20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Affirm Press, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Omar Sakr, Publisher, Setting, Turkey

‘Son of Sin’ by Omar Sakr

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 288 pages; 2022.

Sydney-based Arab Australian Omar Sakr is a prize-winning poet who has turned his hand to novel writing.

Son of Sin, his debut published earlier this year, is an eloquent, fierce and tender coming of age story about a queer Muslim boy coming to terms with his sexuality.

Written with a poet’s eye for detail and sublime imagery, it charts Jamal Smith’s life from his mid-teens to his mid-twenties.

It reveals how Jamal, the product of a Lebanese mother and a Turkish father, spends his adolescence and early adulthood grappling with the idea of being a good Muslim while all around him he sees his extended family — a motley collection of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents — being violent, smoking dope and getting into trouble with the law.

His unconventional upbringing creates additional challenges. Until the age of seven, he was raised by his mother’s sister (whom he still regards as his real mother), a cruel and abusive woman, and believed that his cousins were his siblings. He never really knew his father.

Bookish and gay

As an adolescent, Jamal is a square peg in a round hole. He loves books — “as long as he was reading, he was invisible” — and is sexually attracted to his male friends. He knows that both traits mark him out as different and that the latter must be hidden at all costs, for homosexuality is the “ultimate taboo” for Muslim men, something he is reminded of by family members — of both sexes — who often express anti-gay sentiments.

On top of the homophobia, Jamal must also navigate racism. He lives in the multi-cultural western suburbs of Sydney and experiences first-hand the racial profiling and vilification that people of “Middle Eastern appearance”  were subjected to following 9/11, the Cronulla race riots and, later, Trump’s Muslim ban.

When, as a young adult he drops out of university and fails to find a job he enjoys, he heads abroad to meet his estranged father. During his two years in Turkey, things begin to fall into place — he comes to learn of his family history and begins to reconcile his race and identity in the knowledge that it’s okay to not fit in.

Grace and humour

Despite these heavy subjects, Son of Sin isn’t an oppressive read; it’s written with grace and good humour and there’s a sense of hope and optimism, too. Jamal does find his tribe — his school friends are all outsiders like him from different ethnic backgrounds but have shared interests — and has sexual encounters that are tender and joyful.

As you would expect with a typical bildungsroman, there’s not much of a plot. Instead, the book is essentially a character study of an introspective young man trying to navigate his way in a world beset by prejudice, racism and complex family histories.

It seems fitting that my edition features a cover quote by Christos Tsiolkas because the book is highly reminiscent of Tsiolkas’ own work, in particular his debut novel Loaded. It shares similar themes — what it is to be a first-generation Australian of immigrant parents, hiding your homosexuality, toxic masculinity and violence — and is just as powerfully written, but it’s far less hard-hitting, nihilistic and grungy.

Fans of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel The Lebs will also find a lot to like here.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it not long after it was published in March this year. I have heard Omar talk at a few live-streamed book events over the past couple of years and he always comes across as a deep thinker with a lot of interesting things to say. I figured his book would be more of the same. I was right.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 104 pages; 2021.

Natasha Brown’s novella Assembly could be described as the tale of a woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside, but it is so much more than this. On a much deeper level, it is also a scathing examination of institutional racism and the colonialist structure of British society.

Portrait of British life

It’s written in a series of eloquent vignettes from the perspective of a successful Black British woman who has climbed the career ladder in banking and done well for herself, but at every stage of her life, from school to job to buying her own home, she has had to keep her head below the parapet to avoid the naysayers who might suggest she doesn’t deserve it because of the colour of her skin.

As she prepares for the visit to her white boyfriend’s family home, she thinks about all the events in her life which have led her to this point. She feels complicit in aspiring for a life of “middle-class comfort” without challenging the institutions — the universities, banks and government — which have limited her choices because she lacked the prerequisite connections or money to venture into anything other than the financial industry.

Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? […] The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities: I felt I couldn’t waste mine.

But this doesn’t sit well with her. She believes she’s become someone who knows her place in society and understands the limits to her ascent. She does not want the younger generation to have to deal with this too.

And she’s conscious that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her because they are “good, socially liberated” people, but she knows that it’s all an illusion, that they think it’s just a phase their son is going through and it’s not the kind of relationship that would ever develop into anything serious. If it did, it would threaten “a purity of lineage” — though not in “any crass racial sense” but in the family’s “shared cultural mores and sensibilities” — and it would “wreck the family name”.

But this is a microcosm of what she’s experienced her whole life, trying to fit in and be accepted but knowing that if you scratch the surface it’s next to impossible:

Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still never from here.

