Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

Author, Bloomsbury Circus, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, sarah crossan, Setting, UK

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 288 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

‘Here is the beehive.
Where are the bees?
Hidden away where nobody sees.
Watch and you’ll see them
come out of the hive.
One, two, three, four, five!’

So goes the nursery rhyme that lends its title to Sarah Crossan’s debut novel, Here is the Beehive.

The bees hiding in their hive represent the narrator’s deeply secretive world, for this is a compelling story about one woman’s adulterous affair and the pain of hiding her grief when her lover unexpectedly dies.

I read it in two sittings, unable to tear myself away from it. It was akin to watching a car crash. And yet there was something strangely beautiful about the tale.

This is despite the fact that the narrator, Ana, isn’t a particularly nice person. She’s deceitful, self-centred and not exactly reliable. She uses her high-powered job as a lawyer specialising in wills and estates as a cover for staying away from her marital home for long periods so she can carry on her affair with Connor.

And then, when her lover dies after a three-year-long elicit relationship, she gets to meet his widow, Rebecca, because she is the executor of Connor’s will.

Yes, it’s a bit twisted. And that’s probably why the narrative works, for I was itching to find out what would happen next; what outrageous thing would Ana try? Would she ever confess her secret to Rebecca, share her grief or break down in front of her own family? Any wonder I couldn’t put it down.

Verse novel

One of the most interesting aspects of Here is the Beehive is the way that the book is laid out. I’ve seen it labelled a “verse novel” because the story is broken into stanzas. There are no large chunks of text. Each paragraph is surrounded by plenty of white space, another reason why it’s so easy to read.

And the prose is beautiful, filled with exquisite observations, achingly human sentiment — little jealousies, bitterness, misplaced compassion — and all-too authentic insights into marriage and family life.

And did I mention it’s written in the second person?

You kissed my face
on a bench in Coldfall Wood
and told me you were sorry
about the woman and her sick child,
and sorry I never had time to stop
and sorry you couldn’t take care of me
and sorry you were married
and sorry I was married
and sorry also for yourself.

Here is the Beehive is an intense, immersive read, the kind that gets under the skin. It’s a simple yet stunning piece of work. More, please.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Diary of a Somebody’ by Brian Bilston

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

If you like wordplay, puns and funny poetry, put Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody on your wishlist. I laughed all the way through it; the perfect antidote to the strange and anxious times we are living through.

The story follows (the fictional) Brian Bilston’s resolution to write a poem every day for an entire year, a way of distracting himself from the pain of a broken marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with his teenage son and an office job at which he’s failing.

His poems are dotted throughout the narrative, and each one is laugh-out-loud funny.

Duvet,
you are so groovet,
I’d like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.

And:

Poetry Club
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.

But it’s the constant wordplay that gave me the best giggles. This is a good example of what to expect:

How to Avoid Mixing Your Metaphors It’s not rocket surgery. First, get all your ducks on the same page. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking stride. Be sure to watch what you write with a fine-tuned comb. Check and re-check until the cows turn blue. It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake. Don’t worry about opening up a whole hill of beans: you can always burn that bridge when you come to it, if you follow where I’m coming from. Concentrate! Keep your door closed and your enemies closer. Finally, don’t take the moral high horse: if the metaphor fits, walk a mile in it.

Along with witty one-liners:

She put the phone down on me and I was left alone with the silence. It was a mute point.

Dear Diary

Written in diary format, it charts 45-year-old Brian’s attempt to make sense of his falling-apart world. He’s slightly self-absorbed, lacks self-awareness and is obsessed with custard creams.

There are times when there is simply no substitute for a custard cream. These times are typically from 7am to 10pm, at the following intervals: 00, 15, 30, 45. There is something about their vanilla-custard filling and the baroque carving of the outer sandwich layers which lends itself to the practice of contemplation and study.

His working life is full of management jargon and missed deadlines. And his home life isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem able to commit to anything. He can’t even finish a book despite starting a new one every month for his book club:

 In other news, I began to read Wuthering Heights this evening. I’m on page 12 already. It’s rather moorish.

He attends a regular poetry club but each meeting is somewhat disastrous as he tries to compete with the dastardly Toby Salt, who is a much better poet, attracts the ladies (including someone Brian has his eye on) and has a loyal and ever-increasing Twitter following.

