20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Candice Carty-Williams, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Trapeze

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams

Fiction – paperback; Trapeze; 392 pages; 2019.

In the past couple of years, I have read dozens of novels about young Millennial women trying to find their place in the world, but none of them was quite like Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie. This brilliantly entertaining read has an upbeat narrator and wears its heart — and its politics — on its sleeve.

Set in modern-day south London, it follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom. The pair have been together for three years but are now on a three-month “break” to refresh their relationship. Or, at least, that’s the way Queenie, a glass half full type of person, presents it; Tom has other ideas.

When the book opens, Queenie is at a sexual health clinic getting a contraceptive coil fitted. The medical staff tell her that she has uterine scarring, which indicates she previously had a miscarriage, something she had been unaware of, and now she’s caught up by the idea that she could have had a baby with Tom. It’s a devastating realisation, but it’s too late to tell him because he’s already told her to move out of their shared flat.

As she enters the dubious, grubby world of share house living, things go from bad to worse (the scenes in which Queenie inspects properties with lecherous landlords and is interviewed by overly fussy tenants with rooms to let would be outrageously funny if they weren’t so close to the bone), but she remains cheerful and upbeat through it all, telling her tight group of friends that it’s only a temporary arrangement — she’ll be back living with Tom soon enough.

Meanwhile, determined to find herself a new man to occupy her time, she makes a string of bad choices, sleeps with men who don’t quite have her best interests at heart and succumbs to the advances of a stalker-like guy at work who turns out to be not all that he seems. (Be warned, there’s a lot of casual sex in this novel — and quite a few visits to a sexual health clinic as a result.)

And all the while she tries to make a name for herself at work as a writer on a newspaper that keeps turning down her ideas for politically outspoken features because they aren’t “palatable” enough for a supposedly white-liberal audience.

Yet the more Queenie forges ahead with her new life without Tom, the more she mourns his loss and the more she tries to compensate for this by looking for love in all the wrong places. This begins to take a toll on her working life and her mental health to the point at which something has to give…

A Millennial Bridget Jones

Queenie is essentially Bridget Jones for the 21st Century — with one important difference. Bridget Jones didn’t have to spend her whole life dealing with casual racism.

It’s Queenie’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways in which she is constantly made aware that she comes from a non-white background that gives this story its edge. There are many toe-curling scenes involving white people behaving badly, saying clearly offensive things and failing to understand what they’ve done wrong. Even Tom doesn’t get it: on more than one occasion he doesn’t even bother standing up to relatives who make slurs against his girlfriend, excusing them because “they’re old and don’t know any better”.

It’s relentlessly dispiriting and yet Queenie keeps forging on, helped in part by an amazing group of girlfriends (Kyazike, her Ugandan friend, is a stand-out character, outspoken and resilient, the kind of person who says all the things you think but are too afraid to say) and a loving set of maternal grandparents whose Caribbean ways don’t always chime with what’s best for their granddaughter.

It also helps that Queenie’s got a wicked sense of humour — her constant wisecracks really do give the novel its wry comic flavour even if the story does stray into some very dark territory.

I admit that I raced through this novel in the space of a weekend, unable to forget about Queenie’s many problems whenever I put the book down.

It’s a thoroughly modern tale, complete with WhatsApp chats and work emails integrated into the narrative, and tackles all kinds of issues, including racism, sexual harassment, domestic violence, mental health and identity, without banging the reader over the head. I loved spending time with Queenie, her crazy cohort of friends and her proud grandparents.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from my local independent bookstore last year. It is also my 8th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, London, Publisher, Setting, Zoe Deleuil

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 244 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Zoe Deleuil’s debut novel, The Night Village, is billed as a thriller, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood and how we should always trust our inner-most instincts.

In this tale, Simone, an Australian living and working in London, has her plans for fun and adventure thrown into disarray when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. She moves in with her boyfriend, Paul, a relatively well-off guy who works in the City, even though she doesn’t think she loves him. But he’s the father of her unborn child and he wants to look after her and she knows her lowly wage working on a magazine won’t be enough to support a baby.

This is just back story, for when the book opens, Simone is in the hospital giving birth to her son, Thomas. The event is traumatic for her and she’d like to stay in hospital to rest and recuperate, but Paul seems oblivious to her distress and urges her to come home pretty much straight away. From thereon in Simone’s life is a fug of breastfeeding, sleeping and nappy changing.

