2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Power, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribner, Serbia, Setting

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 450 pages; 2021.

Addiction, self-loathing, corruption — and shady property deals — form the heart of this darkly humourous novel that has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Affluent but adrift

Kevin Power’s White City is told from the point of view of 27-year-old Ben — the son of a retired South Dublin banker — who is in a rehab clinic trying to figure out how he lost control of his comfortably privileged life.

I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope. I have cheated and stolen and lied — lied to myself most of all. I have consorted with fraudsters and war criminals. In an effort to beat my father at his own game, I failed: at love, at money, at life.

The narrative charts Ben’s fall from grace, which begins with his father’s arrest for “stealing €600 million from the books of his own bank” and ends with him developing a serious drug habit that lands him in the St Augustine Wellness Centre for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation, which he describes as:

[…] a detox tank and monitored care facility for the rich and the rich-by-proxy, for the gouged, the spent, the luckless, for the terminally middle-class.

In between, he moves in with his girlfriend Clio (to save costs), takes a job with a dodgy marketing agency (which doesn’t pay enough to keep him in the manner to which he’s been accustomed) and bumps into an old school friend, James Mullens, who offers him the chance to get rich quickly (he takes it).

That decision to join James’ new business  — a property development in Serbia — ultimately leads to his downfall because what he doesn’t know when he signs up is that it’s a high-risk scam pitting a group of rich Dublin lads against a bunch of Balkan gangsters. The result is farcical — and dangerous.

Fast-paced romp

Told in the first person, White City is a fast-paced romp laced with biting humour. For all his selfishness, Ben demonstrates an astonishing amount of self-awareness, but the knowing nods and winks are probably for the benefit of his therapist, for whom he is penning a memoir of sorts.

How am I doing so far, Dr F? I hope you’re happy with the family stuff. I’d hoped to get through this whole account without mentioning my mother at all, actually — or perhaps by mentioning her only indirectly, like Perseus (is it?) looking at the Gorgon in his shield. If that’s okay with you, I might skip over the real childhood stuff, or save it up for later.

His story, largely told in chronological order, is intercut with his therapy sessions and includes his frank, sometimes cruel conversations with Dr Felix, his sponsor at the rehab clinic.

As his tale is fleshed out, and his life begins to spin out of control, it becomes clear that Ben’s financial dependency on his father has left him vulnerable, his relationship with both parents, tenuous and suspect as it is, becomes stretched to breaking point and his greed gets the better of him.

White City is wickedly funny throughout, but its razor-sharp commentary on materialism, the nouveau rich and the shallowness of modern life adds an extra layer of meaning. I think it rightfully deserves its place on the aforementioned shortlist.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy: A wickedly biting satire about all the speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending that led to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle: Set in 2003, when Ireland was awash with jobs and cash, this is a nihilistic drug-fuelled story about four teenage boys who are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results which will determine their future lives.

This is my 2nd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

Author, Book review, Colombia, Fiction, literary fiction, Patricia Engel, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, USA

‘Infinite Country’ by Patricia Engel

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 191 pages; 2021. 

If anything positive is to come out of the Covid-19 global pandemic it is that Australian citizens, locked out of their own country (or even their home state) thanks to border closures, might gain a better appreciation of what it is to have freedom of movement.

Perhaps they might even develop greater empathy and compassion for migrants and refugees struggling to find a new homeland in which to make a better life for themselves.

This was front and centre of my mind when reading Infinite Country, a timely novel about immigration, by Patricia Engel, because so much of it charts the despair, frustration and anxiety of families separated by borders.

In this case, the family is from Colombia. Young married couple Mauro and Elena and their infant daughter Karina flee the violence in Bogotá to make a fresh start in the United States.

But over the course of the next 15 or so years, things don’t always go according to plan, and their hopes and dreams are stifled by racism, exploitation and, when their temporary visas run out, fear of arrest and deportation. This fear later spreads to their US-born children who are “undocumented illegals”.