I noted that on Twitter, I have now optimised myself for twenty-three people. Toby Salt has somehow managed 174 followers. I clearly need to deepen my digital footprint and I have made a vow, with the cat as my witness, to share more of my poems with my foolhardy followers as a next tentative digital baby step.

But when Toby mysteriously disappears not long after his first book is published, Brian unwittingly attracts the attention of the police: did he bump off his rival in a pique of jealous rage? The fun of this book is reading it to find out!

Original and inventive

There’s no doubting that Diary of a Somebody is wholly original and inventive. It’s a wonderful blend of satire and black comedy.

The jokes and the constant refrains — helping his neighbour remember when it is bin day, putting up with self-help mumbo-jumbo from his ex-wife’s new man, never finishing a novel, eating too many custard creams and so on — do begin to wear thin after a while.

Perhaps 12 months in the life of Brian Bilston is a bit too much and six months could have been chopped from his diary, but on the whole, this is an enjoyable novel about a man who doesn’t quite realise how funny (if somewhat pathetic) he really is! More, please.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I picked up a proof copy of this in early 2019 when I went to a Picador Showcase in London and the author did a reading, which had me in minor hysterics. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my copy with me when I moved back to Australia but when I saw it on Kindle for 99p earlier this year I couldn’t resist buying it.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, dystopian, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Stillicide’ by Cynan Jones

Fiction – hardcover; Granta; 180 pages; 2019.

Stillicide, n
1. A continual dropping of water.
2. Law — A right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land.
From Latin ‘stillicidium’, from ‘stilla’ drop + ‘-cidium’, from ‘cadere’ to fall.

Cynan Jones’ latest work, Stillicide, was originally conceived as 12 stories to be read aloud in 15-minute slots on BBC Radio 4. The stories were interconnected to form a collective whole, but each had to work as a standalone piece.

As Jones explains in his Author’s Note, “Being for radio, with listeners not having the chance to turn back a page, the world and its characters had to have an immediacy and be clear on first listening”.

The work has now been published in book form by Granta.

A future without water

The stories are all set in the not-too-distant future, where water has become so scarce it has to be “imported” via huge icebergs, towed from the Arctic Circle. A specially built Ice Dock is under construction but the project is now threatening to displace many residents, and people are protesting the plan.

Two years since the project started. An anniversary today. Of the beginning of construction, that started with a ribbon of buildings being demolished, before we could begin. A gash cut through the city to steer the iceberg through.

Meanwhile, a Water Train transports this now-rare commodity, but it, too, is under threat of heists and hold-ups. (A previous pipeline, taking water into the heart of the city, has been closed down because it had been bombed one too many times.)

There is only early morning light. Then the Water Train passes. Different. A weight of sound. The sound of a great waterfall crashing into a pool. It has the power church bells must used to have.

We, the reader, experience this dystopian world through the eyes of a diverse range of characters whose lives and livelihoods are impacted one way or the other by stillicide, but it’s mostly centred on Branner, a marksman, who defends the Water Train from the people who wish to derail it.

An ambitious project

Did I like this book? I’m not sure. It’s an ambitious project and I admired the premise and the execution — Jones is a superb writer, his prose is pared back and reads like poetry — but I struggled to “get” some of the individual stories and often couldn’t figure out what was going on.

I don’t think it helped that I read this in short snatches here and there; it’s definitely the type of book that would benefit from reading in one sitting.

I don’t “do” audiobooks, per se, but I do wonder if I might have got more out of Stillicide had I heard the radio series first. I’m happy to report all 12 episodes are available to listen to online — but only for a few more days!

This is my 8th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it in Dymocks last January because I had read a couple of Cynan Jones‘ previous novels and loved them.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Lloyd Jones, New Zealand, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, UK

‘The Book of Fame’ by Lloyd Jones

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 178 pages; 2000.

A book about rugby would not normally be my cup of tea, but Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame is a beautifully realised novel about the power of sport to transform lives, create history and engender pride in an entire nation.

Based on the real-life story of the Original All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby union team that toured the world in 1905-06, it reveals how a motley crew of young unknowns returned home as heroes having won every match they played, bar one (that was against Wales, who won 3-0).

These young men, who were farmers and miners and teachers in their normal everyday lives, had spent a year playing matches in Britain, Ireland, France and the US, storming to victory wherever they went and winning the hearts of sports fans who gathered to see them play. In a true spirit of sportsmanship, and in a time long before money and sponsorships put a different spin on sport, they were lauded wherever they went.

