Amanda Lohrey, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Text

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

Fiction – paperback; Text publishing; 256 pages; 2020.

I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this intriguing novel, which I won in a prize draw that Lisa ran on her blog last year. (You can read Lisa’s review here.)

Amanda Lohrey is a new-to-me Australian author, but she’s written many books and essays, been nominated for numerous awards and won a handful of prestigious ones, including the Patrick White Award in 2012.

The Labyrinth is her eighth novel, which has just been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award (which I’ve neglected to even mention on this blog because I’ve been otherwise occupied).

Deeply contemplative story

Set on the coast, it’s a deeply contemplative tale starring all the topics I love reading about in novels — guilt, redemption, moral culpability, insanity, art and the complex, sometimes fraught relationships between parents and children — so any wonder I loved it.

The focus of the story is Erica Marsden, an older woman, who grew up in an asylum (her father was a psychiatrist). This is an important detail because it shows how she is attuned to madness in the world. Now, having quit her job, she has moved into an isolated, rather rundown shack by the beach. She’s cut herself off from family and friends so that she can spend time alone to mend a broken heart, to grieve for something she has lost.

But her grief is not the result of a romance gone wrong. Her son, Daniel, has been imprisoned for a brutal homicide he committed, and Erica, shocked to the core, refuses to give up on him even though his crime weighs heavy on her. Indeed, her new home is only a relatively short drive from the prison in which he’s incarcerated, which means she can visit him — whether he likes it or not. (Her visits, it has to be said, are painfully evoked, brimming with hurt and anger and incomprehension. I felt myself squirming in my seat as I read these scenes.)

Twin projects

In the long gaps between visiting hours, Erica focuses on two separate projects.

The first is to destroy Dan’s extensive book collection —  at his request — by burning individual tomes in a painstaking daily ritual that she ekes out for as long as possible. She even hires a local schoolgirl to help arrange the books in alphabetical order, a completely unnecessary task, but one that helps delay the books’ inevitable destruction.

The second is to build a labyrinth out of local stone, a work of art that she spends many hours planning, in the knowledge the act of building it will help her out of her current muddled frame of mind, not quite believing her son has carried out such a horrific crime. And when the labyrinth is complete she will be able to walk its one single path to the centre as a way to calm her mind.

First the making—I recalled my father’s words: the cure for many ills is to build something—and then the repetition, the going over and over so that time would rupture and be stopped in its flow. And I could live in an infinitely expanding present in which there was no nostalgia, no consequence, no outcome or false promise. The future meant nothing. Since my past and my future were hitched to my son’s life sentence, I felt that if I stepped outside the present I risked being turned to stone.

She can’t make the labyrinth alone, however, and after ruling out a local architect who lives nearby, she hires a homeless man, living in the sand dunes to help her.

Jurko, it turns out, is an illegal immigrant, who has abandoned his family on the other side of the world and has secrets of his own to keep. Erica’s relationship with him, which develops gently over time from client to friend to lodger, is one of the strengths of the novel, for it shows how her cool exterior begins to thaw as trust is gained and confidences exchanged.

The importance of friendship, it would appear, is one of the novel’s central themes, for Erica wants to be alone, but in a small tight-knit community on the coast, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, it’s difficult to remain reclusive without being seen as aloof or someone of whom to be suspicious. She slowly builds up relationships with neighbours and acquaintances, learning to let herself live again, learning to open her heart to the world.

The Labyrinth is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s a rare example of a story that is both disquieting and yet deeply satisfying. It’s intimate and honest and brims with all kinds of important questions about what it is to reckon with the past and navigate the future.

This is my 12th book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I won it in a prize draw last summer.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Baume, Setting, TBR 21, Windmill Books

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 302 pages; 2018.

Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking takes its name from an artwork created by Richard Long in 1967 which now hangs in the Tate Britain. That artwork is a black and white photograph of a field in Wiltshire with a thin line through the middle created when the artist walked backwards and forwards enough times to flatten the crop. (The image can be viewed here.)

This is just one of dozens of art works — mainly installations — referenced in Baume’s hypnotic novel about Frankie, a young Irish woman grappling with a sense of purpose. She is a fine arts graduate but hasn’t managed to make a name for herself as an artist. She’s worked in a gallery but found it unfulfilling, and living in Dublin has been a lonely experience.

