Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sally Rooney, Setting

‘Beautiful World, Where are You’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 337 pages; 2021.

Here’s an understatement for you. Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where are You, arrived with a lot of fanfare.

Her American publisher produced a bucket hat and a load of other merchandise, a clever marketing exercise that warranted the attention of an entire article in GQ magazine, and proof copies handed out in some jurisdictions came with strict embargos. Advance reader copies sold for huge amounts prior to publication.

As much as I liked (not loved) her previous two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I was prepared to wait for the hype to die down before buying the new one. But then I had a cold rush of blood to the head, made a spur-of-the-moment purchase and settled down to read. And then I kept reading. And reading. And within the space of a weekend, I had finished it — and decided it was excellent.

Builds on previous work

Beautiful World, Where are You builds on the strengths of Rooney’s two earlier novels, but it’s not necessarily more of the same: the protagonists feel older and are grappling with issues more pertinent to women about to hit their thirties, but even the structure of the book, and the way it is plotted, is more mature.

It’s not perfect (what novel is?), but it’s entertaining and there’s a certain irony at play because one of the key characters is a famous author who is young and Irish and, well, it’s hard not to see Rooney having a pop at the ridiculousness of her own situation and the machinations of the publishing industry which has turned her into the literary star she is today.

The story is clever and playful, but it’s also melancholy and bittersweet. And, unusually for a Rooney novel, it ends on a happy note.

The plot

There’s not much of a plot other than an exploration of how life plays out for two young women, both of whom are unhappy with their situations, over a short period of time. It focuses on their personal growth through the romantic relationships they develop and charts the ups and downs of those relationships.

It focuses on two women in their late twenties who are best friends: Alice is a successful novelist; Eileen is an editorial assistant on a literary magazine.

Alice is recovering from a nervous breakdown and has decamped to the countryside, living in a house she’s borrowed from friends. She has recently met a local boy, Felix, a packer in a warehouse, via a dating app. It’s clear the two come from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, but they are patient and kind, and somehow their relationship — platonic at first before morphing into something sexual — works even if it takes them a long time to fully open up to one another.

Eileen, who lives in Dublin, has recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend, but a family friend (and someone she has known since childhood), Simon, has crossed her path again after a long absence and there’s something about the security he offers as an older man in a settled job that attracts her. There’s an age gap between them and a failure for either party to properly commit (Simon, for instance, still sees other people), but they regularly meet up for sex and chit-chat.

Slow build-up

The two couples don’t come together until late in the novel when Alice invites Eileen and Simon to stay for a weekend. Before this happens, Rooney allows us to get to know her protagonists intimately. We understand the prickly nature of Alice’s character, for instance, and her desire to keep people at arm’s length. We realise that Eileen craves affection and security, but struggles with the idea that a friend could also be a sexual partner.

And we come to understand the intelligence of both women, their innermost thoughts and beliefs spilled out across heavily detailed email correspondence that makes up alternate chapters between the main narrative.

Prose wise, the early parts of the novel are lean, stripped back, almost pedestrian. Later, particularly after the couples meet, Rooney’s writing takes on a more lyrical quality. Her sentences lengthen, the adjectives arrive, the prose practically sings off the page.

Meanwhile, the emails, from both parties, are academic in tone, complex in thought and heavy on detail. Sometimes they feel like Wikipedia entries that have been shoehorned in to make political points. But the emails add to the tonality of the novel, giving it a richer depth, adding colour where otherwise we might only see how the women act rather than what they think. It’s a clever device.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication

As with Rooney’s previous work, there’s a lot of sex in the story. But it’s kinder, gentler sex than the type often depicted in Conversations with Friends, for instance. There’s still pain and heartache and misunderstandings between lovers. Eileen and Simon are especially infuriating in their inability to actually discuss what it is they want to happen long term, but, on the whole, the ups and downs described here all feel, well, normal.

And the conversations, often awkward, occasionally painful but always honest, are evocative and real. And, as ever with a Rooney novel, it’s often the things that are left unsaid that are the most revealing.