And interwoven through all these negative thoughts is an unwanted medical diagnosis that she is refusing to deal with perhaps because she’s suffered enough and more suffering does not faze her.

Compelling read

Assembly is a challenging and at times confronting read, and it is relentless in its dissection of racism, but it’s written with such eloquence (and fury) that it’s compelling and hypnotic.

It doesn’t paint a particularly nice portrait of modern British life. It is littered with examples of micro-aggression and sexism in the workplace, the lack of social mobility opportunities, the “hostile environment” adopted by the government and the ways in which the ruling classes are geared towards preserving a certain way of life.

And the ending, uncertain and undefined, is a pitch-perfect reflection of a country on the precipice of choosing which direction to go: backward or forward?

Brona liked this one too (review here) and so did Annabel (review here)

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from Collins Booksellers in Cottesloe last year. It’s the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, there is just so much in it, so I’m glad I purchased this one rather that borrow from the library.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Anita Heiss, Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On’ by Anita Heiss

Non-fiction – memoir; Vintage Books Australia; 384 pages; 2022.

Dr Anita Heiss’ Am I Black Enough for You? should be required reading for every Australian.

First published in 2012, it has been updated and subtitled “10 Years On”.  I haven’t read the original (which has been eloquently reviewed by Lisa at ANZLitLovers), so I’m not sure how much it diverts from the first, but I found it an entertaining and educational read and it made me rethink and reassess my own views on what it means to be an Aboriginal in this country.

It’s billed as a memoir but it’s much more than that. It’s an account of a range of issues affecting Aboriginal Australians as told through Heiss’ own intimate and personal lens as a successful author, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal literacy and a high-achieving public intellectual. Just last month, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to tertiary Indigenous Studies & the Arts.

Rejecting the stereotypes

A proud Wiradyuri woman from central NSW, Heiss was raised in suburban Sydney and educated at her local Catholic school. Her father was an immigrant from Austria and her mother was Aboriginal and she cheekily describes herself as a “concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming” because she lives in the city and loves shopping!

This is my story: it is a story about not being from the desert, not learning to speak my traditional language until I was fifty years old, and not wearing ochre. I’m not very good at playing the clap sticks, either, and I loathe sleeping outdoors. Rather, my story is of the journey of being a proud sovereign Wiradyuri yinaa, just not necessarily being the Blackfella — the so-called ‘real Aborigine’ — some people, perhaps even you, expect me to be.

The book essentially breaks down the stereotypes and myths surrounding what it is to be a First Nations person in Australia. It also shatters the expectation that just because Heiss identifies as an Aboriginal, she does not have to be “all-knowing of Aboriginal culture, or to be the Black Oracle”.

I’m Aboriginal. I’m just not the Aboriginal person a lot of people want or expect me to be.

It’s written in a friendly, light-hearted tone but Heiss isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues head-on. She writes about the Stolen Generations (her grandmother was removed from her family in 1910 and lived a life of servitude until 1927, when she got married), racism, why she doesn’t celebrate Australia Day, the black lives matter movement and poor literacy rates in remote Aboriginal communities.

Writing about writing

But she really hits her stride when talking about literacy, which is a clear and demonstrable passion, and there is an excellent chapter (“Writing us into Australian history”) about the importance of including Aboriginal voices, perspectives and  characters in books. A successful and award-winning author in her own right (she has seven novels to her name, as well as a handful of children’s books), Heiss believes her work has a role to play in “placing Aboriginal people on the overall Australian national identity radar”:

With all my books I receive feedback, written and in person, from mobs around the country who tell me that they have had the same experience of discrimination or racism, or that they were moved by a story or poem. I also have a lot of non-Indigenous people (the largest part of my audience because of population size), who tell me that they have been challenged by what I have written and have learned from the experience of reading my work.

Interestingly, since the original edition of this book, there has been an explosion in First Nations writers being published in Australia, and Heiss is particularly proud that the BlackWords database she helped establish now has more than 7,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and storytellers listed on it.

There’s an excellent chapter near the end (“20 reasons you should read Blak”) — adapted from the keynote address she gave at the inaugural Blak & Bright festival at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne in 2016 — which outlines why we should all be reading First Nations writers. (As if I need any excuse.)

But it’s really the last chapter (“The Trial”), about her successful racial discrimination class action case against News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt (you can read her take on it in this piece published on Crikey), which acts as a resounding “take that!” to anyone who thinks they can say what they like about Aboriginal Australians and get away with it. Not only does it highlight the values by which Heiss lives — to call people out who perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes and to ensure the world she leaves behind is more equitable and compassionate than it is today — but it also makes Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On such an excellent and important read.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. It is one of the books sent to me as part of my monthly First Nations book subscription from Rabble Books & Games.

