from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has run out of money and is liquidating her estate by selling everything she possibly can to raise some cash to live on. She moves into the Four Seasons Hotel, taking her two constant companions — her 32-year-old son Malcolm and her cat, Small Frank, whom she believes houses the spirit of her late husband — with her.

To avoid scandal they decamp to Paris, France, where the trio plan to start afresh, but from the moment they set foot on the cruise ship that takes them there a series of minor disasters befall them.

Once in their new Parisian home they attract a weird menagerie of acquaintances and hangers on, including a persistent house guest they cannot shake off, but they fail to make any true friends and end up falling out amongst themselves. Small Frank even runs away.

Playful storyline

Loosely based around a series of set pieces, the book has a playful energy to it. And while nothing much really happens, it has a page turning quality because the reader wants to find out what outrageous thing Frances will do — or say — next and whether the trio will ever recover their financial standing.

It’s quite a voyeurestic read. Frances is a brilliant creation: a badly behaved woman who is an expert at droll putdowns, an eccentric sociopath who takes no responsibility for her poor decision making and feels hard done by without reason. I loved spending time in her company.

While I don’t think French Exit will win the Giller, it’s a fun, madcap read, quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. While it’s a wonderful farce, it’s not without emotional depth — there’s a lot going on here about mothers and sons, fame for all the wrong reasons and maintaining dignity against the odds.

This is my 3rd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize. For another take on this novel, please see Marcie’s review at Buried in Print.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jamaica, Kerry Young, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Pao’ by Kerry Young

Pao by Kerry Young

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2012.

Kerry Young’s Pao tells the story of Jamaica’s history through the eyes of Yang Pao, a teenage boy who emigrates from China with his mother and brother after the death of his father in the  Second Sino-Japanese War.

It charts Pao’s life over the next 40 or so years and shows how he rises to become the gangland boss of Chinatown, inheriting the role from Zhang, his father’s friend who sent for their passage in 1938.

Written in a hypnotic Jamaican patois, it is this forthright, rhythmic voice that brings both Pao and Jamaica to life.

A charming but fallible hero

Using Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a code by which to live his life, Pao comes across as a likeable and charming man, but he is a complex and deeply flawed individual.

This is best expressed by his attitude to women: at the same time he marries Fay, the headstrong, mixed race daughter of a wealthy Chinese merchant, he commences a lifelong affair with Gloria, a black prostitute, with whom he falls in love. He manages to juggle these two relationships relatively successfully, fathering children by both women without them knowing of the others’ existence, all the while carving a successful smuggling and protection racket that turns him into a rich and powerful man.

I was torn by Pao. I loved the intimate nature of his voice, but he’s an unreliable narrator, dropping the odd hint here and there of his tendency towards violence, but because his gangland activities happen largely off the page it’s easy to fall for his charm. And he *is* charming, always ready to help others in need, whether financially or otherwise.

The most interesting aspect of the book, however, lies in its vivid portrait of an inter-racial society and the shaping of Jamaican history between 1938 to 1980. This period covers British rule and the turbulent period that followed after independence was granted in 1962.

Sometimes when Pao is talking about the political situation he loses his patois, so it feels a bit like the author has shoehorned these bits in from her research, but on the whole I much enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the follow-up, Gloria, which takes in Gloria’s side of the story, and Show Me a Mountain, which is told from Fay’s point of view.

Pao was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2011.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, David Park, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park

Travelling in a strange land

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 176 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I was so gripped by David Park’s latest novel Travelling in a Strange Land that I read it in a day.

The book has a simple premise: a severe winter snowstorm a few days before Christmas has made all road journeys treacherous and flights have been grounded. Tom, who lives in Belfast, drives his car from Stranraer, on the west coast of Scotland, to Newcastle, on the east coast of England, to collect his university-aged son, Luke, who is ill and stranded in his student lodgings.

The narrative, written in eloquent, beautifully visual language, traces Tom’s physical journey. It details the ferry crossing, the monotonous drone of the satnav instructions (“Drive for six point four miles. […] At the next roundabout take the second exit“), the treacherous conditions on the roads, the constant phone calls back home to inform his wife and 10-year-old daughter of his progress, the additional phone calls to Luke to check his flu hasn’t worsened, the little stops and starts he makes on the road, and the people he meets along the way.