On the run

The story opens with a killer first line:

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

This is where we meet Talia, a 15-year-old Colombian, making her escape from a correctional facility for adolescent girls high up in the mountains. Talia has been sent to the facility for committing a horrendously violent, but spontaneous, act that may or may not have been warranted.

But now she’s on a mission to get back to her father’s apartment in Bogotá so that she can pick up the plane ticket that is waiting for her — that ticket will get her to the US, where her mother and two older siblings live.

Talia’s frantic road adventure, hitchhiking across the country while avoiding the authorities, is interleaved with her parent’s love story, including their journey to the US to begin afresh long before Talia was born.

These two narrative threads come together when we discover that US-born Talia was sent back to Colombia as baby to be raised by her grandmother. This decision, based on economics, means the family now straddles two countries — and two different worlds — and because of legal issues there is no freedom to move between them.

Exposing the myths

Infinite Country is excellent at exposing the myth of the US as a golden land of opportunity and as a place of safety.

What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy? The previous month, on its own soil, an American man went to his job at a plant and gunned down fourteen coworkers, and last spring alone there were four different school shootings. A nation at war with itself, yet people still spoke of it as some kind of paradise.

As the family struggles to find work and accommodation, moving from one unsecure job to another, from one lot of overcrowded accommodation to another (at one stage they live in their car, in another they share a single room above a pizza shop with a Pakistani couple), their situation never seems to improve.

Both Elena and Mauro are exploited as cheap labour, unable to afford a decent place to live and constantly on guard for potential deportation. Social and economic mobility is non-existent. Even educational opportunities are limited.

And the option to go back is not an option at all.

Going home was never an option for these women. When Elena brought up the possibility of packing up, taking the children to Colombia […], Norma [a fellow immigrant] warned: ‘This is a chance you won’t get again. Every woman who has ever gone back for the sake of keeping her family together regrets it. You are already here. So are your children. It is better to invest in this new life, because if you return to the old one, in the future your children may never forgive you.’

Despite this, Elena is torn. She would love to go back to see her hardworking mother, to raise her daughter, and is “never sure if she’d made the right decision in staying”. She is plagued by guilt.

Eventually, she’d understand that in matters of migration, even accidental, no option is more moral than another. There is only the path you make. Any other would be just as wrong or right.

The price of migration

And, as much as immigrating is seen as a chance at a better life, it comes at a cost. This is how Mauro wants to convey it to his daughter Talia just as she’s about to board the plane to be reunited with her mother after 15 years:

What he wanted to say was that something is always lost; even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied. […] What she didn’t know, Mauro thought, was that after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits. Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned and unwanted creature.

Infinite Country is eloquently written and brims with humanity, compassion and cold, hard truths — it’s completely free of sentiment and yet it is powerful and moving.

I ate it up in a single day. And I love that it ends on a hopeful note.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez: A story about two immigrant families from Latin America facing racism, victimisation and poverty as they try to forge new lives in the US.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera:  This occasionally violent novella focuses on a young Mexican woman who illegally enters the US to search for the brother who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle: A compelling story that showcases the stark difference between the haves, in this case a rich American family living on a gated estate in California, and the have nots, a young Mexican couple hiding out in a nearby canyon having crossed the border illegally.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 195 pages; 2020.

How can this be my first Graham Swift? He seems to be one of those authors I always mean to read but never get around to — until now.

Here We Are is his latest novel (he has 11 to his name) and what a gorgeous, immersive quintessentially English story it turned out to be!

Theatreland by the sea

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, it tells the tale of three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

Jack Robinson is the handsome 28-year-old compere and a song-and-dance man. Ronnie Deane, who has “dark Spanish eyes”, is a talented magician and Evie White is his assistant — together they perform under their stage name “Pablo & Eve”.

The tale is less about the trio’s onstage antics, but what happens behind the scenes.

