Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, London, Meg Mason, Publisher, Setting

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 346 pages; 2020.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is one of those novels that seemed to be everywhere in 2021, earning rave reviews and hitting the bestseller charts around the world.

It’s the story of Martha Russell, a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

After a short-lived, unconsummated marriage to a “total fuckwit”, she gets married to a childhood friend, Patrick, whom she’s known since she was 16. But while that marriage lasts considerably longer than her first, it also fails when her husband walks out two days after her 40th birthday party.

Disintegration of a marriage

The novel charts the disintegration of the marriage in tandem with Martha’s increasingly bizarre behaviour, which goes up and down like a roller coaster, and her quest to get answers to her psychological problems, which include crippling depression, unexplained bouts of sudden anger and suicidal thoughts.

Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tirelessness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.

It’s written in the first person in an engaging, likable voice full of mordant wit. There is something starkly funny on every page, and it’s this dark sense of humour, expertly balanced with a sense of pathos, that elevates the narrative into something surprisingly upbeat despite the bleak subject matter.

It expertly weaves Martha’s background into the story, so that we get a full rounded picture of her upbringing, the product of a Bohemian London family — her father is a failed poet, her mother a struggling sculptor — largely supported by a rich aunt, who lives in Belgravia, on the same square that is home to Margaret Thatcher.

The passing of time is measured by the number of Christmas Day dinners hosted by Aunt Winsome and the number of children her sister, Ingrid, has with her husband Hamish — “a man she met by falling over in front of his house while he was putting his bins out”.

She is pregnant with her fourth child; when she texted to say it was another boy, she sent the eggplant emoji, the cherries and the open scissors. She said ‘Hamish is non-figuratively getting the snip.’

It’s her close relationship with Ingrid, who is 15 months younger than her, that gives shape to Martha’s life. They have each other’s backs, but there are tensions, petty fights and falling outs. It’s tender and touching — and often blackly funny.

The story is deeply rooted in London life — the family home, for instance, is on Goldhawk Road — and the various neighbourhoods are faithfully depicted to provide a richly atmospheric novel.

Laughter and sadness

There’s a lot to like in Sorrow and Bliss, not least the way the author explores family loyalty, the forces that shape our personalities and how having it all doesn’t automatically bestow happiness upon us. It’s the kind of book that makes you cry on one page, laugh on the next — and sometimes do both at the same time!

That said, around the halfway mark I began to find the voice wearisome. Perhaps I have just read one too many books about women losing their grip on reality?

According to Amazon, Sorrow and Bliss was “an instant Sunday Times bestseller and a book of the year for the Times and Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard, Spectator, Daily Express, Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Irish Daily Mail, Metro, Critic, Sydney Morning Herald, Los Angeles Times, Stylist, Red and Good Housekeeping”.

And it has scored rave reviews from all and sundry, including celebrities (hello Gillian Anderson) and authors, such as Jessie Burton, Anne Patchett and David Nicholls.

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

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway: A young woman suffers a profoundly disturbing mental breakdown following the death of her secret lover.

‘A Line Made by Walking’ by Sara Baume: A 25-year-old woman, who is chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, decamps to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside to get better, but her mind slowly unravels.

‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey: A young Manhattan-based woman escapes her crumbling marriage to hitchhike around New Zealand, but her journey descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her present and her future.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Tice Cin

‘Keeping the House’ by Tice Cin

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 242 pages; 2021.

I had heard plenty of great things about Tice Cin’s Keeping the House, but it didn’t really work for me. I just could not engage with the story, nor the characters.

The blurb claims it’s about three generations of a Turkish family living in North London who import into the UK heroin hidden in cabbages.

It features a cast of characters that is so vast it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. That’s despite the fact there’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book. (I read this on Kindle and, unlike a physical book, it’s next to impossible to flick back to the front to look up names as you’re reading, which ruins the experience.)

That narrative is broken up into dozens and dozens of chapters, most only a few pages long, and each is told from a different character’s point of view. No sooner did I come to understand that Ayla, for instance, was the mother, courageous enough to take the plunge in the illicit import business, than the chapter would end and a new perspective would be introduced from another character’s point of view. Right from the start, the storyline felt disjointed.