Now, aged 25, Frankie has decamped to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside, where she’s convinced her parents she will be caretaker until the property has sold. But her grandmother died three years ago, the house is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be much interest from buyers.

Most of her grandmother’s unwanted belongings are still in the house and Frankie, chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, doesn’t have the wherewithal to do any housework, much less transform the place into a saleable state. In fact, she does so little housework that she moves from one bedroom to another so that she doesn’t need to wash the sheets!

Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.

In this rural idyll, she immerses herself in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasonal variations, as she learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She begins a special project to photograph any dead birds and animals she finds (these photographs are published in the book) and continually challenges herself to recall the thematic art she knows and loves:

Works about Blinking Lights, another, I test myself: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, again, “Untitled”, 1992. A chain of lightbulbs, bound to one another by an extension cord. The artist gave permission for curators to display the piece however they wished. He wanted it to bend and change according to circumstance; the only thing he did not allow was for his bulbs to be renewed during the run of each exhibition. He wanted them to live out their natural lifespan and die, the way a person does.

Death is a constant preoccupation, but the story never feels morbid. But as Frankie spends more and more time alone, turning herself into a proper recluse, shunning her neighbours and not taking calls, there are worrying signs that she may be having a breakdown of some kind.

As her thoughts spill out all a-jumble on the page — an interior monologue recalling childhood incidents, memories of her adored grandmother and more recent troubles involving doctors and worried parents — it’s clear she’s set a bar for herself that is too high and that’s she’s going to have to find a way to adjust to a new way of living and of seeing the world.

For all its mish-mash of anecdotes which tumble unbidden from her head, the narrative spins and shines in Baume’s capable hands. There’s a lot of witty humour that helps lighten the mood.

Everything is tied together beautifully with Frankie’s interpretations of various visual art forms across many different eras (there’s a helpful list of all the works referenced at the rear of the book), which serve to show that art and life are invariably intertwined in ways we may not even realise.

A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful, hypnotic story about the fragility of life — and creativity. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Susan’s at A Life in Books and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a troubled man and his relationship with his dog.

This is my 20th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand from Elizabeth’s Bookshop, here in Fremantle, on 8 May this year.

Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h 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 independent book store last month.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th 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 independent book store in August 2020.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anakana Schofield, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fleet, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

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

I am always looking for novels that are written in a strong, distinctive voice. Anakana Schofield’s latest novel, Bina, has that in spades.

It’s a bitterly funny and completely bonkers tale about an elderly Irish woman called Bina — “That’s Bye-na not Beena” — who gave shelter to a man who later refused to leave.

If a man comes to your door, do not open it.

He’s now in Canada, but she’s worried he might return. It’s not clear what the man has done to upset her so much, nor why he’s now abroad. It’s also not clear why she has protestors in her front garden and medical waste in her back garden.

It’s written in such a way that nothing is really clear at all.

A novel in warnings

The first-person narrative is a series of warnings — “I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you” — and it’s up to you, the reader, to make sense of Bina’s tale, which is sometimes structured in stanzas (see below) like angry poetry:

Stop roundabouting it, Bina. That’s me

To myself. I’m roundabouting again, amn’t I. Need to keep straight. Not be dizzy in circles. Need to tell it straight

Have to find a way to tell it all, with or without me in it. Keep it
straight, Bina

Or you’ll confuse them.

It sounds like hard work, but I really admire this kind of writing. Nothing is spelt out yet Bina’s thoughts, which come out all a-jumble and not necessarily in chronological order, can be pieced together to form a cohesive whole.

What this woman has to share with the world is alarming and disturbing, but it’s also blackly comic.

I must have said no to her 32 times. It wasn’t 32 times nearly enough because she threatened she’d go on her own, if I wasn’t going to help. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This is what no 32 times looks like.

It’s also littered with footnotes, which can wear thin if you hate skipping ahead to read them. Interestingly, it’s through these footnotes that I realised the character Bina had first appeared in Schofield’s debut novel Malarky, which I read back in 2011 but did not review. In that novel, Bina was threatening to attack a plane with a hammer.