It tells the back story of Ronnie, a sensitive boy from the East End of London, who was a child evacuee during the Second World War. He went to live with Eric and Penelope Lawrence, a comfortably well off middle-aged couple, in a beautiful house in rural Oxfordshire, and it is here he learns to perform magic tricks — or illusions, as he likes to call them.

Despite missing his mother, a char woman from Bethnal Green, and the seaman father who was barely ever at home, he realises he has been given a chance to escape the poverty of his London life. When he is told his father has gone missing in action — he is “lost at sea” — he feels little to no emotion. And later, after the war is over and he returns to London aged 14, he realises he no longer knows his mother and feels guilty about missing his life with the Lawrences who, to all intents and purposes, have become his “real” family, having raised him for the past five or so years.

Evie and Jack have less complicated childhoods, brought up by mothers we might now describe as “pushy” but who encouraged their children to perform and entertain others, a skill that serves them well as adults.

A breakdown in relations

The narrative is cleverly structured so that the reader discovers relatively early on that the relationship between all three performers has broken down, but we do not know under what circumstances nor when it happened.

Some of the story is told from Evie’s point of view as a 72-year-old widow looking back on her life with Ronnie and Jack, and this provides a counterbalance to the thread about Ronnie’s childhood.

It’s a wonderfully evocative novel, told in a sensitive, gently nuanced style. I loved the way it contrasts the lives of these characters pre- and post-war and how the events of that successful summer season had long-lasting impacts on them all.

It’s a totally absorbing read, what I would call proper old-fashioned storytelling, and there’s a gentleness at work even though it addresses some pretty heavy subjects, including loss, love and betrayal.

Here We Are might have been my first Graham Swift novel, but it certainly won’t be my last.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘The Illustionist’ by Jennifer Johnston: A twist on the Bluebeard fairytale, this is a dark brooding novel about a woman who marries a magician and then regrets it.

This is my 16th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie store earlier in the year.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Megha Majumdar, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 304 pages; 2020.

This was my first book of 2021 and what a great start to a new year of reading it proved to be!

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is the kind of literary fiction I really admire. It’s got great characters, a suspenseful plot and focuses on some of the key issues of our time — freedom of speech, social justice, social mobility and corruption — without being heavy-handed about it.

And it has an interesting structure that interleaves different points of view into a single multi-layered story.

UK Edition

The dangers of social media

Set in modern-day India, it tells the story of a young woman living in a slum who is trying to make something of herself as a sales clerk in a clothing store.

But when she expresses a provocative opinion on Facebook it lands her in trouble with the law. From one careless, throwaway line — “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write” — Jivan is accused of helping to blow up a train, a terrorist act that she witnessed but had no part in organising.

And yet, thanks to the court of public opinion and a forced confession, she is arrested, charged and detained. Her lawyer, inadequate and inexperienced, is really in no position to help her.

But there are two people she knows who may be able to come to her rescue: PT Sir, her former gym teacher who has become swept up in right-wing politics and now makes his living being paid as a dubious witness in court cases he knows absolutely nothing about; and Lovely, a hijra (intersex) actress who learnt English from Jivan and  knows that the “explosives” Jivan was accused of carrying were actually books meant for her lessons.

Both characters, whose stories are told in alternate chapters (in gorgeously distinctive voices), are expected to come to Jivan’s defence, but to do so carries a serious risk, for it will call their own reputations into question. Meanwhile, they must dice with a media hungry for sensation, a public eager to condemn the terrorists and a succession of fame-seeking politicians looking to exploit the situation for their own benefit.

Compelling page-turner

A Burning is a propulsive, compelling story, easily read in a sitting or two. It has all the feel of a suspense novel and yet it doesn’t sacrifice detail (or literary merit, for want of a better description) in the pursuit of a page-turning read.

There are big issues here, not least the ways in which social media gives the false illusion that you can say what you want without repercussions. But it also shines a light on social justice in impoverished places where life is cheap, and how ambition and greed can cause collateral damage (and violence) to communities with no means to fight back.