But happily, I don’t think it’s too much of a plot spoiler to reveal that the characters in Beautiful World, Where are You, do, in fact, find the beautiful world for which they’ve been looking… it makes a nice change.

Africa, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 384 pages; 2020.

Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time.

It’s a challenging read, in all kinds of ways, not least because of the unfamiliar (to me) African setting and cultural references, the second-person point-of-view and the author’s tendency to skip over detail so that I often had to reread passages to interpret what was happening.

But its POWER comes from the way in which it made me see the world from a completely different perspective as I walked in the shoes of the main character, Tambudzai, a woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. Tambudzai’s struggle to keep going, to get herself back on track, despite the direst of circumstances, is deeply affecting, so much so that when I finished this book it left me in a deep funk for days afterwards.

Precarious circumstances  

When the book opens Tambudzai is living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. She’s quit her successful mid-level job in an advertising agency in protest against her white colleagues taking her ideas and presenting them as their own. It’s a decision that shows Tambudzai’s strength of character, but it has terrible repercussions, for now, without a regular income, her living arrangements have become precarious.

The novel traces Tambudzai’s various attempts to improve her situation. When she gets a job as a teacher she takes a room in a widow’s house, but even then the money is tight and she must scrimp and save — and even steal edible plants from the widow’s garden to survive. Later, when she is fired from her job — not unreasonably, it has to be said — Tambudzai must pull herself up again.

A chance encounter with her former boss from the advertising agency she fled leads to a job for a travel start-up company. It’s the perfect opportunity to start afresh, to make a good impression and to advance her career.

In the beginning, she does exactly that, but Tambudzai’s success is limited by her inability to be anything other than herself, for a younger colleague with more get up and go, more energy and more willingness to manipulate things for her own ends, effectively leapfrogs Tambudzai’s standing in the company. It’s heartbreaking to see such a resilient, fiercely independent woman being overshadowed in this way.

Final part of trilogy

This Mournable Body is the final part of a trilogy — following on from Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not — but it works as a standalone. That said, I’m sure Tambudzai’s story might resonate even more if you have read the previous instalments.

Even so, it is clear from this novel alone that Tambudzai is a complicated, complex character, someone whose family expected big things of her. She’s well educated, having fled her small village to become the first in her family to get a degree, but she struggles with her mental health and has no reliable support network — no friends, no family, no colleagues — to help her.

A series of poor decisions and an inability to get herself out of a cycle of “boom” and “bust” means she never achieves the success she feels she deserves. It’s almost as though she can’t quite tap into her full potential and can’t rise above the issues — personal and otherwise — that hold her back.

When she eventually goes back to her home village to run tours for the travel company, it’s not the recipe for success for which she might have dreamed. She’s effectively selling her own people’s poverty as a tourist gimmick and the role she plays in this is just that — a role, one which she finds increasingly more difficult to play.

This novel is a searing indictment of cultural imperialism, structural racism and gender inequality in 1990s Zimbabwe. I’ve not been so incensed by the thwarted potential of a fictional character since I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure more than 30 years ago. Expect to see This Mournable Body in my books of the year list come December.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.

Locked room mystery

Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.

It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances —  a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.

The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.

When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts” and then explains how he came to be staying with the family:

He often comes over – came over, I suppose I should say now – from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here – I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in anyway and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.’ His eyes went back to the corpse. ‘Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.’ He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger embarrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. ‘I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.’ So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. ‘When you look you’ll see that they – well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.’

What follows is a painstaking investigation, where Strafford speaks to all the likely suspects, including the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.

There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.

An obvious motive

Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.

He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.

The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.

The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.

The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled.

There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.

Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.

Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Africa, Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting

‘Girl’ by Edna O’Brien

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 240 pages; 2019.

Edna O’Brien specialises in writing about ordinary people — usually women — being thrust into extraordinary, and often dangerous, situations, then examining how things play out. (See In The Forest, published in 2002, and The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015.) Her latest novel, Girl, is cut from a similar cloth.