This subscription service ties in nicely with my own project to read more books by First Nations writers, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

And finally, this is my contribution to Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week (July 3-10, 2022), which coincides with NAIDOC Week, an annual event to celebrate and recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Algeria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Morocco, Paul Bowles, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo Modern Classic; 285 pages; 1993.

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles‘ (1910-1999) debut novel.

It’s a rather enigmatic tale about a young American couple travelling through French North Africa after the Second World War, but what begins as a typical story (albeit in an atypical setting) of a marriage on the rocks morphs into something else entirely.

Part horror, part suspense (part WTF is going on?), it’s a chilling tale about strangers in a strange land and the unforeseen fates that can await the naive traveller.

On the move

The story goes something like this. Port and Kit Moresby*, a sophisticated American couple from New York, are exploring Morocco and Algeria with their friend Tunner. They don’t have a proper itinerary, they simply move from place to place when they feel like a change of scenery because, as Port puts it, they are not tourists but travellers:

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war, it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

But while the trio take their time moving around the country —  this Google Map I found online helpfully charts their journey — there are tensions at play.

In the opening chapters, for instance, Port spends a night with a local prostitute (a pattern that repeats throughout the novel) and puts himself in danger of being robbed or mugged.

Later, when the trio meet a young Australian traveller, Eric, and his mother, Mrs Lyle, a travel writer (whose vile views on Arabs and Jews make for uncomfortable reading), staying at the same hotel, they are offered a ride to Boucif by car. Port accepts, but Kit and Tunner go by train because there’s not enough room for all of them in the vehicle. It is during this long train journey that Tunner makes a pass at his friend, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle in which Kit constantly plays off her lover with her husband.

Port, who has his suspicions about his wife’s trysts, engineers it so that Eric gives Tunner a lift to the next city on the pretext that Kit and Port will catch him up in a few days. This is where things get tricky. Port’s passport is stolen and it’s dangerous to be a foreigner with no identifying papers. It’s also dangerous to be on the road during an outbreak of meningitis, and when Port falls sick on a long bus journey the sense of danger becomes even more heightened.

Strong sense of place

All the while the Saharan landscape and her ancient cities form an exotic backdrop in which the characters play out their petty dramas which quickly escalate to become life or death situations.

The writing is eloquent, spare and incisive, featuring authentic, animated dialogue and rich, vivid descriptions of place. Here’s how Bowles describes Aïn Krorfa, in Algeria, for instance:

Aïn Krorfa was beginning to waken from its daily sun-drugged stupor. Behind the fort, which stood near the mosque on a high rocky hill that rose in the very middle of the town, the streets became informal, there were vestiges of the original haphazard design of the native quarter. In the stalls, whose angry lamps had already begun to gutter and flare, in the open cafes where the hashish smoke hung in the air, even in the dust of the hidden palm-bordered lanes, men squatted, fanning little fires, bringing their tin vessels of water to boil, making their tea, drinking it.

But despite the wide-open spaces of the desert and the abundance of sunshine and stark light, the mood of the book soon becomes oppressive, heavy, fearful. The characters, especially Kit, behave in unexpected, not always sensible, ways, and it’s difficult to predict what might happen next.

I’ve refrained from going into the plot in too much detail, but it does take a dark turn somewhere around the halfway point when Port develops a terrible fever and the hotel in which they planned to stay refuses to take them in. Kit is suddenly forced to take action, to look after her sick husband and try to find medical help without drawing the ire of the authorities who won’t look favourably on foreigners without ID.

The final part of the story slides into a kind of farce in the sense that I found it a little hard to believe, but on the whole, The Sheltering Sky is a strange yet beguiling read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

* Call me childish, but there’s something funny about naming a character Port Moresby when we all know that’s the name of the capital city of Papua New Guinea. LOL.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it secondhand for $11.50 from Elizabeth’s Bookshop here in Fremantle in August 2020. I had previously read his 1966 novel Up Above the World which I had described as a “masterpiece of suspense writing”.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, autofiction, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sibilla Aleramo

‘A Woman’ by Sibilla Aleramo (translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2020. Translated from the Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell.

What a “cheery” book this turned out to be. I’m being facetious, of course, because Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman, first published in 1906, makes for some depressing, albeit important and serious, reading.