Majumdar presents the justice system, the media and politics in the worst possible light. The setting may be India, but the Dickensian tale told here could apply almost anywhere in the Western world right now. It’s brilliant food for thought.

Lisa from ANZLitlovers has also reviewed it and so has Tony at Tony’s Book World.

This is my 1st book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. It’s also my 1st book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

2017 Giller Prize, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Zoey Leigh Peterson

‘Next Year, For Sure’ by Zoey Leigh Peterson

Next year for sure

Fiction – hardcover; Scribner Book Company; 240 pages; 2017.

I neglected to mention that I am participating in the Shadow Giller Prize once again, which means reading all the shortlisted titles and then choosing a winner before the real one is named on November 20.

When the longlist was announced a few weeks ago I went on a hunt to see what books were available in the UK that I might be able to get a head start on. Admittedly Zoey Leigh Peterson’s Next Year, For Sure wouldn’t have been my first choice of Giller Prize book to read, but the hardcover was just £3.89 on Amazon so it seemed churlish not to buy it.

The book tells the story of a young couple who pursue the idea of having an open relationship — with unforetold consequences.

Nine-year itch?

Kathryn and Chris have been together nine years. They’re in love and do everything together. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one person begins and the other ends, their lives, their interests, their personalities are so intertwined.

But then Chris confesses he’s been thinking a lot about Emily, a woman he sees at the laundromat.

I think I have a crush on Emily, he tells Kathryn in the shower. This is where they confide crushes.
A heart crush or a boner crush? Kathryn says.
He doesn’t know how to choose. It’s not particularly sexual, his crush. He hasn’t thought about Emily that way. And Chris would never say boner. But it’s not just his heart, either. It’s his molecules.

So he tells Kathryn about his molecules. How the first time he met Emily, it felt like his DNA had been resequenced. How he felt an instant kinship and a tenderness that was somehow painful. How, whenever he talks to her, he comes away feeling hollowed out and nauseous like after swimming too long in a chlorinated pool.

Kathryn’s reaction isn’t what you might expect: she suggests that Chris should pursue his interest in this woman and ask her out on a date. Suddenly there’s a third person in the marriage and it causes the inevitable tensions and strains one might expect — and quite a few that you might not.

Entertaining and effortless

From the start I thought the premise of Next Year, For Sure sounded dubious, the sort of book I wouldn’t like, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and enjoyable it turned out to be. I ate it up in just a handful of sittings and even though I didn’t much like the characters — too needy, too self-centred, too feckless — Peterson does such a brilliant job of putting us in their heads, explaining their motivations, their concerns, their fears, that it was hard not to become totally immersed in their story.

She doesn’t tell us everything about Kathryn and Chris straightaway, but over the course of the novel we begin to find out things about them that challenge our preconceptions. Both characters need lots of love (and attention) but their motivations are different: Kathryn has been in an abusive relationship and her passivity is, at times, crippling; Chris simply has a roving eye and finds it difficult to settle down.

Needless to say the characterisation is superb: Peterson show us Kathryn and Chris’ flaws but refrains from casting judgement on them. They are messy, vulnerable people caught up in the ebb and flow of an intimate relationship, struggling to come to terms with the stability (and monotony) of a long-term partnership.

My only quibble — and it’s a minor one — is that perhaps Emily could have been fleshed out a bit more. She’s almost ephemeral in this story, so much so it’s hard to tell what Chris finds so appealing about her, but perhaps that was the author’s intention.

And while not a great deal happens in the story, which is set over the space of a year, from September to September, there’s enough little dramas in it to maintain interest. And to be honest, what reader couldn’t help but be intrigued by a couple breaking all the social and moral codes so ingrained in our way of life?

Next Year, For Sure is a rather charming tale about taking risks and chasing dreams, but it’s also a warning about wanting things we cannot have and of not appreciating what’s right in front of us.

I read this book as part of the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in hardcover.