When Paul’s cousin Rachel arrives, moving into the spare bedroom and announcing she’s here to help with the baby, Simone isn’t quite sure this is the godsend everyone is claiming it to be. There’s something about Rachel she doesn’t trust, but she can’t quite pinpoint what it is that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that Simone is sleep deprived, hormonal and finding it difficult to reconcile her old life with her new one.

The baby lay with his arms flung above his head in an attitude of complete abandon, his chest moving very slightly as she leaned closer and started stroking his head, right at the fontanelle where I knew there was no bone protecting the brain, only a layer of skin. I had only touched it once myself, by accident, and recoiled from the feeling of the ridged bone giving way to soft skin and nothing else between it and the baby’s brain, but she stroked it, again and again, her hands trembling slightly, and I had to bunch my hands into fists to stop myself from clobbering her.

The mood of the book is suspenseful, with a slight tinge of paranoia, and for the reader, you’re never quite sure if you can trust Simone as a narrator. Is she hiding something from us? Is she imagining things?

The evocative London setting, specifically the residential (and arts) complex known as the Barbican Estate (a place I know relatively well), adds to the mood. This housing estate on a former World War two bombsite is an example of British brutalist architecture which was dominant in the 1950s and is characterised by function over design, with rough edges, geometric shapes and lots of concrete. Visit the Barbican on a miserable London day, with its grey concrete turned black by rain, and it gives off a creepy Gothic vibe. It’s the perfect setting for a story like this one.

The Night Village is an intimate account of new motherhood thrust upon a young woman who doesn’t feel quite ready to embrace this life-changing event. And yet, when a stranger enters her domain and begins making claims on her baby, her protective instincts kick in. The tension lies in whether there really is something to worry about or whether it’s all in the mother’s head. This is a delicate balance to pull off but the author has done it exceptionally well.

I’m not really into books about motherhood, but I found this one riveting.

The Night Village will be released in Australia on 3 August. UK and US readers will be able to get the Kindle edition in August; a paperback will follow in November.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2021 and my 10th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a very early review copy of this from Fremantle Press having flagged it in this piece about upcoming Southern Cross Crime novels and have been patiently waiting to read the book closer to the August publication date.

And because the author is from Perth (but now lives in Germany), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Book review, Caroline Goode, London, Non-fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod’ by Caroline Goode

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Oneworld; 240 pages; 2020.

My first case as DCI did not start with a body. There was no post-mortem, not even a crime scene. Everything about the investigation was upside down, it was like working in reverse. We didn’t know who or what we were looking for. Unlike most murders, we didn’t even know if this one had happened.

These are the words of Caroline Goode, the newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in charge of one of the most challenging investigations the London-based Metropolitan Police Homicide and Serious Crime Command has led in recent times.

The case revolved around Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman living in South London, who disappeared in January 2006. She was reported missing by her boyfriend who was concerned she was not answering his calls.

Later it transpired that Banaz had been murdered in a so-called honour killing because she had brought shame on her family by leaving an abusive forced marriage. After an extensive search by police, her body was found buried in a suitcase at a Birmingham address.

This book, Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod, charts the timeline from Banaz’s initial contact with police where she claimed her life was in danger right through to the convictions and trials of those responsible for her death.

Seeking justice

Written in a no-nonsense, almost “chatty” prose style, it’s a compelling read that showcases the author’s tenacity and determination to get justice for a woman she’d never met.

I cared more about this case than I can put into words. What had happened to a beautiful, innocent young woman was an evil crime, a terrible betrayal and an offence to every value I hold dear. Moreover, it was a murder that had arisen partly out of police failures. In my mind, there was more than one injustice to be redressed here. I had lived and breathed and slept this case. I have never cared about another case this much in my whole professional life. I badly wanted to bring those cowardly killers to justice.

For DCI Goode and her team, just getting the investigation off the ground, when there was no body and no real evidence that a murder had even occurred, was a challenge in itself. But even when the investigation progressed and it became increasingly clear that Banaz’s family did not have her best interests at heart, it became even more challenging, for how do you convince anyone, let alone a jury, that someone’s parents would actively condone and organise the death of a daughter?

The thought of a father killing his own child purely for his own reputation was abhorrent, but the concept of a mother being involved in that was completely anathema. I could not and cannot understand how it can be in a woman’s interests to commit or enable acts of violence against any other woman, least of all her own daughter, in order to perpetuate a patriarchal society that does not benefit women.