Regarded as one of the earliest pieces of Italian feminist literature, it charts the experience of an unnamed Italian woman from girlhood until her mid-twenties at the turn of the 20th century.

During this time she gets married and has a child, but her husband is abusive and the story follows the narrator’s attempts to forge an independent life for herself — but it comes at a high price.

Said to be autofiction and therefore based on the author’s own experiences, it’s a startling and often shocking account of one woman’s determination to reject the life mapped out for her.

A false and petty life

This opening sentence sets the tone and mood for everything that follows:

My childhood was carefree and lively. Trying to resurrect that time now, to rekindle it in my mind, is a hopeless task.

The narrator, looking back on what she describes as a “false and petty” life, reveals how happy she was as a young girl, the oldest child of a middle-class Italian family whose father doted on her.

When the family move from Milan to a rural location so that her father can take up an important job running a factory, she leaves school and begins working for her father as an administrator. She loves the sense of purpose the role gives her, but it’s a false sense of independence because her life as a woman is already mapped out for her: she must marry, have children and be “naturally submissive and servile”.

An unhappy marriage

As a 16-year-old she develops a crush on a factory worker many years her senior. He takes advantage of her youth and brutally rapes her, but she’s naive enough to think he loves her. They marry and have a child. It is not a match made in heaven.

He begins to control every facet of her life and restricts her to one room in the house. Unsurprisingly, she becomes depressed and yearns for something more. The only thing that appears to keep her sane is an undying love for her young son and a passion for writing.

For a while he maintained his prohibitions and I continued not to go out, spending long afternoons shut indoors with a controlled amount of writing paper for correspondence, not allowed to see anyone apart from my relatives, the doctor and the housemaid – all under the pretence of ample freedom, but with such crude surveillance that I would have found it amusing were it not for the fact that at still not twenty-one years old my life had become so irremediably joyless.

It’s not all bad. Eventually, her talent as a writer affords her an opportunity to become a journalist. She makes a name for herself writing about feminist issues and social inequality for a publication based in Rome but she has to tread a fine line between dutiful wife and successful career woman.

Self-indulgent story

The book, which by its very nature is quite self-indulgent, details the narrator’s thoughts and feelings and philosophies on life, her outrage at the divide between the way men and women must live their lives, and the double standards when it comes to love and marriage.

It is confronting in places, especially when she is subject to nightly terrors in the bedroom (it’s not described in detail, but it’s clear her husband rapes her whenever he wants sex) and partly blames her own family for allowing her to be married to a man who treats her so badly.

And how can she become a woman if her relatives hand her over ignorant, weak and immature to a man who does not receive her as an equal; who uses her like an object that he owns, gives her children which he abandons to her sole care while he fulfils his social duties, and while he continues to childishly amuse himself?

When her own mother has a psychological breakdown and is admitted to an asylum, the narrator begins to understand that she may be headed down the same path and that despite her attempts to be her own person she is, effectively, just reenacting her own mother’s life. It’s a depressing realisation.

According to the author blurb, Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960) was the pseudonym of Marta Felicina Faccio, who was an Italian author and poet best known for producing some of the first feminist writing in Italy and for her autobiographical depictions of life as a woman in late 19th-century Italy. She was a recipient of the prestigious Viareggio Rèpaci award and was active in political and artistic circles throughout her adult life.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 22 June 2020 for the princely sum of 99p. I have no idea what prompted me to buy it because I’ve never read a review of it. Perhaps I just liked the cover?

Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes a novel just strikes the right mood. You pick it up, start reading and become so immersed in the story you lose all sense of time. Before you know it, you’ve read half the book — or at least made substantial inroads.

This is how I felt when I read Anne Tyler’s latest novel, French Braid.

I am a long-time Anne Tyler fan so it’s no surprise I would like this book, but I reckon it’s the best one she’s written since 1982’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my favourite Tyler novel. That’s probably because it shares similar traits in terms of its focus on a dysfunctional family and the way chance events shape people’s lives and how sibling relationships are dictated by power dynamics beyond their control.

One family’s story

French Braid charts the history of the Garrett family over several decades — from 1959 through to 2020 — and features all the quintessential trademarks of Tyler’s work: a tapestry of complex family dynamics, a cast of quirky but believable characters, and a Baltimore setting.

There’s no real plot; the character-driven narrative moves ahead in roughly ten-year increments and each chapter is written (in the third person) from the perspective of a particular family member. This allows the reader to get to know the family relatively well, to understand the events that have shaped each person and given rise to certain misunderstandings or lessons or viewpoints.