2016 YWOYA, Author, Benjamin Wood, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Scotland, Scribner, Setting, Turkey, UK

‘The Ecliptic’ by Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 465 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

I’m quite partial to books about art and the creative process, so Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic had instant appeal: a story set on a private island for beleaguered artists all struggling to recapture the muse that has deserted them. Think a motley crew of painters, writers, musicians and architects, all living together under the watchful eye of a provost and each working on an individual project that will restore them in the eyes of the artistic communities in which they once belonged.

It’s part mystery, part historical novel, the kind of story that is ambitious in scope and structure, a wonderful blend of art, madness and creativity.

A painter’s life

This four-part novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, is narrated by a Scottish painter, who introduces herself as follows:

I was born Elspeth Conroy in Clydebank, Scotland, on the 17th March 1937. I had always thought my family name quite unremarkable, and my Christian name so formal and girl-pretty. Elspeth Conroy, I felt, was the name of a debutante or a local politician’s wife, not a serious painter with vital things to say about the world, but it was my fate and I had to accept it. My parents believed a refined Scottish name like Elspeth would enable me to marry a man of higher class (that is to say, a rich man) and, eventually, I managed to prove their theory wrong in every respect.

Elspeth, you soon learn, is a talented artist, who achieved great success in the 1960s London art scene — against the odds — but then she lost her muse, and now she’s living on Portmantle, an island off the coast of Turkey, with other artistic “has-beens” trying to draw on new wells of inspiration.

Thrown into this mix is a troubled young man whose arrival on the island disturbs the equilibrium of all who live there. Who is he? Why is his behaviour so odd? And what is he hiding?

But before we get to figure that out, the novel takes a dramatic shift in direction, and we are taken right back to Elspeth’s early days as a fledgling artist, first in Scotland, then in London. We follow her as she (unexpectedly) finds fame and then witness her struggles to come to terms with it while remaining true to her artistic values. We learn of  the unrequited love she feels for her mentor and the terrible tragedy that befalls her onboard an ocean liner bound for the US.

It is this second part, entitled Rooms from Memory, that forms the remarkable backbone to an unconventionally structured novel, which, it could be argued, follows the ecliptic of the title. (The ecliptic is “a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year”, one that is entirely imaginary.)

A novel with a twist

It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers. There’s a delicious twist at the end — one I did not see coming — and it’s of the kind that seems to divide opinion: you either think it’s genius or you feel slightly cheated by it. But whatever you think, there’s no doubting that the author went out on a limb, took a risk and did something that was far from predictable.

This lack of predictability is apparent throughout the entire novel. It could have been easy to have Elspeth and her mentor develop a sexual relationship; instead Wood writes the best depiction of unrequited love I’ve ever read in modern fiction.

Similarly, he could have made Elspeth a weak-willed woman; instead he gives her true grit. She’s a tough, determined and intriguing character, one who is true to her self and prepared to furrow her own plough, without fear or favour. The female voice also feels authentic and it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with her.

But it’s the detail of the painter’s work — the technical aspects of grinding pigments, how they prepare canvases, the brush techniques they use — which makes the novel feel so vividly real. (In this respect it reminded me of Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which I read earlier this year and loved for the same reasons.)

If you like art, mysteries and historical fiction, there’s plenty to admire in The Ecliptic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, one that is intelligent, cleverly plotted and full of rich, intimate language. Its slow build up of suspense, despite its length, is also a feat that demonstrates much skill. But for me, the ending was slightly disappointing, although I loved the strange, almost hallucinogenic nature of it.

This is my 3rd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Louise Dean, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean

HumanSeason

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 320 pages; 2006.

Louise Dean’s This Human Season is set in Belfast in 1979, at the height of The Troubles. Republican prisoners being held in The Maze are mid-way through their “dirty protest” in which they spread their excrement on the walls and refuse to wear clothes. Public support for their demand to be treated as political prisoners, rather than criminals, is building on the outside. Talk of hunger strikes isn’t that far away.