Schofield has taken that strident character and given her a novel of her own. It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

It was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize.

I have previously reviewed Schofield’s novel Martin John.

This is my 3rd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle last year when it was on special for 99p!

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, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th 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 Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Marta Orriols, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR 21

‘Learning to Talk to Plants’ by Marta Orriols

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 251 pages; 2020. Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Marta Orriols’ Learning to Talk to Plants is an age-old story about a woman grieving the untimely death of her long-time partner, only there’s a crucial twist — just hours before he dies in a cycling accident, he announces that he is leaving her for someone else.

Paula, the central character, is a neonatologist, a doctor who specialises in the care of newborn babies, particularly those who are ill or born prematurely. She works in a busy hospital in Barcelona and spends more time with her colleagues than her partner, Mauro, who works in book publishing.

She is unaware that Mauro is pursuing an affair, so his admission, at a carefully arranged dinner, is a shock. That shock is only superseded when he is killed cycling home just a few hours later. Her grief is compounded by the fact that she keeps Mauro’s desertion to herself; to tell family that he had left her would only tarnish their well-held opinion of him — and she refuses to do that.

The novel charts the ways in which 40-something Paula tries to make sense of her new reality. She throws herself into work, pursues a love affair with a beguiling stranger she met in Amsterdam, and grows closer to her beloved father who raised her singlehandedly after the untimely death of her mother.

But as she navigates this new existence, she is plagued by thoughts of Mauro. Why did he find it necessary to seek love elsewhere? And who was the woman that captured his heart?

Prize-winning novel

This intelligent and introspective novel won the Omnium Cultural Prize for Best Catalan novel in 2018 and was translated into English last year.

I found it a little uneven in terms of pacing, and the style is similarly patchy, with some elements written in eloquent, deeply thoughtful prose and others reading like a (high-brow) romance novel.

But the story is a good twist on the “grief novel” — one largely focused on a character coming to terms with the death of a loved one — and explores all kinds of issues, including love, trust, betrayal and loyalty. It’s also a story about family and how we are shaped by our childhood experiences.

And it’s full of metaphors — the babies that Paula saves at work, for instance, not only add meaning to her life, they represent all the children she, herself, never got to have with Mauro. Similarly, when all the plants that Mauro grew begin to die, she does her utmost to rescue them, because they are the last living link with the man she never really knew.

Learning to Talk to Plants is an honest portrayal of grief and charts some dark moments. But it’s also blackly humorous in places and never suffocates under its own melancholic sense of sadness. There’s plenty of rage here too — at the injustice of being “widowed” when all you want to do is kill the man who’s left you!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan: A fast-paced novel written from the perspective of the other woman whose lover dies after a three-year illicit relationship.

This is my 14th 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 independent book shop when it was published last year mainly because I am interested in reading more Catalan fiction.

Author, Book review, Canada, David Adams Richards, Fiction, literary fiction, McClelland & Stewart, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Nights Below Station Street’ by David Adams Richards

Fiction – paperback; McClelland & Stewart; 225 pages; 2009.

Every now and then I stumble upon a book that offers up a complete cast of characters, immerses me in their lives and makes me feel as if I know them all personally, their flaws and foibles, and then, when I come to the end, I’m left bereft at having to say goodbye. This is how I felt when I read David Adams Richards’ 1988 novel Nights Below Station Street.

The story is set in rural Canada (the blurb tells me it’s New Brunswick) in the early 1970s.

There’s no real plot; instead, we meet a handful of locals and follow their ordinary working-class lives in a small mining and timber mill community over the course of a year or so.

In effortless, stripped-back prose, Adams Richards depicts complex familial and neighbourly relationships, the day-to-day struggles of the poor, and the very personal battles faced by those with addiction (or illness) and the subsequent outfall on their families.

A family under stress

The novel largely revolves around the Walsh family, which is headed by Joe, a labourer, who injured his back at work several years earlier and now struggles to hold down a full-time job. He’s battling alcoholism and has secretly joined AA in a bid to give up the booze. But his good intentions are constantly under threat by peer pressure and a lack of family support.