The time frames also jump backward and forward, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but I was struggling to keep track of all the characters so my poor overworked brain could not cope with the changes in chronology, too.

It began to feel like I was reading something that had been influenced by our busy online lives, flicking from one social media platform to another, following snippets of conversations and news from a myriad of sources, and yet, for me, this style and structure felt too chaotic to make sense.

Yet the characters are well-drawn (if occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another) and the scene-setting and insights into ex-pat Turkish culture are exemplary. The writing is lyrical, original, astute.  There are sublime poems dotted throughout the text, too.

Some of the chapters, especially those with lots of dialogue, are arranged like theatre scripts, minus the directions but clearly outlining who says what, which are fun to read.

Ali: Funny. So we have three things we’re going to do. I send your gear to Jersey, the rest we’ll sell off to this Jamaican dealer I know – all very street level – and then I send leftovers to some posh houses near Muswell Hill or something. Full of university people. You don’t want everything going off to one place if you want this to be quiet.
Ayla: Jersey?
Ali: Yes. Taking the stuff to Jersey is worth three times more. Little bags worth three thousand sell for seven thousand. Once you’ve gotten someone on board, the hundred miles there are no problems. There’s about a hundred users in the place, so police know when there’s stuff on the island. You can spook them with a boo, though. Their prisons are full of non-islanders.
Ayla: They can’t fit more than a hundred in one of their prisons?
Ali: Something like that.

There are lots of Turkish words and phrases, all translated in the text, too, which adds to the flavour of the novel. And there’s a dark brooding atmosphere that infuses the story, one that drips with an undercurrent of violence and often blatant misogyny.

Keeping the House is not exactly a “fun” read, but structurally the author is doing interesting experimental things and clearly has a lot of talent. It’s the kind of work you’d expect to see nominated for the Goldsmith’s Prize, for instance.

Maybe add it to your list if you’re looking for something challenging and different or if you know this part of north London well. For me, I think it might have been the case of the right book but the wrong time…

Anna MacDonald, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Splice, TBR 21

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald

Fiction – hardcover; Splice; 201 pages; 2020.

I don’t think there was any ever doubt that a novel about writers, London, the river Thames and walking — as seen through the eyes of an Australian woman from Melbourne — would appeal to me, but I was rather more enamoured by Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide than I expected.

I first saw this debut novel reviewed on Lisa’s blog ANZLitLovers and immediately ordered it direct from Splice, the UK-based publisher. (Unfortunately, I had a long wait owing to Covid-19, but when it finally arrived, there was a lovely printed note inside offering discounts on future Splice purchases as a thank you for “your support and patience”.)

In the comment I left under Lisa’s review, I said:

This has my name written all over it! I am an obsessive walker! I have lived in Melbourne! I have lived in London, a short stroll from Hammersmith Bridge, and wandered by the Thames every single day for almost 21 years!

Cue extra excitement when I began reading the book to find that the unnamed narrator, who flies into Heathrow from Tullamarine, stays in a bedsit on Rowan Road in Hammersmith. My first job in London (in 1998) was at Haymarket Publishing, based on the corner of Rowan Road and Hammersmith Road, and later when I left that job but still lived in the area, I walked past Rowan Road almost every day en route to the tube station or the High Street. You couldn’t really get a book more local.

It also contains lots of vivid descriptions of the Thames towpath, taking in Putney, Hammersmith and Barnes, that I have walked on (and cycled along) hundreds and hundreds of times. I repatriated in June 2019, but reading this book transported me back to the place I’d called home for 20 years. It was a bit of a discombobulating experience, I must say.

Mesmirising tale

The story itself is mesmirising, written in simple but eloquent prose, and the further you get into it the more hypnotic it becomes. It’s almost like being immersed in someone’s lucid dream.

It details the interior life of a woman from Melbourne who eases her restlessness by walking.

Since my mid-teens, walking had become one way of scratching the itch, and offered a partial remedy to restlessness. I tramped the streets of the neighbourhood where I grew up, learning to read the terrain as I made repeated journeys over the same ground.

An academic, she’s working on a “project revolving around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf”. She’s already spent some time in London, but now she’s planning a second trip to finish her research at the British Library.