In this short novel, which has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, O’Brien tells the tale of a Nigerian schoolgirl captured by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.

A frightening and often disturbing story, Girl reveals the depths of humanity’s dark heart and puts the reader in the shoes of Maryam, a teenage girl confronted by an unimaginable horror: stolen away from her family and made to live among violent, sexually depraved men with little to no hope of escape.

Of course, she does escape (otherwise there wouldn’t be much to write about) and her journey to freedom is almost as perilous and fraught as her life in captivity. Burdened with a baby and accompanied by Buki, another kidnapped teenage girl, she is forced to live by her wits, to scrounge for food in the forest and to keep her eye out for savage men in pursuit.

It is deeply telling that when she comes across a local nomadic tribe willing to provide shelter, their kind offer of help is soon withdrawn when they realise how dangerous it is to hide Maryam.

I was sitting on the bed when Madara came in. There was something wrong. […] She spoke standing and her voice was firm. ‘When the women went to the village this morning, the vendors at first refused to speak or do business with them. Word had got out that we were hiding a militant’s wife and child. Everyone down there is in terror. They know what will happen. Their gods will be confiscated, their stalls burned down and they themselves slaughtered. Then the Jihadis will come here for us, they know how to find us, they know every inch of this forest. They will destroy everything. They will take our herd. There will be nothing left of us.’
‘I will go,’ I said, half rising, wanting to thank her for the endless kindnesses, but she rebutted it.

This is an extraordinarily powerful tale, fast-moving and often confronting, but written with an exacting and sensitive eye. (O’Brien, who is in her 80s, visited Nigeria twice to research the novel and met survivors of Boko Haram’s cruel activities, so there’s a real ring of authenticity to the story.)

I liked that it didn’t get too bogged down in the machinations of the sect, but looked at the impact on one girl’s life during and after capture, shining a light on the terrible injustices and prejudices against women but also showing how a tenacious spirit can overcome the worst of what humanity throws at us.

I came away from this novel not downhearted or dispirited but feeling a sense of optimism for Maryam and the future ahead of her.

Reviewers dubbed O’Brien’s previous novel, The Little Red Chairs, her masterpiece, but I think they got it wrong. In my opinion, that accolade belongs to Girl.

Lisa Hill also liked this book.

This is my 3rd book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Max Porter, Publisher, Setting

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 224 pages; 2019. 

I think I’m going to be seriously out of step with many who read Max Porter’s new book Lanny in that I didn’t fall in love with it. In fact, I’m not even sure I liked it much.

I also had ambivalent feelings about his debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, published in 2015, which went on to win a slew of awards and turned Porter into the next Big Thing.

Experimental style

Lanny is a difficult novel to describe. It’s “experimental” and takes elements of English folklore and mixes it up with a bit of gritty magic realism, a smidgen of horror, a bit of suspense, some poetry and a lot of very middle class themes — of busy Londoners moving to a commuter village, of gossip and innuendo, of concerns about monsters that live among us.

The story, divided into three distinct parts, is told from multiple points of view. It is alive with dialogue, both spoken out loud and interior monologues, but there’s not a speech mark to be seen. Often it is difficult to know exactly who is speaking — but, for the most part, it doesn’t really matter, for the dialogue, mainly in part two, is simply snippits of conversation (and gossip) from a diverse range of village voices, which builds to a noisy crescendo.

That noisy crescendo revolves around the nub of the novel, which is the disappearance of Lanny, a young boy, who is free to roam the village, often singing to himself as he does so.

His mother, Jolie, is a stay-at-home-mum who pens gruesome crime novels, and his father, Robert, has an office job in London and doesn’t much like village life (or his family for that matter). Their parenting is very much “light touch” and they choose to ignore warnings to stay away from “Mad Pete”, the local (famous) artist, whom they hire to teach Lanny painting and drawing.