Astonishingly, given they had done little training apart from some exercises on the steamboat they took from New Zealand to Portsmouth, they only conceded 59 points, and won 976, across all the games they played in Britain. (Check this Wikipedia page for more detail.)

UK edition, published by John Murray in 2008

Unusual structure and point of view

Rather than tell the story from one person’s point-of-view, Jones chooses to tell it from a collective voice to further cement the idea that this is a story about a team. He structures it around seven parts, which chart the evolution of a successful sports team from a group of strangers. And he writes it in a lyrical manner, setting out his prose like stanzas in a 174-page long-form poem.

Somehow, despite this unusual structure, the book works as a powerful hymn to another time and place. It is a fascinating portrait of travel before the age of commercial airlines; of the world of sport before it became professionalised; and of a team that did things differently (the All Blacks famously introduced several innovations to rugby, including the idea that each player in the scrum had a specific role to play).

Space was our medium
our play stuff
we championed the long view
the vista
the English settled for the courtyard

 

The English saw a thing
we saw the space in between
The English saw a tackler
we saw space either side
The English saw an obstacle
we saw an opportunity
The English saw a needle
we saw its mean eye
The English saw a tunnel
we saw a circular understanding
The formality of doorways caused the English to stumble into one another and compare ties
while we sailed through like the proud figureheads we were
The English were preoccupied with mazes
we preferred the lofty ambition of Invercargill’s streets

Jones depicts the ups and downs of travelling between matches; the injuries the players put up with; the hopes and fears of the men, and their wonder at being abroad and discovering new people and places and food and customs; and the team’s encounters with local fans, including the women with eyes for rugged New Zealanders.

And by contrasting the team’s success against the political and global news stories of the day, he shows how the All Blacks tour often eclipsed everything in its wake, garnering column inches after column inches in all the leading newspapers.

On the field we moved to the whirring breath of cameras

Men crouched under black hoods aimed their tripods at us
or, as it sometimes happened
you might look up from breakfast
with a mouthful of toast
to find a man with a white napkin draped over his wrist
staring back

Admittedly, the style can wear thin after a while, but it’s a short read so it didn’t actually worry me. I found myself surprisingly enthralled by this tale of a rugby team that forged the All Blacks legend and now I want to read more by this talented writer.

This is my 2nd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this book secondhand last August. It wasn’t until I got it home that I realised it is a signed copy.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Phoebe Locke, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, UK, USA, Wildfire

‘The Tall Man’ by Phoebe Locke

Fiction – Kindle edition; Wildfire; 368 pages; 2018.

A few years ago I watched the documentary Beware the Slenderman about a pair of young American schoolgirls who attempted to murder one of their friends. Their motive was to appease “Slender Man”, a fictional monster whom they believed was true, and which had originated as a horror-related meme on the internet. (You can read more about Slender Man via this Wikipedia entry.)

Phoebe Locke’s The Tall Man uses this incident, albeit translated to the UK, as the basis of her creepy, psychological suspense novel.

Divided into three separate storylines set in three different time periods (1990, 2000 and 2018), it largely follows the exploits of 18-year-old Amber Tanner, who is the subject of a documentary film project. Self-obsessed and self-aware, she’s very much a closed shop and the documentary makers are having a hard time getting her to open up about the murder she committed a year or so ago.

This storyline is intertwined with two earlier ones. The first focuses on Amber’s upbringing in rural England, abandoned as a young baby and raised by her father single-handedly to become a too-good-to-be-true devoted daughter, while the second charts how her mother, Sadie, having devoted herself to a sinister figure known as “the tall man” in her childhood, spends her adult life frightened of him because of his deep desire to steal daughters and, in particular, hers.

Eventually, each of these three storylines coalesces into a powerful, if somewhat disappointing, ending, but this isn’t your average psychological thriller. Locke weaves in elements of horror, suspense and the supernatural to create a story right out of the Stephen King playbook.

An author in control of her story

She cleverly keeps certain “clues” at bay, so you are never quite sure who Amber killed until the very end, nor do you know whether Amber really believes in the Tall Man or whether she might just be using him as an excuse for her murderous behaviour.