But when she returns to London, basing herself in Hammersmith near the river, her research expands to cover accounts of the drowned, whether by accident or intent, and includes everything from anecdotes to eyewitness accounts. This becomes an obsession, to the point where her grip on reality begins to waver.

Tale of survival

Her story is interleaved with that of a widow who throws herself into the Thames and is rescued by a returned soldier from the Great War. This is an imagined account, told in the third person, of a real life incident that is memorialised on a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge (and which, shamefully, I have never noticed despite walking across the bridge hundreds of times):

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

These two narrative threads, of a woman studying watery ends and of another who survives a near-drowning almost a century earlier, build a deeply contemplative tale rich in metaphor and symbolism, one that examines how water can be both a refuge and a danger.

The narrator becomes so consumed by her work she lets the story of the woman and the lieutenant, along with the many other stories she discovers, infiltrate her own narrative. Space and time begin to lose their meaning. The stories merge and become entwined. It almost feels as if the woman needs to come up for air, to free herself from a metaphysical drowning. It becomes frighteningly claustrophobic before ending on a comforting note.

Note that there’s no dialogue in the book, next to no plot and structurally it meanders like the river Thames. It shouldn’t actually work as a novel. But there’s something about the short chapters, the literary prose and the ideas contained within that makes A Jealous Tide a compelling and beguiling read.

This is my 22nd book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I planned to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. Yes, this review is very late, because I read this book way back in April, jotted down some notes and then struggled to put my thoughts into any kind of order — and even now I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve written.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Ondaatje, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 285 pages; 2018.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is one of those novels that is almost impossible to review because trying to describe what it is about is as difficult as catching cumulous clouds in a butterfly net.

Boiled down to its most basic premise, it’s a story about a son trying to figure out the secrets of his late mother’s life. But it’s also about the shadowy world of espionage and London’s criminal underworld during the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s divided into two parts. The first, set in London immediately after the Second World War, looks at what happens to 14-year-old Nathaniel, the narrator, and his older sister, Rachel, when they are left in the care of a guardian while their parents head to Singapore for a year. The second, set a dozen years later, details Nathaniel’s investigation into his mother’s hidden past following her untimely death: who exactly was she, and what kind of work did she do during the war?

Mystery and intrigue

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

So begins the story, which is a mix of boys’ own adventure, mystery, intrigue and coming of age, for in the first part of Warlight Nathaniel is given pretty much free rein to do as he likes. When he’s not at school, he’s doing part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels (largely as a kitchen hand), mixing with people much older than himself, and exploring sex with a working-class girl who’s a little older than himself. He also accompanies an older man (a longtime friend of his mother’s) on furtive sailings up and down the Thames on a mussel barge, smuggling greyhounds into the country.

But this exciting new world, dangerous and life-affirming by turn, comes to a head in a dramatic way, and so when the second part opens we meet an older, more reflective Nathaniel, eager to piece together his mother’s story. Now working in London for the security agencies, he has access to high-level secret information. And what he discovers, ephemeral and mysterious as it appears to the reader, allows him to make sense of his upbringing and the people with whom his mother associated.

Not about plot

This is not a plot-driven novel. I’m not even sure it’s a character-driven one — although it does have a vast cast of characters involved in the field of espionage who are all wonderfully drawn. It could be defined as a mystery novel, even though it’s not about a murder and it’s not the least bit suspenseful. (See how I am struggling to describe what this book is about!)

It’s the prose, elegant and restrained, and the voice of the first-person narrator, coolly detached but not without feeling, that gives Warlight its flavour and makes it so highly readable.

The story is moody and elegiac and highly evocative of another time and place, making this possibly the most London-centric novel I’ve ever read, with its vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings and canals and waterways.

That first magical summer of my life we smuggled more than forty-five dogs a week at the height of the racing season, collecting the gun-shy creatures from a dock near Limehouse onto the mussel boat, and riding the river in darkness into the heart of London towards Lower Thames Street.

There’s a vein of melancholy that runs throughout, which is hard to shake off whenever you lift your eyes from the page, and days after having finished this one I can feel the mood of it lingering in my mind.

The story is a powerful one. It’s reflective of the role some ordinary Londoners played in the Second World War and how their actions haunted them and their families long after it was over.

Warlight was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

This is my 11th 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), 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 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.