Of course, the (logical) assumption is that Pete has done something terrible to Lanny, which is why he has disappeared. But even with a water-tight alibi, that’s not how the villagers, or the media, quite see it.

A suspense story

There’s a build up of tension in part two — Where has Lanny gone? What has happened to him? — that makes the novel a proper page-turner. It’s genuinely frightening because it feeds into our greatest fears when children go missing, especially when they are known to be friendly with grown men who live alone.

But for me the resolution was just a bit too kooky for my liking. And while I understand that Porter is tapping into English folklore and the myth of the Green Man (who, in this book, is known as Dead Papa Toothwort), it just didn’t work for me. It felt like it simply gave the author a means to explain what had happened to Lanny without using a more straightforward, conventional narrative.

That said, I’m sure Lanny is going to win literary awards aplenty. It’s already won rave reviews, but this isn’t one of them.

2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sally Rooney, Setting, TBR40

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 288 pages; 2018.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People has had so many rave reviews and won so many prizes and accolades — the latest, The Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, was bestowed last week — that I’m not sure I can add anything new to the conversation.

But what I can do is give you my reaction to this stylish novel, which is essentially an on-off romance between two people from the same Irish country town over the course of four years (2011 to 2015).

Brief overview

For those of you that may not yet have read the book, here’s a brief overview. Marianne and Connell both attend the same secondary school on the west coast of Ireland, but Marianne is in a different socio-economic class to Connell because Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house.

The pair are different in other ways: Marianne is a loner and regarded by her classmates as a bit kooky and someone to avoid, while Connell is popular and good looking and leads a hectic social life.

But both are academically minded and good students, and this is what brings them to the attention of one another, a mutual respect for their brains and intellectual capabilities. Secretly, they become friends, then lovers, but no one knows about their relationship, which is kept hidden from fellow classmates — it’s really only Connell’s mother that twigs there’s something going on between the two of them.

The book charts the ups and downs of this unspecified relationship as the pair leave school, move from the village they’ve both grown up in and forge new lives in Dublin, where they attend Trinity, Marianne to study history and politics, Connell to study English.

Unusual structure

Normal People is structured in an interesting way. It’s very much a narrative composed of set pieces framed around scenes — in bedrooms, in kitchens, at parties, in cars — that are essentially people talking but which give great insight into the individual character’s thoughts and behaviours and fears and hopes.

Indeed, this is a dialogue driven novel but there is not a single quotation mark in sight. It’s written it in such a way that it’s perfectly clear when people are speaking and who is doing it. (I heard Sally Rooney speak at her only London event earlier this month where she explained that using quotation marks would just add extra clutter on the page that wasn’t needed. )

Paradoxically, it’s often the things that people don’t say in this story that provides it’s edgier moments: when characters hold back from making confessions or being completely honest or not making the most of the opportunity to steer the conversation in ways that would make their lives easier but which might cause pain or embarrassment in the short term.

The narrative itself jumps forward in spurts, with each chapter heading indicating how much time has passed since the last chapter  — for instance “Four Months Later (August 2011)” and “Three Months Later” (March 2014)” — giving a sense of movement and fast pace to what is essentially a deeply nuanced and measured story.

The UK paperback edition

But did I like it?

I have to admit that I thought the book dragged in places and I didn’t think there was enough tension between the characters. I wanted more action, perhaps more resolution, between Marianne and Connell. I kept waiting for something to happen, something big that would formalise their relationship or finish it. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that this doesn’t happen.

But what I did like — and it took me awhile to come to this realisation — is the ways in which Marianne and Connell’s relationship is influenced by the exterior forces of class and money, by their own sense of self-worth (or lack thereof) and desire to be “normal”, and their inherent mutual attraction regardless of circumstance or upbringing. I also liked how Rooney occasionally shows how some issues, such as domestic violence, cut across the class divide. (It wasn’t until I heard Rooney speak at the event I attended that I discovered she calls herself a Marxist; with hindsight I can very much see that influence in her work, though I would not call this book political; it’s much more subtle than that.)