We witness children growing older, moving out of home, finding partners of their own and having children. The passing of time is marked by graduations, family gatherings, weddings and celebratory dinners and occasions.

It is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

A family holiday sets the tone

The family is centred around Robin and Mercy, who get married in 1940, and their children Alice, Lily and David, whose ties and loyalties are tested and divided as they grow up to become adults with lives and families of their own.

A rare family holiday in 1959, when the girls are teens and David is a seven-year-old, underpins the entire family history and sets the tone for everything that follows. What unfolds on that lake in Maryland has long-lasting repercussions. David, in particular, is scarred by Robin’s heavy-handed attempts to force him to go swimming when he’d prefer to play quietly with his toys.

As the years slide by, the Garrett’s marriage comes under strain, not least because Mercy wants the freedom to pursue her ambitions to be a painter. She begins to spend more and more time at the studio she rents nearby, slowly moving her belongings there and staying overnight. Her adult children are under the impression she’s moved out of the family home, but it’s a subject that can’t be broached with their father, who remains devoted to his wife.

It’s the things left unsaid, the uncomfortable truths that remain hidden, which allows the family to muddle on without self-imploding. David’s wife puts it succinctly like this:

This is what families do for each other — hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.

French Braid is completely immersive as we follow the strands of the Garrett’s disparate lives across three generations. It’s tender, wise, knowing and funny. I loved it.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Italy, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.

Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

A love story

At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.

Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.

That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)

It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.

A supportive wife

And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.

‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.

There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.

It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:

Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.

Intimate first-person tale

The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.

It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.

Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.

Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!

This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘Mothering Sunday: A Romance’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – hardcover; Simon & Schuster; 132 pages; 2018.

The novella Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, pivots around one central moment: a final sexual encounter between two people from different social classes before one of them goes off to marry someone else.

Set on 30 March 1924—Mothering Sunday—the story goes beyond this date to explore what happens to each of the young lovers in the aftermath of their affair.

It’s written in the third person but told largely from the perspective of Jane Fairchild, a 22-year-old housemaid, who is romantically involved with Paul Sheringham, a handsome young man up the road who is engaged to be married to Emma Hobday, a young woman in the same social class as him.

Paul is 23, the only surviving son of an upper-class family in rural Berkshire (his brothers were killed in the Great War), and his whole life has been mapped out for him. His background — and his prospects — could not be any more different than Jane’s. Yet the pair have been secret lovers for years.

She didn’t know how he had acquired his sureness. Later, in her memory, she would marvel at it and be almost frightened by his possession of it then. It was the due of his kind? He was born to it. It came with having no other particular thing to do? Except be sure.

Despite Jane’s lack of formal education, she is a keen reader and has access to her kindly employer’s own personal library. On the day in question, she plans to read her borrowed copy of Joseph Conrad’s Youth in the spring sunshine. She’s an orphan, so has no mother to visit, but then Paul summons her for a morning rendezvous and the whole course of her life changes…

An auspicious date

Written in exquisite language, languid and sensual, the narrative continually loops back on itself so there is never any mistaking the importance of the date, repeated like a mantra, to Jane, who looks back on this particular Mothering Sunday with awe and delight and shock and grief. What enfolds on that single day has repercussions for her entire life, a life in which she becomes a successful writer and uses her affair with Paul as both inspiration and succour during her long career.

Swift is a careful stylist, shaping the story so that it seamlessly flits backwards and forwards in time, revealing Jane’s innermost feelings and desires, showing what her life was like before meeting Paul and what it becomes, years and decades later, when their romance ends.

And in highlighting the differences between British social classes, it’s easy to see how this match between a maid and a young lawyer would never be acceptable to the masses despite their clear feelings for one another. Jane, in particular, has been conditioned to behave according to her social standing and she is wary of challenging Paul, of demanding anything of him even though she’s well within her rights to do so.

It was not her place, after all, with her ghostly maid’s clothes back on again, to speak, suggest or do more than wait. Years of training had conditioned her. They are creatures of mood and whim. They might be nice to you one moment, but then— And if they snapped or barked, you must jump. Or rather take it in your stride, carry on, not seethe. Yes sir, yes madam. And always—it was half the trick—be ready for it.

As it turns out, such training holds Jane in good stead when she needs it most.

This is a beautifully told tale that is both compelling and heartbreaking. It’s richly evocative of the era and lingers in the mind long after the final page. I loved its exploration of truth and memory and of lives unlived.

For other takes on Mothering Sunday, please see Brona’s review and Lisa’s review.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan: Set on a single night, this novella explores the consummation of a marriage between two deeply inexperienced people.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.