And while Amber and Sadie aren’t particularly likeable characters (making it difficult for the reader to empathise with either of them), the young filmmaker Greta and the unreasonable demands she experiences from her boss provides an additional element to the story, including the ethics of documentary making and the ways in which young people are taken advantage of in the workplace.

Ultimately The Tall Man is an unsettling read rather than a thrilling one. There’s a few twists and turns along the way and the chopped up storylines provide an element of tension. The characterisation, particularly of Amber (elusive and narcissistic), Sadie (frightened, scatty and reliant on alcohol) and Greta (professional, ambitious but with a strong moral compass) gives weight to what might otherwise have been a fairly mediocre story.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR40. I purchased it last year as a Kindle 99p special having wondered if it might be based on the “Beware the Slenderman” documentary that had so freaked me out when I watched it on TV a few years ago. I’ve been fascinated by this modern legend ever since.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, London, Megan Hunter, Picador, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter

The end we start from

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 144 pages; 2018.

Apparently British actor Benedict Cumberbatch enjoyed Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From so much his production company bought the film rights. It’s easy to see why he was so enamoured of this debut novella: it’s powerful, evocative and lyrical.

Set some time in the future, it follows one woman’s journey to survive the floodwaters that have engulfed London and forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere. The woman’s journey is complicated by the fact that she has just given birth to her first child, a boy, and all her energy and focus is devoted to him. The world outside, descending into chaos, appears to be of no concern.

Z is real, with his tiny cat skull and sweet-smelling crap. The news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore.

When her husband fails to return from an outing in search of supplies, the woman is forced to travel alone with her newborn, setting up home in a refugee camp and, much later, on a secluded island.

But this isn’t a book that you read for the plot. It’s essentially a “mood piece” written in sparse sentences, one per paragraph, that resemble lines of poetry. Indeed, I’d describe it as a prose novella, because it feels very much like reading one long poem. (No surprise, then, that the author is also a poet.)

Everything is scant on detail. There are no names, beyond Z for the baby, R for the husband, G for the mother-in-law and so on. And we never really know what’s going on in the world outside because the book is very much focused on the relationship between the mother and her son.

As much as I loved the beautiful sentences in this novel, the oh-so perfect word choice and the lovely cadence and tempo of the prose, the motherhood analogy soon wore thin. The message — that maternal love remains undiminished even in the most dire of circumstances — began to feel a bit laboured. I think I just wanted more from this book — and I was never going to get it.

That said, The End We Start From has much to recommend it, not least the exquisite beauty of the prose and the lovely, languid nature of the storytelling. It’s certainly not your typical dystopian novel: our narrator is caught inside her own experience, raising a child and is focussed solely on her domestic realm. It’s a haunting and elusive tale of survival — but it’s also one about hope and of savouring quiet, often fleeting, moments of joy.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, David Park, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park

Travelling in a strange land

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 176 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I was so gripped by David Park’s latest novel Travelling in a Strange Land that I read it in a day.

The book has a simple premise: a severe winter snowstorm a few days before Christmas has made all road journeys treacherous and flights have been grounded. Tom, who lives in Belfast, drives his car from Stranraer, on the west coast of Scotland, to Newcastle, on the east coast of England, to collect his university-aged son, Luke, who is ill and stranded in his student lodgings.

The narrative, written in eloquent, beautifully visual language, traces Tom’s physical journey. It details the ferry crossing, the monotonous drone of the satnav instructions (“Drive for six point four miles. […] At the next roundabout take the second exit“), the treacherous conditions on the roads, the constant phone calls back home to inform his wife and 10-year-old daughter of his progress, the additional phone calls to Luke to check his flu hasn’t worsened, the little stops and starts he makes on the road, and the people he meets along the way.

But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son, Daniel, and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels.

Deeply contemplative read

Travelling in a Strange Land — even the title is a metaphor for grief — is a deeply affecting read. It’s not sentimental in any way, shape or form. Instead it’s a wonderfully contemplative read, understated in its beauty, in its power to show the inner life of a man trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

The narrative winds all over the place in tune with Tom’s thoughts. One minute we learn how he met and fell in love with his wife, who was engaged to another man at the time, during The Troubles; the next we are discovering how much he hates working as a wedding photographer because all today’s couples are shallow and obsessed with image over substance.

