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

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019)

20 books of summer 2019 recap

What an eventful three months it has been! A new city to explore! A new flat to move into! New furniture purchased! A new bike to ride! A new job in a new industry begun! And 15 books from my TBR read!

You may remember that back in June I wrote a post signing up to Cathy’s #20BooksOfSummer challenge. I signed up a week later than most people, because I had just relocated to Australia with nothing more than 40kg of luggage and a lot of nervous excitement.

Between 9 June and 9 September my plan was to try to read the 20 books I packed with me, with the option to switch out ones on my Kindle if I felt so inclined. What actually happened was that I switched out quite a few with books I borrowed from the library that I already owned but were still in my TBR back in London.

All up I read 15 books from my TBR (plus 9 others that were new, so didn’t count). These were as follows (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

My favourite book from this lot has to be Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay, a wonderful historical romp set in London’s theatreland, which was filled with brilliant characters — Bram Stoker! Henry Irving! Ellen Terry! And cameo appearances from Oscar Wilde! Jack the Ripper! George Bernard Shaw! — densely packed scenes, rich, vivid language and cracking one-liners. Honestly, it was such a treat I eked the book out for as long as possible because I simply didn’t want it to end.

The weirdest book I read has to be The Vegetarian — I mean, WTF, was it even about? — and the most disappointing was See What I Have Done, which didn’t sustain my interest even though I’d been looking forward to reading it for more than a year. The most memorable —and thought-provoking — was, without a doubt, No Friend But The Mountains.

So, that’s it for another year. I didn’t quite achieve what I set out to do, but it was fun trying. Thanks again to Cathy for hosting.

Did you take part in #20BooksOfSummer? How did you do? Care to share your favourite read of the summer (or winter)?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Behrouz Boochani, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Papua New Guinea, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 374 pages; 2018. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin with “reviewing” this book. I read it more than a month ago now, and every time I sit down to try to commit my thoughts to this blog the words won’t come.

It’s an astonishing and lyrical account of a cruel and inhumane life at the hands of a cruel and inhumane government. It makes for very powerful reading, but it also serves to make the reader feel powerless. I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable fug that enveloped me as I read this.

For those of you who don’t know, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013.

Boochani’s tale, tapped out on a mobile phone, text message by text message, and smuggled out via WhatsApp, was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and it is bookended by a foreword by Australian author Richard Flanagan, a lengthy translator’s introduction explaining how the book came into being and a similarly lengthy essay by the translator at the very end.

It first came to prominence earlier this year when it won the Victorian Prize for Literature — the single most valuable literary award in the country — and the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. But since then it has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry’s non-fiction book of the year and Australia’s National Biography Award.

Ironically, Boochani has not been able to accept any of those awards in person. Although the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017, he has remained on the island since then — effectively stateless.

An collaborative memoir

The memoir — which Tofighian describes as “literary experimentation” and a “collaborative effort between author, translator, consultants and confidants” — reads very much like an adventure tale to begin with, before morphing into an almost Kafa-esque depiction of prison life.

It charts how Boochani decided to flee Iran when the offices of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he co-founded and produced, was raided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which arrested 11 of his colleagues. Fortunately, he was not in the office that day. In fact, he never went back. Instead, he went into hiding and eventually made his way to Indonesia, with a view to making a perilous ocean crossing to seek asylum in Australia.

But things did not go as planned. The Indonesian boat he was on, overcrowded with some 60 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy.  Everyone on board was taken to Christmas Island.

Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned…being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.

From there, Boochani was moved to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a detention centre in Papua New Guinea operated by the Australian Government. He was stripped of his name and, like every other prisoner, became known as a number only.

I can’t believe what is happening to me /
All that hardship /
All that wandering from place to place /
All that starvation I had to endure /
All of it… /
So that I could arrive on Australian soil /
I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus /
A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the book is a mix of eloquent, heart-felt poetry (as per the quote above), bitter diatribes about his predicament and observational stories about fellow prisoners and guards told with amazing psychological insight. It’s an almost soporific account of day-to-day life on Manus and what happens — or doesn’t happen — on those endlessly long, supernaturally hot days in detention.