Joe’s will power and resolve is also tested by his always angry and bitter teenage stepdaughter, Adele, who rails against him, claiming Joe is a no-hoper because he isn’t the breadwinner of the household. That role falls to his wife, Rita, who provides childcare in her own home in order to bring in money.

When the desperately social Rita joins a local curling club and tries to drag Joe with her, it causes all kinds of consternation because she wants to be an active participant in the community, while Joe, an introvert with a stutter, would prefer to hide under a rock.

The story features a host of other colourful, well-drawn characters, including Ralphie, Adele’s kind-hearted boyfriend; Cindi, a student at Adele’s school who has epilepsy; Myhrra, the divorced next-door neighbour struggling to raise her 12-year-old son, Bryan, who’s acting out and becoming obnoxious; and Vye, a local man, who wants to marry her.

All are linked together because they live in the same small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business — whether they like it or not.

Lost in a blizzard

While not much seems to happen over the course of the novel, everything comes to a head at the end when a snowy blizzard puts lives at risk — but the conclusion is an uplifting one.

Nights Below Station Street won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction at the 1988 Governor General’s Awards. It is the first volume in David Adams Richards’ Miramichi trilogy, which includes Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993).

It’s a compelling account of small-town life and the ups and downs we all face as the world turns, and is a powerful portrait of a deep-seated human need to belong — and to be loved.

Fans of the late Kent Haruf will find much to admire there because the work is deeply reminiscent of Haruf’s eloquent heartfelt tales about a Colorado farming community.

This is my 13th 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 at a charity book sale earlier this month for $4 and am kind of cheating by including it in my TBR.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Niamh Campbell, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

Fiction – paperback; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 311 pages; 2020.

When Alannah is 12-years-old, her father walks out on the family. A school psychologist tells her that she will always have trouble with men.

And that is essentially what Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy is about — a young woman, now 30 years old, recounting the two most important male relationships in her life and trying to make sense of them both.

Two men six years apart

The first relationship occurred when she was 23. She fell in love with Harry, an Englishman 20 years her senior. He was married. She was studying art history in London. She gave up her student lodgings, packed her bags and visited him in Ireland where he rented a cottage in Drogheda, on the east coast where she was raised, to work on his writing, free from his wife.

The affair, which is complex and one-sided, ends abruptly after a mere three weeks but has a long-lasting emotional impact on Alannah.

Seven years later, she is now married — to someone else. Her husband, 10 years her senior, is a history teacher with ambitions to be a politician, but Alannah isn’t so sure he’s cut out for the job. She does not believe in him and feels unable to offer her unconditional support.

When one day she spies the landlady, who owned the Drogheda cottage, walking down a Dublin street, her mind turns toward Harry, her long-lost love.

She then recounts that relationship, the bliss and agony of it, and compares Harry to her now-husband, their ambitions, background and desires, and plagues herself with thoughts of what might have been with what she has now.

Style over substance

There’s no plot. The book is simply structured around Alannah’s interior thoughts and her memories. Stylistically the prose is what I would call verbose. The language is lush, ripe with metaphors and astute observations, but it feels over-written and, dare I say it, over-wrought.

This is not to say it’s a bad book. It isn’t. But you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. You need to want to revel in the language, to soak up the words and the clever ways in which they are arranged on the page.

Much of it is about memory. About the way memory works. But it’s also about love and relationships, desire and ambition, class and privilege, how our childhoods inform our adult lives, how our expectations and beliefs can be thwarted by reality, and how if we always look back we can never look forward.

If you could dive into an old life — something you never protected when it was happening, something you believe to be a prelude at the time — if you could dive like one dives into love, or fall slowly over a precipice into it, enthralled, would you do this? Sometimes it seems like this is all I do. Like my past is a residue riming the world of the present, lying over everything. I’ve been living at speed because I know I can revisit the edited version.

But as much as I loved the honesty of the writing and the often gorgeous descriptions, I came away from the novel wondering if there was any point to the story. A newly married woman wonders if she might have had a different life with a different man isn’t that original after all.

This Happy was shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, which will be announced in June.

Annabel has reviewed it too.

This is my 2nd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 12th 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 independent book shop when it was published last August.