Dean gives voice to both sides of the political divide by splitting her rather ambitious second novel into two narratives told in alternate chapters. The first revolves around Kathleen Moran, a Catholic mother of four, whose eldest son, 19-year-old Sean, is locked up in Long Kesh, while the second, has John Dunn, a former British soldier of 22 years standing, now working inside the prison as a guard.

This even-handed approach serves to highlight the human tragedies at the heart of this brutal and bloody conflict. Kathleen, struggling to come to terms with Sean’s imprisonment, is at her wit’s end trying to keep her husband sober and her younger son out of trouble with the law. As she helps neighbours and friends pick up the fragments of their shattered lives, who will be there to pick up hers?

Meanwhile, John, struggling to put his military past behind him, finds that the high wages he earns as a prison officer come at a price, including the fact that wearing the uniform marks him out as a potential terrorist target. As he withdraws further and further into himself, his relationship with long-term girlfriend Angie is tested to the limit.

Despite the unrelenting bleakness of the character’s personal predicaments, Dean offers up much dark-edged humour to lighten the load. Her descriptions, her dialogue are pitch-perfect. The scenes in the prison are particularly good (particularly the banter between guards) and feel so authentic you can practically smell the stench of urine and excrement rising off the page. I especially liked this passage, in which John, working the night shift, patrols the prison:

After he closed the second grille once more, the voices started pitter-patter here and there, now in English, now in Irish. There was something ghostly about it; it was like listening to the voices of men who’d died together, trapped in the hull of a boat or in a building on fire, hundreds of years ago. He couldn’t hear what was being said, just heard the shimmering sibilance of their voices. Even though he was warmly dressed, it was too cold to nod off. It was no wonder they talked into the night, the low voice next door comforting like a coal fire.

Dean is also very good at encapsulating the senselessness of the conflict. Here’s how John describes his love of Northern Ireland to an Englishman who asks him about it:

It is a different country, that’s the first thing you have to get straight. To be honest with you, I’ve got a lot of time for the Catholics. The decent ones. Not the IRA. Although you see their discipline when you work in the prison. Anyway, I like it here, I like that it’s a hard place. England’s not for me, it’s all white bread and keeping the lawn trimmed. I like the people here, for the most part. Some of them are bastards — but you get that everywhere.

Girlfriend Angie is not quite as tolerant:

There’s a lot of fear amongst the Loyalist people that the Catholics will overrun the place. They have six or seven kids, whereas we have the one or two. They don’t want to be British but they’re not above taking the welfare. They’re good at giving to their own, I’ll grant them that, better than we are, everyone round here is for himself. But we don’t want to live their way, and why should we? People don’t want nuns and priests running their lives, teaching their children. Just because a person wants a united Ireland doesn’t make him more Irish than me. You see the difference is we’re happy with our lot. We’ve got our own ways here in Ulster. What we have here, and it’s not very much, we’ve worked for, so we have. Why should we give it away? Let them go down south if that’s what they’re after.

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.

It makes for a hugely absorbing and intelligent read, one that lingers in the mind and forces you to think about all sides of the debate. It’s dark, disturbing and absolutely heart-breaking in places. Admittedly, I found it a bit of a slow burner but eventually the atmosphere of this book enveloped me to the point that I thought about it whenever I put it down and couldn’t wait to pick it back up again.

Louise Dean’s first novel, Becoming Strangers, won the Betty Task Prize in 2004 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year. This Human Season, while critically acclaimed, doesn’t seem to have garnered any awards, which is a shame, because this is a truly brilliant novel, intelligently told and one that shows a very human side to a war that raged for 30 years.

Ann Bauer, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, USA

‘A Wild Ride up the Cupboards’ by Ann Bauer

WildRide 

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 283 pages; 2006. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Wild Ride up the Cupboards by Ann Bauer is an emotionally charged story about a young mother’s struggle to keep her marriage alive and her family together when her eldest son, four-year-old Edward, withdraws from the world.