Normal People is essentially a universal story about individuals finding their place in a world that is complex, one that has obstacles in place which may hinder opportunities for success, whether because of class, gender or upbringing. And yet it also shows how social mobility is (occasionally) possible, how we can influence each other for the better and find ways to seek love and happiness against the odds. It ends on a hopeful note.

That said, I still liked Conversations with Friends better.

Added extra

If you are interested, this is the aforementioned event I attended at the beginning of May, which has been recorded in full by the London Review of Books, which hosted the evening in the gorgeous surrounds of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London.

This is my 3rd book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 19th for #TBR40. I bought it late last year after a member of my book group raved about it. I treated myself to the Waterstones’ exclusive hardback edition.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Leïla Slimani’s much-lauded Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who murders her young charges, and I had such a bad reaction to it that I wanted to throw the book across the room. My initial gut reaction was tempered (slightly) by the discussion that followed in the comments and that continued on Twitter and I came to see that perhaps I had missed the subtleties of the book, which was based on a true story. (I hadn’t known that at the time I read it.)

Adèle, her follow-up, has just been published in the UK, but it’s actually her first novel (published in France in 2014) and has simply been translated out of order.

Going on my past experience with her work, I picked it up with trepidation, telling myself that if I wasn’t hooked within the first 50 pages, I would abandon it. I ended up reading the entire book in two sittings.

North American cover

Extra-marital encounters

On the face of it, the book deals with another ugly subject: a married woman — the Adèle of the title — who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places. But it is so much more than this.

It is a deeply provocative look at modern life and privilege, of having it all but of never being quite satisfied, of one particular woman’s struggle to seek forbidden physical encounters to make her feel alive and to fill up the emptiness within her inner-most self. It is also an extraordinary examination of self-deception and self-destruction.

That Adèle has a successful career (as a journalist), a young son and a rich husband (who is a surgeon), and that she lives in a comfortable middle-class area of Paris in a beautiful apartment, makes one wonder what exactly is missing from her life.

But look a little closer. Adèle is clearly bored and doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, but I think the real nub of it lies in her decision to marry the first man who asks her, choosing comfort and financial security over love, a fact she willingly admits to her best friend. And because she doesn’t have that true bond with her husband it makes it easier for her to betray him. It also makes it easier for her to compartmentalise her sexual encounters as being purely physical events and not emotional ones.

Adèle is neither proud nor ashamed of her conquests. She keeps no records, recollects no names, no situations. She forgets everything very quickly, and that is a good thing. How could she remember so many different skins and smells? How could she recall the memory of the weight of each body on hers, the width of their hips, the size of their penis? She has no clear memories of them, and yet these men are the sole landmarks of her existence.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Adèle is not the often graphic descriptions of the one-night stands and extra-marital affairs (be warned, this book isn’t for the prudish or even the squeamish), but of her lack of interest in food. Adèle never eats. She’s painfully thin. That no one ever seems to notice this is worrying.

Simple plot, clear writing

Of course, I realise I’ve written 500 words and not really outlined the plot, but it’s a simple one, and you can probably guess how it pans out given it’s about a woman who strays outside of her marriage: her husband discovers her secret life. What you won’t expect is how he deals with it, and how their relationship morphs into something else entirely, and the effect that has on both of them, making Adèle an intriguing portrait of a marriage before and after the outfall of its potential destruction.

The prose is also sharp and clear (it was translated from the French by Sam Taylor) using short but vivid sentences — “Paris is orange and deserted” — where not a word seems to be wasted. And the pacing is quick-fire and suspenseful.

This is a compulsively readable book; unnerving, disturbing, daring and erotic. But it’s also a psychologically rich novel, full of insights about the human condition, the quest to feel alive and loved, and the struggle to lead a happy life when so much around us — whether that be our family, our friends, our job — compete for our time and energy.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Donor’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2011.

The Donor is typical Helen Fitzgerald fare. It’s dark and edgy and asks the question that all her novels seem to ask: if you were thrust into this moral dilemma, what would you do?