Groundbreaking case

From reading this book, it is clear that the Banaz Mahmod case was groundbreaking because it threw a light on a crime not well understood or even recognised in the UK. Goode describes it as a “game changer” and one that exposed a culture she knew little about.

I had spent several years working in Child Protection and seen children sexually, physically, emotionally abused or neglected. Each case was a heartbreaker. But I had never come across this cynical disassociation, this depersonalisation, this hatred. This was a young woman who, just days before, her family had supposedly loved, and the scale of collusion by the rest of the community was astounding.

After Mahmod’s killers were brought to justice, DCI Goode went on to train other police officers in honour-based violence awareness. She was given the Queen’s Police Medal in 2011 and is now retired.

Honour: Achieving Justice for Banaz Mahmod is a good example of a true-life police procedural. It shows the painstaking, time-consuming steps police must take to build up a solid case for the prosecution, how they put pieces of the puzzle together to form a whole, how they live and breath their work to bring people to justice. It shows the inner-most workings of a truly complex murder investigation that spanned the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s fast-paced, compelling and utterly shocking in places.

The case was turned into an ITV two-part drama series, Honour, starring Keeley Hawes as DCI Goode. It was screened in the UK earlier this year. I believe it’s on 7plus in Australia but am yet to watch it.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s very much a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jill Dawson, literary fiction, London

‘The Language of Birds’ by Jill Dawson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2019.

Giving voice to the victim of a horrendous crime is the central purpose of Jill Dawson’s excellent novel The Language of Birds.

The story is based on the events of the real-life Lord Lucan murder mystery in which British peer  (and professional gambler) Richard John Bingham disappeared on 8 November 1974, never to be seen again. He was suspected of murdering the nanny of his children and severely injuring his estranged wife in their Belgravia home.

Dawson’s fictionalised account reveals what happens from the murdered nanny’s perspective. It’s an effective — and compelling — literary device, putting a human face on a woman long forgotten by a culture obsessed with what actually happened to Lord Lucan, who was declared officially dead in 2016.

But this is NOT a crime novel.

A new life in London

In The Language of Birds, the nanny is given a different name — Amanda ‘Mandy’ River — but her impoverished background, including having two secret children out of wedlock in rural Norfolk, remain pretty much the same. She’s a vivacious, warm, friendly and attractive 26-year-old keen to escape the claustrophobic control of her mother, who has raised Mandy’s son, Peter, as her own.

She moves to London, encouraged by her friend Rosemary who is working there as a trained nanny, and within 24 hours is in the employ of Lady Katharine Morven, looking after infant Pamela and 10-year-old James. But the household is in disarray. Lady Morven spends most of her time in bed, Pammie never stops crying and James is watchful and sickly looking.

There’s a bitter custody battle being played out, and Lord Dickie Morven, who no longer lives with the family, is having the property and his estranged wife’s movements being watched by a series of private detectives.

Both Morvens befriend Mandy, who isn’t quite sure whose side she should take. Lady Morven claims her husband is violent; Lord Morven says his wife is unstable and an unfit mother.

Two narrative threads

The story follows Mandy’s new life in London — she falls in love with a black man she meets in the local pub, hangs out with Rosemary, gets to know the debonair Dickie — and contrasts this with her previous troubled life, which included a stint in a psychiatric hospital. This, it turns out, is where she met Rosemary, who was also a patient because she could hear voices and believed she could see the future and commune with birds (hence the title of the book).

It is structured around two narrative threads: Mandy’s story told in the third person and Rosemary’s told in the first person. This means that when Mandy meets her unfortunate end, Rosemary can take up the baton, leading us through the inquest that follows and ensuring Mandy’s life is not forgotten in the (media) obsession surrounding the missing earl.

I really loved this novel. Mandy is wonderfully realised. She’s a brilliant creation, a woman who wants to control her own destiny (and sexuality) despite society putting rules and barriers in the way. And both Morvens, posh, aristocratic and deeply troubled, are also well drawn — and from what I know of the real Lord Lucan mystery rooted in reality.

Perhaps what makes The Language of Birds really work is the tension and pacing. It reads like a thriller but has all the nuance of a domestic novel about flawed people making poor decisions that have long-lasting and unforeseen repercussions.

