Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Barry, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR2020

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

What a darkly fun and intriguing book this turned out to be!

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry defies description. It’s not strictly a black comedy, though it’s packed with small, comic moments. And it’s not strictly a crime novel, because it doesn’t revolve around a particular crime that needs to be solved, but it does star two bad men out to get what they can through nefarious means. I guess it’s a blend of both, with a ribbon of pathos and melancholy running through it.

It brought to mind all the surrealness of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and the mournful Spanish ex-pat bits of Colm Toibin’s novel The South.

Two 50-something Irish gangsters

So what’s it about, I hear you ask? Essentially it’s about two Irish gangsters, Charlie Redmond and Maurice (Moss) Hearne, and the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers with operations in Cork and Spain.

When the book opens the pair — “in their low fifties, the years are rolling out like a tide now” — are at the Spanish port of Algeciras waiting for the night boat from Tangier (hence the book’s title). They don’t plan to get on the boat, they are waiting for someone to get off it. That someone happens to be Maurice’s 23-year-old daughter, Dilly, who has been missing for three years.

Oh, and this is as awful a place as you could muster — you’d want the eyes sideways in your head.
The ferry terminal has a haunted air, a sinister feeling. It reeks of tired bodies, and dread.
There are scraps of frayed posters — the missing.
There are customs announcements  — the narcotraficante.

As the pair wait, they interrogate other people coming off the boat, wanting to know if they might have seen Dilly. One of the unsuspecting people they confront is Benny, a young British man with dreadlocks and a dog on a rope, the kind of person they believe Dilly, who also has dreadlocks, would hang out with.

She’s a small girl, Benny. She’s a pretty girl. And you see what it is? Is we’ve been told she’s headed for Tangier.
Or possibly she’s coming back from Tangier.
On the 23rd of the month. Whichever fucken direction? It’s all going off on the 23rd.
Is what we’ve been informed by a young man in Málaga.
On account of the young man found himself in an informational kind of mood.

The pair don’t have much luck finding anyone who knows Dilly, but that doesn’t stop them waiting — and intimidating anyone they think might have some information that could help them locate her.

History in flashback

But that’s not all there is to the story.

Barry does something rather clever with Night Boat to Tangier because he fleshes out the backstories of both men in alternate chapters. This allows us to find out how the pair developed their “business” and all the shenanigans they have carried out since the late 1990s, the women they have had relationships with and the deals they have done both home and abroad.

It also allows us to come to know these men, so they become less caricature — the hard men with attitude and dry wit — and more “real”. Barry does this so well that even against our better judgment we empathise with them instead of condemning them because they appear to be all-too-human, with flaws and foibles we can understand.

Interesting structure

What I liked about this novel was its structure switching between the current day at the port of Algeciras and the flashbacks that fill in the gaps between now and the 1990s.

I also liked the linguistic changes between these chapters, so that the sections at the port are written staccato style, mainly in dialogue, with many funny one-liners and a hint of menace, while the flashback chapters are written in a more “traditional” third-person style to give a more rounded overview of the men and their lives.

It’s a well-crafted audacious novel, written in cracking prose, one that marries black comedy with an almost mournful undertone. Night Boat to Tangier was longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2019. And it may just well make my Top 10 at the end of this year.

This is my 14th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. This is another book I requested from NetGalley when it first came out. I read about 3% and then abandoned it because I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. Fast forward more than a year later and I was more than ready for some Irish gangster capers. LOL.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Mary Costello, Publisher, Setting, short stories, TBR40

‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 176 pages; 2015.

Short story collections don’t come much better than Mary Costello’s The China Factory.

First published in 2012, then reprinted in 2015, this volume contains 12 stories, each of which is richly evocative and deeply moving.

There are recurring themes  — of longing, of missed opportunities, of loneliness and guilt — all told through the eyes of ordinary people, from a teenage girl about to embark on her first summer job to a teacher on the brink of retirement.

Relationships in crisis

It’s largely peopled by long-term married couples who have settled into their individual routines and grown apart. Through Costello’s perceptive eye she is able to reveal those small life-changing moments that alter forever a couple’s relationship.