It brims with a slow-burning anger but it is also filled with perplexity and confusion, for how could a country, so highly regarded, so wealthy and free, treat innocent people in such a cruel, dehumanising way?

Boochani’s story is littered with suicides (much sought-after razor blades being the instrument of choice) and horrendous examples of already traumatised men, many fleeing persecution and certain death at the hands of authorities in their respective homelands, now enduring further mental anguish.

His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment. He depicts the infighting, the emotional outbursts, the acts of moral cowardice, the riots, the hunger strikes, the way that certain people cling to their traditions and cultures when everything around them is foreign and frightening.

And he writes about his own inner turmoil, his desire to be alone, to not build allegiances with anyone, to quietly observe — and secretly document — all that he sees around him.

Compelling and confronting

There’s no doubting that No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary achievement. The contents are compelling and confronting, as is the story behind its creation.

Reading it is to become almost immune to the shock of all that Boochani endures. I suspect his writing, not only of this book but the many articles he has penned for the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Times et al while being imprisoned, has given him the creative outlet he needs to preserve his sanity — and his hope. He is a very cerebral person and a deep thinker.

It’s the kind of book that induces anger and shame in the reader. But it’s the sheer injustice of this system and the total lack of empathy and compassion towards our fellow humans that leaves me feeling most perplexed. I cannot comprehend it. Nor can I comprehend the waste — of time, of energy, of productive human lives — to maintain a policy that is so hostile and destructive.

Sadly, the people who need to read No Friend but the Mountains most — those that think asylum seekers should go back to where they come from, the policymakers, government officials and contractors that prop up this system — won’t read it. But if you’re an Australian, I almost think it’s your duty to do so, if only to know what is being done in your name.

For another take on this book, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This half-hour documentary (above) is a moving account of how Boochani wrote the book and smuggled it out.

This is my 13th book for #20BooksOfSummer. I bought it on Kindle after it won the Victorian Prize for Literature, but the copy I actually read was borrowed from Fremantle Library. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage, William Maxwell

‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 416 pages; 2012.

Do you ever finish reading a book and then feel totally ambivalent about it? When I came to the end of The Château, by William Maxwell, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Did I love it, or did I loathe it? A couple of weeks later and I still don’t quite know how I feel about it.

First published in 1961, The Château was Maxwell’s penultimate novel (he has six to his name, plus a handful of short story collections and books for children).

It’s about a young American couple, Barbara and Harold Rhodes, who go to France on holiday in 1948 as the country is still finding its feet after the Second World War. On the recommendation of a friend, they plan to stay at Château Beaumesnil in Touraine, where they will base themselves for the summer, exploring the local area, heading to Paris and other European cities (Venice, for instance), while bettering their use of the French language.

But after a long, complicated journey to get there, they don’t receive the warm welcome they had expected from the château’s owner, Mme Vienot, who seems a little “off” and neglectful of her hostessing duties towards them. They soon figure out she’s a social climber and a snob. And the other guests staying there are similarly distant and aloof.

Over time, as they settle in and come to terms with French culture, they realise they may have formed the wrong impression about Mme Vienot and her guests. They form friendships and alliances, get invited to parties and people’s homes and catch up with acquaintances in Paris, but the sense of being Other, of always being seen as privileged Americans never quite leaves them.

Not much happens in the novel; it’s not plot-driven but character-driven. It feels a little like a travelogue because it follows the ups and downs of Barbara and Harold’s travels, including their day-to-day encounters with new people, the little cafes and restaurants they visit, the tourist sites they pay homage to, the art and souvenirs they buy and the domestic dramas that ensue, usually involving Mme Vienot or misunderstandings with taxi drivers or officials.

All the while you are privy to their most intimate conversations, their indecisions about whether to stay or go, their confusion over how much to tip people, their inability to complain about service, their puzzlement as to why people they meet along the way do or say the things they do. Anyone who’s ever gone on holiday with a loved one to a foreign country will recognise a lot of those same conversations and experiences.