Rachel, heavily pregnant with her third child, is deeply upset about Edward’s inexplicable illness, in which he loses the ability to speak, goes through periods of hyperactivity and suffers from severe insomnia.

Together with her husband, Jack, an itinerant worker whom she met in college, Rachel does everything in her power to find a cure for their young son, even resorting to the highly controversial practice of feeding him marijuana tea. Later they try an unusual physical therapy, which they believe reaps results.

Meanwhile, Rachel, delves into her family history, looking for any genetic clues that might help solve the riddle of Edward’s undiagnosed illness, thought to be a form of autism. But through the years, the stresses of Edward’s problems, has drastic repercussions on the rest of the family.

While Rachel buries herself in her freelance journalism work, Jack, now a policeman, loses himself in the bottom of a bottle. Breaking point is not far behind…

This wise, intelligent debut novel reminds me of the best of Sue Miller’s writing with a little bit of Anne Tyler thrown in. It very deftly captures the anguish of a mother’s love for her child and her desire to do anything to protect her young son from pain and suffering. It also expertly charts the inner life of a family under financial and emotional strain, and throws open the doors on the inner workings of a marriage that been on the defensive from the word go.

But this is not a perfect novel. The back story about Rachel’s late Uncle Mickey, which is told in alternate chapters, did not really work for me. Perhaps because these chapters were so well written I could feel myself becoming so immersed in Mickey’s story that the jolt back to Rachel’s narrative was sometimes too jarring. I don’t think Mickey’s life really offered up many clues to Edward’s illness, so didn’t quite see the point of devoting so many pages to it.

I also felt that towards the end, the overall story was weakened by a slow descent into a social services-type scenario which bordered on melodrama. I felt myself having to suspend belief in places. This ruined what had been — up until that point — a very realistic and painful portrayal of a family under siege from within.

Despite these little quibbles, overall this is a beautifully drawn story featuring a strong narrative voice that brims with an undercurrent of slow-burning anger reminiscent of Goldberry Long’s Juniper Tree Burning. The characters, while not always likable, are wholly human, complete with flaws and foibles, and for that reason the book rings completely true.

If you like well written family dramas that show ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, then you will probably find it very difficult — just as I did — to put down A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Neil Cross, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘Always the Sun’ by Neil Cross

Alwaysthesun

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 336 pages; 2005.

If I had to sum up Neil Cross’s Always the Sun in two words it would be this: deceptively simple.

For the most part I found that the storyline plodded along ever so slowly. The main character, Sam, especially annoyed me because he seemed so ineffectual. I wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him into life.

Essentially, this is a sad story about a recently widowed man and his young teenage son, Jamie, who have moved house and are settling into a new life in outer suburban London. When Sam discovers that Jamie is skiving off school he becomes paranoid about his son’s welfare: is he fitting in? Is he coping with his mother’s death? Is he being bullied?

But he never seems to DO anything about his parental concerns, leaving Jamie to his own devices without truly getting to the bottom of what’s going on whilst jumping to all kinds of conclusions.

I was so annoyed by Sam’s wimpish character, I was almost tempted to abandon this book. But about three-quarters of the way in it suddenly transformed itself into a harrowing, violent and gruesome story that gripped me in the same way as seeing a car accident hooks the casual observer.

I can’t say I enjoyed Always the Sun: it’s very maudlin and seems to go frustratingly nowhere until about page 300. But when it does take off, boy, does it take off. By the time I’d got to the last page I felt very unsettled and uncomfortable.

Cross has written a deceptive book. On the surface it seems simple, with the prose bare and the plot line almost non-existent. But deep down it poses some alarming moral and ethical questions: what would you do if someone you loved was being hurt by someone else? How far would you be prepared to go?

If nothing else, this book delivers an important message about what happens when you decide to take the law into your own hands. But be warned: this is not a relaxing read.