For instance, in Things I See, Annie witnesses her husband, Don, having sex with her sister, Lucy, on the kitchen worktop, but decides to never mention it because she feels she has far too much to lose. Romy, in Room in Her Head, makes a similar decision when she discovers that her husband has a son he’s never told her about.

In Insomniac, Andrew and Ann rarely talk, and Andrew, the insomniac of the title, secretly leaves the house on the nights he cannot sleep to drive around town. When he confesses that he once spent the night with a female police officer, Ann regrets ever asking him, “Tell me what you think about. Tell me what you do here at night.”

There are other stories of infidelities, both physical and psychological. For instance, in The Astral Plane an unhappy wife, E, wants more from her marriage but doesn’t quite know what that “more” might entail. When she strikes up an email correspondence with a man in New York she falls in love with him despite never having met or heard his voice.

While in Sleeping with a Stranger, a happily married school inspector takes a shine to a young teacher but keeps the relationship wholly professional. But a decade or more later, when he spots her at a conference, he takes her back to his hotel room.

Coming of age tales

But least you think all the stories are about sexual encounters, they’re not. Costello does a nice line in coming-of-age stories too.

In the lead story, a 17-year-old girl takes a summer job at a china factory sponging clay cups and her world opens up into one of gossip and petty rivalries between her all-female co-workers. When she strikes up a platonic friendship with a lonely bachelor no one much likes and later gets a promotion for being so good at her menial job, her colleagues shun her for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

And in You Fill Up My Senses a young girl growing up on a sheep farm becomes distraught when she sees the male lambs being castrated for the first time, opening up her eyes to the harsher reality of farming life.

All in all, The China Factory is a powerful collection of haunting stories, showcasing Costello’s talent for capturing the darker side of life and looking at the myriad and profound emotions that love, and the loss of love, can unleash.

This is my 2nd book for Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging. It is also my 11th book for #TBR40. I bought it when it was reprinted because I’d loved her novel, Academy Street, so much — it was my book of the year in 2014 — and wanted to read more by this exceptional writer.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Canongate, Cory Taylor, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

Non-fiction – paperback; Canongate; 160 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir may not be the most cheerful thing to do on Boxing Day, but this heartfelt, often brutally honest account of what it is to come to terms with your own death is — paradoxically — a life-affirming read.

Taylor is a scriptwriter turned children’s author turned successful novelist. She’s probably best known for her two novels — Me and Mr Booker, which won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in 2012, and My Beautiful Enemy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. (I have not read either book — but do check Lisa’s review of the latter.)

Skin cancer diagnosis

In 2005, shortly before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma thanks to a cancerous mole on the back of her knee. Three years later the disease turned up in the lymph nodes of her pelvis and a couple of years later it spread to other parts of her body. She had two operations, which helped halt the progress of the disease.

She kept her illness a secret, only telling her closest friends and her husband, Shin. She wrote two novels and found a measure of literary success.

Then, in December 2014, she had a seizure and was told the melanoma was now in her brain. She had the offending tumour removed successfully, but the disease was now terminal. She made her illness “public” and set about writing this memoir, something which took just a matter of weeks.

In fiction you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor, US edition
US Edition, by Tin House Books

A memoir in three parts

Dying: A Memoir is divided into three key parts: the first wrestles with her idea of dying a dignified death even if that means taking things into her own hands (she orders a euthanasia drug from China, pens a suicide note to go with it and locks it away in a cabinet — just in case); the second looks at her parent’s troubled marriage and the tensions that exist between herself and her two older siblings; and the third recalls her childhood growing up in a range of diverse places including Fiji and Kenya.

At all times, Taylor’s voice is self-assured, calm, reasoned. There’s not a shred of self-pity in it:

Mine was the privileged tale of someone who had not truly suffered. The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.

She is always honest, sometimes unbearably so, about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her (late) father, whom she had to cut out of her life when his behaviour became too aggressive and manipulative. But she’s clear-eyed about the reasons for the tensions and knows that under different circumstances the outcomes might have been more positive, but she’s not one for worrying about things she can no longer change.

Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start re-writing your past you realise how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor. Australian edition
Australian edition, by Text Publishing

Moments of joy

Through this all there’s a feeling of love in this book — for her (late) mother, with whom she has much empathy, and her husband Shin and their two sons. But there’s also a lot of love for places (Taylor’s father was a pilot, which meant moving houses a lot as a child) and for travel. She holds special affection for Japan, where she met her husband, and Fiji, where she spent some of her childhood.