Music references are a constant refrain — “In the car I have the music I’ve chosen for the long hours ahead — Robert Wyatt, Van Morrison, REM, John Martyn, Nick Cave” — as are references to photography, including the types of pictures he wants to take of  “the moment that lies just below the surface of things, or a glimpse of the familiar from a different angle”.

And I have come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: that you don’t make a photograph just with a camera but that you bring to the act all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard and the people you have loved.

The plot, which is paper-thin and barely there, is compensated by the exemplary characterisation — even those people who are “off-page” such as his wife, his daughter, and even Luke are brought to vividly to life by Tom’s memories of conversations, incidents and day-to-day interactions. His late son, Daniel, of whom we really know nothing about, flits in and out of the storyline, as enigmatic in death as he was in life.

But everything is held together in an expertly crafted portrait of a father’s grief and of a man realising that the picture we present to the world is never quite what it seems.

Things to click:

Listen to the Spotify playlist of all the music mentioned in the book.

Look at Sonya Whitefield’s photographs inspired by the book.

Read my review of David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam (2012)

Read my review of David Park’s The Truth Commissioner (2009)

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, V. G. Lee, Ward Wood Publishing

‘Always You, Edina’ by V. G. Lee

Fiction – Kindle edition; Ward Wood Publishing; 242 pages; 2012.

Bittersweet and delightful are the two words that best sum up V.G. Lee’s Always You, Edina.

This family drama, set in Birmingham, England in the 1960s, is told through the eyes of Bonnie Benson, an only child, who idolises her Aunt Ed (of the title) but is too young to appreciate why other people don’t hold her in such high regard.

The story swings between the past and the present as a middle-aged Bonnie visits her 89-year-old grandmother in a residential care home and recalls the year that changed all their lives forever.

A surprisingly good read

I will admit that I did not expect to like this book when it was chosen as my book group’s November read. When I ordered my copy online I couldn’t help but think it looked self-published (it’s not).

Yet Lee is an established author with four novels and a short story collection to her name. She is also a stand-up comedian, which may explain why this book is so outrageously funny in places and why, even amongst the pathos of Bonnie’s childhood, there is a dark seam of humour running throughout.

A few pages in I got used to the plain prose style and the lengthy descriptions of what people were wearing — “I wore a pea-green linen trouser suit. Around my neck I’d looped a scarf in a silvery thread, one of my own designs” — and found myself getting drawn into a rather intriguing domestic drama in which Aunt Ed was akin to “Gina Lollobrigida and Grace Kelly — fire and ice” and whose “breasts stormed into the room ahead of her”.

In fact it is Aunt Ed, the glamorous character at the heart of this story and whom we only see through 11-year-old Bonnie’s eyes, that makes the novel such a charming, slightly naughty, read.

‘I wish I had hair like Aunt Ed,’ I said.
‘It’s out of a bottle.’
‘What do you mean?’ I imagined hair pouring like liquid gold from a fairytale flagon.
‘Ed has a hairdresser friend who comes to their house and does it for her but don’t tell anyone I said so.’
‘Does what for her?’
‘Dyes her hair of course. You didn’t think it was natural, did you?’
‘So could I have hair that colour?’
‘Over my dead body.’ Mum leant out of the window.

Coming of age story

Always You, Edina is essentially a coming-of-age tale. Bonnie, a pre-teen in the 1960s when children were still seen but not heard, is too young to comprehend the complicated relationships between the adults in her life: her parents, unhappily married, and her Aunt Ed and Uncle Brian, who seem smitten with each other. But it’s clear to the reader that there are inappropriate dalliances occurring that are beyond a child’s ken.

They are always arguing now. The grown-ups. Their rows are like little bonfires that they take turns in starting up, then along comes Gran with a bucket of water. Some hissing, some crackling, and usually the bonfire goes out.

Not a great deal happens plot wise: the story more or less charts the ups and downs of Bonnie’s life — her crush on her popular classmate Joanna Bayliss, her star turn in the class play, her mixed feelings for her cousin Susan, who pushes her down the stairs — but it’s so vividly told it’s hard not to keep turning the pages.

And Bonnie is such a delightful character: good-natured, clever and naive, all at the same time.

Always You, Edina isn’t a quick read, but it’s one to enjoy lingering over. The Bensons, including Bonnie’s cantankerous outspoken grandmother, are wonderful fun: Brummies brimming with heart, attitude — and carefully kept secrets.