The ending is especially powerful. It achieves Dawson’s aim because it presents a fresh perspective on a terrible crime: it gives the nanny her rightful place in history, not as a murder statistic but as a young woman, full of dreams and a zest for life, who had her time on earth cut so cruelly short. This was my first Jill Dawson novel; it won’t be my last.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Aiding and Abetting’ by Murial Spark: Suspenseful black comedy in which a Paris-based psychiatrist takes on two new patients, both of whom claim to be Lord Lucan. But which one is the real one?

‘The Butterfly Man’ by Heather Rose: Lord Lucan reinvents himself as a Scotsman now living a quiet life in rural Tasmania. But when he is diagnosed with a brain tumour his illness makes it increasingly difficult to keep his murderous past a secret.

‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler: This brilliantly compelling novel is told from the perspective of a prostitute, long forgotten by history, who was murdered in rural Ireland in 1940. It is based on the true story of Harry Gleeson who was framed for the woman’s murder and hanged at Mountjoy prison for the crime.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, London, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Finders, Keepers’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 320 pages; 2020.

Morally dubious characters are a mainstay of Sabine Durrant’s work, and Finders, Keepers, her latest novel, is no exception.

In this gripping story — which is right out of the Patricia Highsmith playbook — two women, poles apart in background and personality, develop a strange, obsessional relationship that culminates in a murder. As the pair dance around one another, their individual secrets are revealed one by one, in a carefully paced narrative filled with many a-ha! moments.

Told from the perspective of Verity, an eccentric woman in her 50s who makes her living working from home as a lexicographer for the English Oxford Dictionary, the story juxtaposes two narrative threads: a retrospective one that looks back on how Verity became friends with her neighbour Ailsa, and a current one that focuses on Ailsa’s new life awaiting trial for murder.

Murder by poisoning

When the book opens, Ailsa is staying with Verity after having spent several nights in a cell at the local police station. Someone has daubed “YOUR GUILTEY” in red paint on the front fence. We later learn that Ailsa’s husband has died, possibly from eating poisoned food, and that she has been charged with his murder. Her three children have been taken into care.

Verity, kind-hearted and eager to please, looks after her friend with unwavering devotion, the kind of devotion she had previously doled out to her aged mother, whom she cared for until her death five years earlier. Estranged from her only sister, Verity lives alone with only her dog Maudie for company.

Verity explains that when Ailsa moved in next door — after “13 months of drills and bulldozers, the clatter of scaffolding, the whining of saws, the bangs and shouts and music and oaths of the increasingly frantic builders” — it’s a relief that the renovations are over. She already knows that Ailsa, who works in HR, and her husband, Tom, who is a record company executive, have moved to London after a failed stint in Kent. She knows their taste in furniture and fittings (having seen it all delivered).

But their friendship gets off to a wonky start when Tom comes around to complain about the trees and ivy along the back fence (wanting her to cut everything back). Later, when she’s invited over for drinks (via a handwritten invitation on the back of a postcard), she drops by, unaware that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to convince her to clear up her garden.

This sets the tone for their friendship, though Verity seems genuinely unaware that she is being used or manipulated by both parties. Even when she begins (accidentally) tutoring their son, Max, who is struggling at school because of his dyslexia, Verity can never see it in herself to chase the promised payment.

Mutually dependent friendship

As the story unfolds and the two narratives, past and present, intertwine we begin to learn more and more about the ways in which these two women come to depend on one another, and we begin to see how Tom’s behaviour, bullying and rude, might have lead to his downfall.

Finders, Keepers is a clever, suspense-filled story, one that doesn’t follow all the conventional rules of the genre. It’s far from predictable and has the kind of satisfactory ending that makes you glad you took the time to read the book.

But it’s the characters that really make the story — the bitchy, manipulative Aisla, who is all sweetness and light whenever the spotlight is cast in her direction, is rather wonderful, yet it’s Verity, an oddball with her quirky interests, that gives the novel its real heart.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Sabine Durrant

‘Remember Me This Way’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 368 pages; 2015.

When it comes to suspenseful psychological thrillers, Sabine Durrant has become a firm favourite of mine in recent years. She’s written five to date. Remember Me This Way, published in 2015, is her second.

It’s a gripping tale of a marriage that isn’t quite what it is cracked up to be. Lizzie, a school librarian, is quiet and passive, always pleasant, helpful and kind. Zach, a struggling artist, is self-possessed, devoted to his work and his wife. But when Zach dies in a car accident on a rural road, London-based Lizzie begins to realise the man she married is not who she thought he was.