But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son, Daniel, and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels.

Deeply contemplative read

Travelling in a Strange Land — even the title is a metaphor for grief — is a deeply affecting read. It’s not sentimental in any way, shape or form. Instead it’s a wonderfully contemplative read, understated in its beauty, in its power to show the inner life of a man trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

The narrative winds all over the place in tune with Tom’s thoughts. One minute we learn how he met and fell in love with his wife, who was engaged to another man at the time, during The Troubles; the next we are discovering how much he hates working as a wedding photographer because all today’s couples are shallow and obsessed with image over substance.

Music references are a constant refrain — “In the car I have the music I’ve chosen for the long hours ahead — Robert Wyatt, Van Morrison, REM, John Martyn, Nick Cave” — as are references to photography, including the types of pictures he wants to take of  “the moment that lies just below the surface of things, or a glimpse of the familiar from a different angle”.

And I have come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: that you don’t make a photograph just with a camera but that you bring to the act all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard and the people you have loved.

The plot, which is paper-thin and barely there, is compensated by the exemplary characterisation — even those people who are “off-page” such as his wife, his daughter, and even Luke are brought to vividly to life by Tom’s memories of conversations, incidents and day-to-day interactions. His late son, Daniel, of whom we really know nothing about, flits in and out of the storyline, as enigmatic in death as he was in life.

But everything is held together in an expertly crafted portrait of a father’s grief and of a man realising that the picture we present to the world is never quite what it seems.

Things to click:

Listen to the Spotify playlist of all the music mentioned in the book.

Look at Sonya Whitefield’s photographs inspired by the book.

Read my review of David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam (2012)

Read my review of David Park’s The Truth Commissioner (2009)

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Lucie Whitehouse, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Bed I Made’ by Lucie Whitehouse

The bed I made by Lucie Whitehouse

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury Publishing; 320 pages; 2010.

British author Lucie Whitehouse does a nice line in stories about women who fall in love with psychopathic men.

In her 2014 novel Before We Met, 30-something Hannah Reilly slowly realises that the man she has hurriedly married may not be the fine upstanding citizen and successful businessman he purports to be; in The Bed I Made, an earlier novel first published in 2010, Kate Gibson enters an erotically charged relationship with a successful property developer who isn’t quite as charming and kind-hearted as she initially thought.

Admittedly, both novels aren’t entirely believable, but who cares? I raced through The Bed I Made in a matter of a few days and found it got me over a minor reading slump (co-incidentally, Before We Met did exactly the same thing three years ago). I loved its gripping cat-and-mouse narrative, the atmospheric island setting and the compelling dynamic between two mismatched characters.

A new life on the Isle of Wight

The book opens with Kate, a translator, relocating from London to the wintry Isle of Wight, just off the Hampshire coast, for what appears to be a temporary change of scenery.  Here, she follows the case of a local woman who’s believed to be missing at sea, but before long it’s clear that it is Kate’s own life that is in danger.

In a fast-paced narrative that switches between the present and the past, we learn that Kate’s ex-boyfriend, an attractive man with whom she’d had a passionate relationship for more than a year, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. Now she’s ignoring his increasingly insistent and worryingly nasty pleas, via email and text message, to get back together — but at what cost?

This psychological thriller ratchets up the tension and suspense the further you get into it, and Whitehouse weaves a gripping tale of a young woman being stalked by a dangerous man while trying to reinvent a new life for herself.

The atmospheric setting, of an insular, close-knit coastal community with its own secrets to keep, adds to the often overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia that ensues with each turn of the page.

Typical of this genre, the ending becomes slightly hysterical (for want of a better word) and my interest began to wane as soon as I realised Kate’s best friend had succumbed to Richard’s charms: the denouement was as predictable, and as over-the-top, as I expected.

Yet The Bed I Made is a wonderful form of escapism. It’s thrilling and tense, the sort of book that keeps you turning the pages long into the night. It’s not highbrow fiction by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes it’s good to simply romp through a book without thinking about it too much.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in June 2014, based on the strength of Whitehouse’s Before We Met, which I reviewed that same month. I also bought her debut novel, The House at Midnight, which remains unread. Both were just £1.54 each as part of a Kindle promotion.