And she’s enthusiastic about writing and the way she devoted her life to it, mainly to make sense of the world and her place in it. This rather extraordinary memoir is testament to her talent and love of the English language. It’s also testament to an extraordinary woman not afraid to confront her own mortality and to share what she discovers about it along the way.

Cory Taylor died on 5 July 2016, aged 61.

This is my 51st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 34th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Barry, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate Books; 272 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone is my book of the year. It’s a riotous romp full of the most unexpected surprises and captivated me from start to finish.

It tells the story of a 37-year-old man named John, who is going through a kind of personal crisis. He wants to spend some much-needed time alone to contemplate his past and figure out his next move. He owns an uninhabited island off the west coast of Ireland, which he’s never visited before, so he decides to spend three days there — alone.

The trouble is, John is no ordinary man — and this is no ordinary adventure. His last name is Lennon, he’s originally from Liverpool and he now lives in New York with his wife and young son. It’s 1978 and he’s petrified that his new-found domestic bliss has stifled — and possibly killed — any shred of artistic creativity he had left after his hey day with the Beatles and his early success as a solo artist.

He is so tired. He hasn’t slept a wink. He has tried so hard this long while to be at home in the world. Baking the bread. Swinging in a papoose the baby. Cozy-as-the-fucking-womb stuff. Captain fucking Domestic. Doing all the voices. Doing down the days. But his mind will go to other places. He cannot hold the moment. It is the moment itself that contains all the riches. Maybe on his own island he will finally learn to hold the moment. He needs to get to his own island. He has been drawn here again for a reason.

Going to the island is his last chance saloon, except getting there is no easy matter, not simply because it’s remote but because he doesn’t want the press to follow — and publicise — this very private adventure.

What follows is an extraordinary road trip involving an eccentric Irish taxi driver/tour guide, primal scream therapy, a bunch of hippies and a bleak and windy coastal landscape. But this is not just a physical journey — albeit one with Samuel Beckett’s absurdist overtones — but a wild journey into John’s troubled psyche.

It’s funny and sad and wise and clever, and always — always — startling.

An experimental novel

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is the experimental nature of it, because mid-way through the compelling, gorgeously written narrative, the author inserts himself into the story and gives us an entire chapter about how the real John Lennon bought the island of Dorinish in 1967 for £1,550 sterling. He then explains his own nightmarish journey to trace Lennon’s footsteps by visiting the island for research purposes. This shouldn’t work — inserting reportage into a fictional account of someone’s life — but in Barry’s hands it practically sings. And it also informs the made up, slightly surreal elements of the story, making them seem more real, more plausible.

There are a couple of chapters that read like mini plays, complete with stage directions, including one in which John stays in a decrepit hotel and another where he recalls laying down some music in a recording studio during his drug-filled days. As odd as this might sound, these do not feel clunky nor do they detract from the overall story arc: if anything they add to it.

The most wonderful thing about Beatlebone, however, is the prose, which is rich and lush and oh-so evocative. How’s this for a description of New York, for instance:

Sometimes he’ll walk the streets on the biblical afternoons when a great downpour hits the avenues and it rains frogs and cats and dogs and the people all become strange twisted birds in the hot wind from the tunnels and get sucked down the black maws of the subways and the taxi cabs move through the yellow blur and vapours of the streets and the rain washes the colours of the streets and smears them and he comes down from his eyrie and walks the streets for a while and he is that happy in his old raincoat with the fisherman’s hat pulled down over his eyes…

But for all its focus on this one particular Beatle, this is not a book about the Beatles — you don’t need to know a thing about John Lennon to enjoy it, though I suspect it certainly helps if you know some of his background  (the fact he was raised by his aunt, because his mother was too troubled to look after him, for instance) and his quirks (such as his obsession with the number 9). I suspect this novel resonated with me because John is, in fact, my favourite Beatle and I spent most of my teens and early 20s reading anything and everything about him. Seeing him brought to life in this book — a jumble of emotional and psychological contradictions in which he’s sometimes joyful, heartbroken, melancholy, angry, belligerent, arrogant or quietly lacking in confidence — was quite mesmerising. Barry has clearly done his research and captured something of the essence of the man.