A year after his death, when she finally works up the courage to pack up Zach’s private artist’s studio in Cornwall, a sense of dread and unease descends when she discovers items of his clothing missing and his laptop still plugged into the wall. She begins to believe that maybe he is still alive, that he faked his death in a twisted form of revenge after she wrote him a letter telling him that their marriage was over.

What follows is a fast-moving story that plays on the idea that we can never really know the people to whom we are closest.

Clever structure

But what makes this thriller slightly more original than others in a similar vein is the structure, for both characters narrate their side of events in alternate chapters (in different typefaces to aid comprehension): Zach tells his story pre-accident; Lizzie’s narrative is entirely post-accident.

This clever device allows us to see how the pair met and fell in love, but it also gives us (alarming) insights into their character traits and shows how Zach was a manipulative, controlling narcissistic who did everything in his power to keep Lizzie all to himself.

As the story unfolds, Lizzie comes to see the truth of Zach’s behaviour and begins to uncover, slowly but surely, all the lies he told to create a believable backstory for himself, the kind of backstory that would make Lizzie take pity on him. It is only in death that his artifice becomes exposed.

Narrative tension

As you would expect from a psychological thriller, there are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings and unexpected reveals that made it almost impossible to guess what is coming next. As a form of escapism, Remember Me This Way is an entertaining read. Durrant knows how to create terrific characters; she’s very good at narcissistic types and downtrodden middle-class Londoners, as these kinds of people also feature in her other novels.

And she knows how to get the pulse racing, how to create an atmosphere of fear and dread, and to lace everything with an air of menace and build up the suspense chapter by chapter.

But this is not a “dumb” novel. There is social commentary too: about domestic abuse (in all the many forms it takes, including coercive control) and how no one can ever really know what happens behind closed doors. The power plays between husbands and wives; parents and children; students and teachers; and even siblings; are all explored, to varying degrees, as well.

Remember Me This Way is a clever and suspenseful novel that doesn’t necessarily comply with the genre’s normal rules of engagement. I enjoyed the twisty ride it took me on, and am looking forward to reading Durrant’s new novel, which was released just a few weeks ago…

This is my 7th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on Kindle in November 2019.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Sophie Hardcastle

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

If any book was going to slot into the #MeToo genre of novel, Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck would be right in there.

This simple yet moving story of a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past should probably come with a trigger warning. And while the assault is just one aspect of this story, it comes like a sucker punch to the stomach and its aftermath informs everything that follows.

But this is not a heavy tale. Hardcastle writes with a lightness of touch. She sandwiches the traumatic event with more light-hearted aspects so you never feel too weighted down by it.

Oli at sea

The story follows 20-something Olivia — Oli — who is estranged from her parents and lives with her grieving (and grumpy) grandfather while she goes to university. She has a boyfriend, whose controlling behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men — he doesn’t think she should accept the offer of a postgraduate internship with a prestigious investment bank, for instance, because that would make her more successful than him — but when she finds herself “kidnapped” on a boat her life takes a different turn.

The “kidnapper” is, in fact, a lovely older man called Mac, who loves to go sailing, and his partner is Maggie, a blind woman with synaesthesia — “It’s where you see colours when you think of or hear sounds, words, numbers — even time” — with whom she develops a fond friendship. Oli, too, has synaesthesia, processing her world and her feelings via colour. Maggie, for instance, is “velvet lilac”, Wednesdays are “blood orange”, two is “red” and nine “dark pink”.

Islands come into focus the way you wake up on a Sunday morning: slowly, like a painting, layer by layer. Block blue, at first. Then daubs of green, the outlines of trees, a band of white sand. A brown slab takes shape, all wrinkled and folded rock, until the cliff face opens its eyes.

It is the guiding light of this older couple that gives Oli her new-found strength to escape her controlling boyfriend, to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected death of her grandfather and to seek new adventures. She reinvents herself as a sailor, but it is a fateful trip several years later that puts her in danger. She sets sail with an all-male crew from Noumea to New Zealand and finds herself the subject of unwanted sexual attention.

Several years later, now a curator at an art gallery in London, Oli falls for a man who is perfect for her. He’s gentle, kind and devoted, but her past keeps holding her back.

Overcoming trauma

Without wishing to sound dismissive, I think I am probably too old for Below Deck to truly resonate, but I imagine if you’re a young woman this story would have a lot to say. It’s about misogyny and standing up for yourself, of finding your own voice, of learning to trust people, of making better life choices and dealing with past traumas so that you can move on.