The moral dilemma in this tightly plotted and fast-paced story set in Scotland involves a single father, Will, who has to decide which of his twin daughters, Kay and Georgie, to save when they both develop kidney disease, aged 16.

He comes up with a four-point plan and then sets about putting it into action — with mixed results.

An impossible-to-guess plot

As ever with Fitzgerald, nothing is straightforward — she’s difficult to outguess, which makes her stories unpredictable and exciting.

It’s told from two points of view — Georgie’s, which is written in the first person and gives insight into her rebellious nature, and Will’s, which is written in the third person and paints him as a rather dull and passive character. These voices alternate from chapter to chapter, showing the impact of the situation on both the patient and the parent.

Not surprisingly, there’s nothing obvious about The Donor. It would be too transparent (and the story too short) to have Will donate a kidney to his favourite daughter — the sweet natured studious Kay as opposed to the difficult, often nasty and spiteful Georgie — so instead Fitzgerald has him go in search of his ex-wife, a heroin addict in love with a prisoner, as a first step in finding a suitable donor.

This gives the narrative an intriguing twisty angle, but it also throws the believability of the story into question. Much of the plot, along with its vast array of vividly colourful characters, including Preston the 17-year-old private detective that Will hires to track down his ex-wife, are out-and-out bonkers.

Preston coped very well with stress. In the last twelve hours, he’d bought drugs, killed a man and helped save a woman’s life. In the last two weeks he’d tracked down a missing person across two continents and fallen in love.

But if you suspend your critical faculties and just go with the flow, the book is an engaging — and highly addictive — read. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it has its serious moments too, not least the way in which it looks at the moral and ethical issues surrounding kidney disease, organ donation and the clashes between the middle classes and the underclass. It’s a great book to get stuck into if you are looking for something a little bit shocking and darkly funny.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2018 — I only ever planned to read 10 this year!

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sally Rooney, Setting

‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 336 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I came to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’d heard so much about this book after it won the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer Award 2017 that I was positive it couldn’t live up to the hype. I was wrong.

This debut novel is a perfectly pitched mood piece about what it is like to be in your 20s, that horribly messy time when you’re discovering adult responsibilities and trying to figure out where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Reading it was like being dragged back to my own youth when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life and felt torn between the uncertainty of the future and the cosy comfort of the past.

First person narrative

Rooney puts us firmly into the head of 21-year-old Frances, a university student doing an internship at a publishing company in Dublin. She’s super smart, quick-witted and cool, but lacks any drive to make something of herself.

I hadn’t been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job. I didn’t want one. I had no plans as to my future financial stability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. I’d had various minimum wage jobs in previous summers — sending emails, making cold calls, things like that — and I expected to have more of them after I graduated. Though I knew that I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt that disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.

Together with best friend, Bobbi, who was once her girlfriend, the pair perform spoken word poetry, which draws the attention of an influential journalist called Melissa. Melissa inveigles her way into their lives as a way of getting to know them better for the profile piece she plans to write. She draws them into her inner circle of  friends, invites them to her stylish home for wild dinner parties and introduces them to her husband, a good-looking actor called Nick.

The first-person narrative largely charts the ups and downs between these four characters as alliances are forged, secrets are kept from one another and loyalties are tested to the limit. There are betrayals, petty grievances and racuous arguments, too.

Much of the storyline moves ahead through dialogue — clever, whipsmart dialogue, it has to be said, the kind of dialogue that is flippant and facetious in order to hide the fragility of those making the cutting remarks. The conversations between Frances and Bobbi, a strong-minded, occasionally abrasive personality, are laced with humour and wordplay, but they are never emotionally intimate: they hold each other at a distance, despite having once being lovers.