But this could be a story about any man who is going through a mid-life crisis — and perhaps that’s why it works so well, because as crazy as John seems in these pages we all go through periods of self-doubt and uncertainty in our lives. We just don’t have an elusive Irish island to escape to…

Beatlebone was shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the 2015 Irish Book Awards and was named the (very worthy) winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mary Costello, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello

Academy Street

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate Books; 193 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street won the 2014 Eason Novel of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards — and it’s my book of the year, too.

It’s a debut novel but has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. Unsurprisingly, the author is an accomplished short story writer — her work has been anthologised and published in New Irish Writing and The Stinging Fly and her first collection, The China Factory, was published to critical acclaim in 2012.

One woman’s life

The book charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person: she’s reticent, lacks self-confidence and never really knows “what to do or how to act”.

Occasionally she thought about retiring, moving house, taking a trip back to Ireland, but she did none of these things. There was, in her nature, a certain passivity, an acquiescence that was ill-suited to change or transformation, as if she feared ruffling fate or rousing to anger some capricious creature that lay sleeping at the bottom of her soul.

Throughout this short, powerful novel, we follow Tess’s ups and downs — her occasional periods of happiness, her heartbreaking disappointments, her successes, her failures — and throughout it all her forbearance and stoicism shines through.

But aside from a friendship she develops with a female neighbour, she always feels at a distance from others and is unable to create the kinds of connections she so desperately craves:

All evening long she smiled and mingled, but she felt remote. It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.

Like many lonely people she finds solace in books, and some of the most touching scenes describe her very strong feelings towards novels and literature.

Tess found a new life in books. […] The mere sighting of a book on her hall table or night stand as she walked by, the author’s name or title on the spine, the remembrance of character — his trials, his adversity — took her out of ordinary time and induced in her an intensity of feeling, a sense of union with that writer. […]The things she hankered after — encounters with beauty, love, sometimes the numinous — she found in books. […] She became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books.

A distinctive voice

Because Academy Street condenses one woman’s life into just 193 pages, some aspects feel a little rushed or skipped over, but that’s a minor quibble.

I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

It so encapsulates the human condition — our desperate desire to fit in, to make meaningful connections with others, to feel as if we are worth something to someone — it’s easy to identify with Tess’s situation. Adrift from her own family — and her own country — her sense of isolation resonates off the page. But while it’s quite a sad story, it’s more bittersweet than depressing and is never sentimental or cloying. It’s poignant and has an undercurrent of melancholia, but is punctuated with quiet moments of joy.

Tess Lohan’s life might be quiet and understated but the impact on the reader is nothing less than devastating.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘The Changeling’ by Robin Jenkins


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 240 pages; 2008.

Robin JenkinsThe Changeling, which was first published in 1958, is a remarkably powerful tale about the class divide — and one man’s attempts to bridge the gap and help someone less fortunate than himself.

That man is Charlie Forbes, a teacher — repeatedly overlooked for promotion — who strives always to see the good in his students, even if they may have bad reputations.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Curdie is one of those students. A product of the Glasgow slums, he is on probation for theft. His headmaster has labelled him as “deep and sly”, another says he’s “a practiced liar”, most regard him as having been “born wicked”, but Forbes recognises the boy’s intelligence and thinks he deserves a second chance. He hits upon the idea to take Tom on holiday with him, and informs his boss of his plans.

“I propose to take Tom Curdie with my family to Towellan this summer. It seems to me the experience might give the boy some support in the battle which he has constantly to wage against corruption.”

He is warned against the idea and told it is foolish, that his holiday will be ruined, but Forbes goes ahead regardless. His wife reluctantly agrees, and so the Forbes’ — Charlie, Mary, their two children, Gillian and Alistair, and Charlie’s mother-in-law, Mrs Storrocks — take Tom with them to the cottage in the countryside they stay in every summer. It’s perhaps telling that from the outset Tom is forced to sleep in a hut in the garden, because there’s not enough room for him indoors, though Tom doesn’t seem to mind.