Hardcastle deals with the issue of sexual assault with delicacy. The actual scene — “rape is the deepest red I have ever seen” — is deftly written, skirting over descriptions of the physical act, focussing instead on the ways in which Oli chooses to survive the assault, the voice that screams in her head, the emotions she goes through along the way. It is haunting and claustrophobic and harrowing.

But sometimes the narrative feels forced and lacks detail, jumping ahead too quickly. And yet when Hardcastle does focus on detail her writing really sings, especially when she focuses on the sea.

She enters the sea the way you come home, dropping your keys on the table, breathing out. A sigh of relief, the way the ocean holds her.

She has a particular penchant for similies. A gaze, for instance, drifts “across my skin like clouds across the sky”; waves lap at the shore “like gentle kisses in the middle of the night”; where cold weather is all-consuming “like falling in love. Total and unapologetic”.

Below Deck is an ambitious novel about an emotional reckoning, the beauty and language and colours of the sea, and about a young woman trying to navigate parts of her history she would rather forget. It won’t be for everyone — what book is? — but it will appeal to those looking for a quick-paced read with an emotional depth.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2020 and my 1st novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it earlier in the year, partly attracted to the cover I have to admit. 

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

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

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

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

Structured around three siblings

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

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

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

Airport interrogation

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

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

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

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

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

Based on a Greek myth

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

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

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

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

20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2019.

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay must be one of the most underrated books of the year. It won the Eason Novel of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards, but it doesn’t seem to have garnered much attention in the UK or elsewhere. And yet this is a truly amazing book, one of my favourite reads of the year, and deserving of a much larger audience.

Set largely in London in 1878, it brims with atmosphere and menace and pure Victorian gothic drama.

It takes real-life characters — Bram Stoker, the Irishman who wrote Dracula; Henry Irving, an English actor and theatre director, who was later knighted; and Ellen Terry, the leading stage actress of the era — and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre, building a successful season from pretty much nothing.

As they battle to keep emotions in check (actors are prone to drama, after all), to balance the books and draw in the crowds, it is largely Stoker who holds everything together. A struggling writer (he did not become successful until after his death), he acts as Irving’s personal assistant, dealing with his petty squabbles, grievances and short temper, while also managing the theatre’s finances.

His marriage to renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe brings him into high society circles, but Stoker is never quite accepted by the upper classes. O’Connor paints him as a loyal and conscientious man, often derided by others who look down upon him.

Original structure

Like other novels by O’Connor, the story has a loose and experimental structure. The narrative, told from Stoker’s point of view, is comprised of diary entries, letters, private notes and sections written “in the voice of Ellen Terry”.

It is wildly imaginative, filled with rich historical detail and drips with witty one-liners.

And it’s hard not to keep seeing hints of Dracula in what Stoker conveys, such as this description of Irving, whom he slowly comes to realise is a vain, narcissistic and deeply unpleasant man.

Henry Irving stopped mid scene and stared down at them grimly, his eyes glowing red in the gaslight. Paint dribbling down the contours of his face, like dye splashed on a map, droplets falling on his boots, his doublet and long locks drenched in sweat, his silver painted wooden sword glittering in the gaslight, shimmering with his chainmail in the lightning.

As well as charting the rise and fall of the theatre, and providing insight into the lives and loves of the trio who worked so closely together, it’s a striking and evocative portrait of Victorian London, where long dark nights, fog-shrouded streets and wet cobblestones give rise to ghostly apparitions. This is the time of Jack the Ripper who stalks the East End, and O’Connor plays with this to create heightened tension for the reader.

A truly immersive read, Shadowplay represents storytelling at its wonderful best. It’s largely character-driven, but it is the prose and the structure of the novel that elevates it into something rather extraordinary. I don’t usually re-read books, but I will make an exception for this one: yes, it really is that good.

This is my 14th book for #20BooksOfSummer. Yes, I know I’m about three months late penning this review, but it was one of those books that I wanted to think about before rushing to write about it. Then, unfortunately, life just got in the way. I actually ordered this copy in hardcover from Dubray Books in Dublin because it had red-tinted page edges and was signed by the author. I must say, though, that O’Connor’s covers always look a bit fey. As much as I like the gold and black contrast on this one, the image of the woman makes this book look like romantic fiction of some kind, when it’s actually Victorian gothic with a literary bent.