It’s all beautifully rendered and written in a very subtle, observant way using elegant prose, reminiscent of Richard Yates’ understated style.

But there’s a weird twist at the end. Just when you think the story has finished, Maxwell introduces Part II — entitled Some Explanations — that spans around 50 pages of meta-fiction. In it, he explains some of the unanswered questions that haunt Barbara and Harold’s trip. Why, for instance, did their friend Eugène act so horribly towards them on the train, and why did his wife Alix not say goodbye?

It makes for an interesting change in perspective and serves to highlight that the American couple’s lack of worldly experience and their linguistic and social difficulties meant they often misunderstood what was happening around them. This meant they sometimes jumped to (unfair) conclusions. It’s an interesting exercise in showing how travel can broaden the mindset, but I admit it felt quite odd coming at the end of a rather long novel about characters that — if I’m honest — weren’t especially interesting.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 29th for #TBR40. I purchased it in the early 2000s in paperback form and, forgetting that I owned a copy, I also bought it on Kindle last year. (Does this happen to anyone else? I seem to buy multiple copies of books because I forget I already own it.)

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR40, Viking, William Trevor

‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 224 pages; 2018.

Willam Trevor’s Last Stories are literally that: the last short stories he penned before his death in 2016. They were published posthumously as a handsomely bound collection by Viking last year, and have now been reissued as a paperback by Penguin.

As you may know, Trevor is one of my favourite authors and earlier this year I went through a bit of a phase reading his first three novels: The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966). But this is my first foray into his short fiction.

10 tales

There are 10 rather exquisite tales in this collection. Most focus on love — particularly love less ordinary — and are written with a deft eye for detail and a storyteller’s regard for the bittersweet and the unexpected.

There’s a watchfulness at work here, because Trevor is focused on the small happenings in people’s lives, but that is not to say these stories, nor the lives depicted within them, are small. Indeed, it’s often the accumulation of small happenings that leads to bigger things — domestic dramas, marriage break-ups, even death.

As ever when it comes to short story collections, I find it difficult to review them because I’m never quite sure what to focus on and what to leave out. Rather than give you a detailed account of every story, let me single out the one I found most memorable.

The paperback edition

It’s the second story, The Crippled Man, which represents William Trevor at his very best.

In roughly 24 pages he lays out a tale that feels quite run-of-the-mill, of a woman living in an isolated farmhouse with her crippled cousin, whom she cooks and cleans for. But by the time you reach the conclusion, you realise that this is no ordinary tale: it’s slightly creepy and malevolent and has a delightful little twist at the end. I immediately wanted to re-read it again to see what I had missed the first time around.

The story goes something like this. The woman, Martina, is having a long-term love affair with the local butcher. One day, when she’s out visiting him, her cousin hires two men — brothers — to paint the house. He thinks the men are Polish, but they’re actually Roma and have never done a job like this before. The immediate assumption the reader makes is that they are up to no good and that they will rip off the crippled man. This is what Martina thinks too. She is angry at her cousin for making this decision without her input.

The men, however, do a rather good job painting the house, but mid-way through the job they are puzzled by a bizarre change in Martina’s behaviour. She stops bringing them their tea at the agreed times of 11am and 3.30pm and often just leaves a tray on the doorstep for them to find. One day the younger brother spots her through the window “crouched over a dressing-table, her head on her arms as if she slept, or wept”.

Later they realise that they have not heard the voice of the crippled man — who has only paid them half the agreed price —  for quite some time and they’re fearful something has happened to him. They are also fearful that they will not be paid the rest of the money owing them when the job is complete.

The clincher at the end — which I won’t reveal here — is akin to a penny dropping in the well, but Trevor writes in such a deeply understated way it comes as quite a shock that such a calmly told tale could deliver such a deliciously dark blow.