Honesty, with others and oneself, forms the crux point of the novel. This is exemplified by Frances embarking on an affair with Nick, a man 11 years her senior, whom she becomes slightly obsessed about. She expends a serious amount of energy trying to keep the relationship secret from Nick’s wife and Bobbi, and it later leads to her undoing, but along the way she learns to confront her own fears and vulnerabilities. It’s an extraordinary portrait of one woman’s coming of age, but it’s also an insightful look at the bonds of female friendship.

Conversations with Friends won’t be for everyone, but I found it a rather astonishing, heart-rending and compassionate read and I can’t wait to pick up Rooney’s new one, Normal People, as soon as my Shadow Giller Prize reading is over…

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Hungary, memoir, Miranda Doyle, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Quercus, Sacha Batthyány, Setting, Sigrid Rausing, Sweden

3 memoirs by Sacha Batthyány, Miranda Doyle and Sigrid Rausing

Three memoirs

‘A Crime in the Family’ by Sacha Batthyány

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Quercus; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A crime in the familyA Crime in the Family is a compelling memoir that looks at two of my favourite subjects: moral culpability and intergenerational guilt.

Written by Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyány in an engaging but forthright tone, it combines autobiography with family history (the Batthyány family is so distinguished it has its own Wikipedia page) and explores what it is like to discover that one of your ancestors has carried out a horrendous war crime that has remained secret for decades.

The book’s main focus is one particular night in the spring of 1945 when Sacha’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, threw an extravagant party for German aristocrats and Nazi SS officers in her ancestral home —  a castle — in the Hungarian village of Rechnitz. Part of the “entertainment” included the “sport” of shooting 180 Jewish workers dead and burying them in a mass grave.

Batthyány uses family diaries from the time to tell the story and marries this with accounts of his own therapy sessions and journalistic research. At times the book reads like a travelogue, as Batthyány, often accompanied by his father (with whom he has a troubled relationship), visits landmarks associated with his dark family history, including the gulags of Russia and the extermination camp at Auschwitz. He also travels to South America to meet the descendants of some of the Jews who were killed in the massacre.

This is a tragic and moving memoir about complicity, reconciliation and shining a light on the truth. Highly recommended.

‘A Book of Untruths’ by Miranda Doyle

Non-fiction – memoir; hardcover; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Book of Untruths is an unusual but thought-provoking memoir that raises more questions than it answers.

Structured around a series of lies — 70 “untruths” in total — Doyle explores not only the complicated nature of her family (her parents had a troubled marriage and her father was a larger-than-life unpredictable character), but also the unreliability of memoir writing as a whole. How dependable are our memories? Where does fact become fiction? How does storytelling help us make sense of our own lives and the world we live in?

Doyle’s desperate need to understand the complicated nature of her parent’s marriage and her own messy, tangled upbringing (including her complex relationship with her three siblings), lends this memoir a ring of authenticity. Written in exquisite but punchy prose, A Book of Untruths isn’t a misery memoir, but it is fuelled by a deep anger and is undercut with enough self-deprecating humour to make it an enjoyable if somewhat curious read.

‘Mayhem: A Memoir’ by Sigrid Rausing

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2018. 

Many people may know Sigrid Rausing as the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books, but she is from a wealthy Swedish family which made its fortune from food packaging (her grandfather co-founded Tetra Pak). Curiously, this memoir isn’t about Rausing’s life; instead it is about her sister-in-law’s death.

Eva Rausing, one of the wealthiest women in the UK, died of a drug overdose aged 48  in the summer of 2012. Her body was found in the London mansion she shared with her husband, Hans (Sigrid’s brother), under a pile of clothes in a barricaded bedroom. Hans was charged with preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife and later sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Mayhem: A Memoir looks at the outfall of this death on the Rausing family, but much of its focus is on the years preceding the tragedy, for both Hans and Eva were drug addicts (they met in rehab) and were so entrapped by their respective addictions they had given Sigrid and her husband Eric custody of their four children.

Heartfelt, searing and deeply reflective (but occasionally tinged with self-pity), the book emphasises the collateral damage that drug addiction wreaks on entire families and shows that being born into immense wealth offers no protection against tragedy.