But everyone else is on edge. Forbes constantly bickers with his wife, while Mrs Storrocks never keeps her (often prejudiced) thoughts to herself. Gillian, in particular, takes such a strong dislike to Tom she decides to spy on his every move, which leads to a shocking discovery that puts the whole holiday into doubt. There is talk of sending Tom back to whence he came, but Forbes is loath to end his social “experiment”…

A story about being good — and doing good

The Changeling is a fascinating read, as we watch the effect of Tom’s presence on each individual character and how their views and attitudes towards him change over time. Jenkins is particularly good at scene setting — his descriptions of the Scottish countryside are evocative, a kind of love letter to Nature, if you will — and his dialogue is rich and authentic.

Admittedly, some of it feels dated — Mrs Storrocks’ vile views, for instance, are what we’d now call “politically incorrect” but which I assume were probably quite common at the time — and even its depiction of the poor strays into cliché (Tom’s mother, for instance, is a complete caricature, the only character who speaks in dialect).

But its notion of fairness, justice and equality have never been more paramount, particularly in times of austerity. And the ways it explores what it is to be good and to do good, and the importance of social and moral responsibility, are spot on.  Its condemnation of child poverty and its long-lasting effects also make it an important read.

The Changeling isn’t without humour, however: some of the characters behave in ridiculous and comic ways, even if they might not know it, and the author occasionally pokes fun at Forbes, who is often absurdly jolly and has funny notions about nostalgia and romanticism. But on the whole this is a tragic story — and a deeply unsettling read.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, science fiction, Scotland, Setting

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing about Michel Faber’s Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.

This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I’ve yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I’m not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

An unconventional lead character

First, let’s meet the main character, Isserley, who is “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. […] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. […] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are “hunks on legs”. She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can’t help “savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked”.

What happens to these men once they’ve been “caught” — or lured by Isserley’s big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score I’m keeping completely schtum. Sorry.

An “issues” novel

As much as I’m loathe to describe Under the Skin as an “issues” novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.

While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical,  Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.

A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.

And you really get a sense of Isserley’s pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She’s a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it’s hard not to feel empathy for her.

While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley’s adventures in her beat up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.

Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I’ve come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that’s really saying something…

Under the Skin is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Grenville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 307 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sarah Thornhill is the third title in a loose trilogy of ‘colonial’ novels by the Australian author Kate Grenville. The other two are The Secret River (2006) and The Lieutenant (2009), but each novel can be taken as a standalone read — what binds them together is not so much character but setting and time period.

The Thornhill family

That said, if you have read The Secret River you will already have met the Thornhill family and followed their exploits settling on the Hawkesbury River. In this new novel, the author focuses on Sarah, the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, a convict-turned-landowner, who is about to uncover a dark family secret. (Readers of The Secret River will already know the secret, but that does not make it any less shocking — or distressing.)

The story is told through Sarah’s eyes in an old fashioned but quite endearing vernacular.

They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.

Born in 1816, Sarah has five older siblings — one sister and four brothers, one of whom is an outcast — who call her Dolly, a name that she detests (“never wanted to be a doll”). Her mother, of whom she has only the vaguest recollection is dead, and a second Ma is in her place. Life is relatively good — her father has made something of himself and he employs several staff, including a “native boy for the wood”. Although the family is well off they are not gentry and none of them are educated — or as Sarah puts it, “none of us Thornhills had our letters” — but they are forthright, confident and hard working.

More than a romance

At its most basic level, the story could be described as a romance, because the narrative charts Sarah’s love affair with Jack Langland, who is half Aboriginal. But on a deeper level, the book explores notions of class and race in a fledgling society that had no past and was, essentially, British — as opposed to Australian.

There are references to the Stolen Generations in the form of Rachel, a half Maori girl whom Sarah’s older brother fathered during a sealing trip to New Zealand. Rachel is brought to the Thornhill home against her mother’s wishes in an attempt to “get her civilised”. It’s a heartbreaking episode, because the girl, who is five or six years old, cannot speak English, she’s never slept alone before, cannot use cutlery and does not wear shoes on her feet. Yet Sarah’s stepmother “wouldn’t be bested”.

Something in the girl broke. By the end of he first week she let herself be washed, let her hair be brushed and tied up with red ribbon, sat at the meal table and used the spoon. Ate, but no appetite or pleasure in it.