If you’ve not read Trevor before and want to get a feel for his style, I’d recommend reading The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, which is in this collection but has also been published in The New Yorker (which is where I read it first). It showcases to perfection the way in which he tends to focus on people’s unexpectedly dark character quirks and highlights how we often fail to confront those who have wronged us because we can’t quite believe their bad behaviour.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 28th for #TBR40. I treated myself to the hardcover edition for my birthday last year, but that copy is still in London. A few weeks ago I bought it on Kindle — it was the 99p daily deal — so I could read it here in my new home in Fremantle. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, France, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Debt to Pleasure’ by John Lanchester

Fiction – paperback; Picador Classics; 232 pages; 2015.

John Lanchester’s debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a subversive black comedy about a narcissistic food snob who has a well-disguised penchant for murder.

The tale is narrated by Tarquin Winot stream-of-consciousness style in a voice that is both pompous and eccentric. He begins by stating “this is not a conventional cookbook” and then explains it was written while on a short holiday travelling “southwards through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland”. (For the rest of the year he lives in Norfolk.)

This lends the narrative a “serendipitous, ambulatory and yet progressive structure” as his wanderings are accompanied by his highbrow thoughts on food philosophy, provenance and gastronomy — or, as he describes it later, “gastro-historico-pyscho-autobiographico-antropico-philosophic lubrications”.

These, in turn, are intertwined with his own personal history, the second — and more popular (as we are constantly told) — son of wealthy parents (a successful businessman and a former stage actress), educated at home via a succession of private tutors (because his nature was judged “too fine grained and sensitive” to weather boarding school) and effectively raised by a kindly Irish nanny, called Mary T, whom he adored but then inexplicably seemed to frame for a personal theft.

Menus for all seasons

Structured around a series of seasonal menus — for winter, spring, summer and autumn — replete with recipes, it’s easy to feel that Tarquin’s thoughts on everything from what makes a good blini to the secret of a great croque monsieur (a “dab of mustard” apparently) are essentially harmless (and occasionally soporific), without quite realising he’s making a series of rather sinister confessions involving  family members and various servants.

His seemingly innocuous ramblings are dotted with laugh-out-loud funny lines and humorous asides, such as this sentence from a recipe for fish stew:

[…] then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously.

And this introduction to his chapter titled “An Aïoli”:

‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’ Thus X. Marcel Boulestin, a hero of Anglo-French culinary interaction, inexplicably omitted from ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. And which of us has not felt the truth of Boulestin’s words as we arrive in that land whose very name seems to betoken and evoke a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit, that land which is also an idea, a medium, a mêtier, a programme, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence. (On rereading that sentence I discover that, grammatically, it requires a question mark which I am, however, reluctant to supply.)

Along with his constant “mansplaining” and penchant for overly verbose sentences and often ludicrous word choices (see quote above), Tarquin’s narrative is riddled with petty jealousies mostly revolving around his older brother, a successful sculptor, whom he managed to cheat out of an inheritance. And we soon learn that the real reason for Tarquin’s holiday is not to soak up some French provincial sun, but to track down his brother’s biographer so that he can, well, let’s just say ensure that she doesn’t uncover, in the course of her research, anything that she shouldn’t…

Admittedly, I found Tarquin’s voice a little overbearing and far too conceited and arch for my liking (I could only read it in small doses), but that’s the point of the book: you’re not supposed to like this character and you’re certainly not supposed to like his deeds.

But this was a fun read — and to use a deliberately chosen pun — a rather delicious one at that!

The Debt to Pleasure won John Lanchester the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1996 and it was reissued as part of the Picador Classic imprint in 2015.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Cook by Wayne Macauley: A deliciously dark and subversive tale about a 17-year-old young offender who becomes a trainee chef under the tutelage of a Gordon Ramsay-like figure, before branching out into his own (deadly) business as a personal chef for a rich woman and her family.

This is my 7th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 26th for #TBR40. I purchased it in 2015 when it was re-issued as part of the Picador Classic imprint. I attended an event at Foyles celebrating the launch of that imprint where Lanchester discussed this book, alongside John Banville whose novel The Book of Evidence was also re-issued as part of the series. Banville also wrote the introduction to Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Lanchester kindly signed his copy for me.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sarah Schmidt, Setting, TBR40, Tinder Press, USA

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.