The novel, which is richly evocative of the Australian landscape, also explores the concept of being connected to the land. All around her Sarah sees the natives living in the bush, but has no appreciation of their spiritual connection to it. It is only when she hears an Irishwoman sing a lament, accompanied by a fiddle player, that she understands…

…what it was to belong to a place. To be brought undone by the music of the land where you’d been born. The loss as sharp a pain as mourning a lover. Us currency lads and lasses had no feeling like that about the land we called ours. It had no voice that we could hear, no song we could sing. Nothing but a blank where the past was. Emptiness, like a closed room, at our backs.

Storytelling that zips along

I loved reading this book and got completely immersed in the storytelling, which zips along at a steady pace. It isn’t a perfect novel — the New Zealand bit felt slightly tacked on, for instance, and sometimes I thought that the 21st century pro-Aboriginal stance didn’t sit naturally in a 19th century setting.

But I think Sarah is such a wonderful character — feisty, outspoken and believable — that it more than makes up for these slight failings. I could feel her heartbreak, her rage, her sheer incomprehension and her desire to make things better as palpable emotions throughout the book. Her voice is the heart and soul of this richly layered novel about tangled histories and family secrets.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘Me and You’ by Niccolò Ammaniti


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 155 pages; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes it is the shortest books which pack the biggest punch — and this is especially true for Italian author Niccolò Ammanitis latest novel Me and You. In just 155 pages, Ammaniti takes us into the world of a teenage boy, who deceives his parents into thinking he is going on a skiing trip with friends, only to have his world turned upside down by the discovery of a family secret.

A tale of deception

When the book opens Lorenzo Cuni is 24 years old and staying at a hotel in Cividale del Friuli, in northern Italy. He has a piece of paper with him that was written by his sister Olivia ten years earlier, when she was 23.

The story then backtracks to February 2000, when Lorenzo was 14 and a bit of a loner. His wealthy parents, deeply troubled by his behaviour, have sent him to a psychologist, who has diagnosed him with “an inflated sense of self-importance”. But it’s clear that Lorenzo doesn’t have any social skills and finds it difficult to make friends — not without want of trying.

One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects. […]
I had been going about it the wrong way.
Here’s what I had to do.
Imitate the dangerous ones.
I wore the same things they wore. Adidas trainers, jeans with holes in them, a black hoodie. I messed up the parting in my hair and let it grow long. I even wanted to get my ear pierced but my mother forbade me. […]
I walked like them, with my legs wide apart. I threw my backpack on the ground and kicked it around.
I mimicked them discreetly. There’s a fine line between imitation and caricature.

When he hears a group of teenagers he longs to be friends with talk about a ski trip they are going on, he goes home and tells his mother he has been invited to go with them. He then sets up an elaborate scam in which he spends the week hidden in the never-used basement of the family home with his computer games, a copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and plenty of food and drink.

But when his much older half-sister, whom he barely knows, unexpectedly unlocks the door to the basement, Lorenzo’s secret looks set to be exposed. What he doesn’t realise is that Olivia, whom is estranged from the family, has secrets of her own to keep…

The book’s biggest punch, however, comes at the very end, when we discover exactly why Lorenzo is in northern Italy ten years after his week in the basement.

A simple prose style

I’ll admit that the faux naive writing style initially grated, but once I realised that it is deliberately written as if by an immature 14-year-old, I got swept away by the story. By maintaining a certain level of tension throughout, Ammaniti has crafted quite a page turner — for instance, I kept waiting for Lorenzo’s mother, who checked up on him via mobile phone almost every day, to find out his secret.

But the story’s real strength lies more in what is not said: why is Olivia estranged from the family? Why is Lorenzo so (sickeningly) sentimental about his mother? Why does he have so much trouble fitting in at school? These allow room for the reader to figure things out — to read between the lines, so to speak — and to join the dots without Ammaniti having to spell every single little thing out.

This might be a highly condensed story, but it deals with big themes — family, shame, deception, and our need to be accepted by our peers and loved by those closest to us. And it beautifully captures that time on the cusp of adulthood when our childish view of the world is changed forever.

Me and You — which reminded me somewhat of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, one of my favourite reads from last year — is Ammaniti’s fourth novel. His first, I’m Not Scared, has also been reviewed on this site.