20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 372 pages; 2020.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one of those books you will have seen everywhere if you haven’t already read it yourself. It won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted — amongst many other awards and accolades — for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

As the title may suggest, it’s a fictionalised story about William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (a name that in the 16th century was regularly switched out with Hamlet), who died unexpectedly, aged 11, plunging his father (and family) into grief. (Though history has not recorded the cause of death, it’s widely believed to be the Bubonic Plague, which is what causes him to die in this novel.)

Initially, I found Hamnet completely gripping — the opening chapter is a very fine piece of writing, indeed, alive with rich descriptions, brilliant characterisations and a heart-thumping sense of urgency — but by the mid-way point my interest began to wane, and I really struggled to finish it.

No doubt you have probably read loads of positive reviews online, so let me briefly outline what I liked and didn’t like about this book.

Here’s what I liked about the story

The dual storylines: The novel is divided into two separate storylines, one of which recounts what happens when Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, falls ill from the Plague, and the second of which goes back in time to chart the romance between a young William “John” Shakespeare and the mysterious woman, Agnes, who would later become his wife. These two narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, which helps build suspense because just when you get to an exciting point in one storyline, it switches to another.

The characters: These are all richly drawn, from Shakespeare’s cruel, drunken father, to Agnes’ cruel, pessimistic stepmother Joan — and everyone in between. Perhaps the best-drawn character is Agnes herself. Much of the story is told through her eyes, so we get a real feel for her innermost thoughts, her undying love for her husband and the ways in which she’s viewed as an outsider by society at the time, purely because she’s an unconventional woman, very much in touch with nature, folklore and her own emotions.

The vivid descriptions: Despite some writerly quirks that annoyed me (see below), the prose is lavish and opulent, a style that lends itself well to historical fiction when scene-setting and period detail is so important. Sometimes O’Farrell can arrest your attention with a single beautiful line — “The hedgerows are constellations, studded with fire-red hips” — or an entire paragraph:

Balanced on the tops of the houses was a sky scattered with jewels, pierced with silver holes. He had whispered into her ear names and stories, his finger outstretched, pulling shapes and people and animals and families out of the stars.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story

The present tense: I understand that present tense creates urgency and it’s quite unusual to be employed in historical fiction, but I found it very wearing to read more than 300 pages of it! The opening chapter, when Hamnet is desperate to get help for his ill sister, is riveting because of the present tense, but do we really need to read a whole novel as if the action is happening right now? It’s exhausting.

The rule of three: O’Farrell uses a prose pattern that once seen cannot be unseen. She has a penchant to compose sentences that employ three adjectives or three clauses to help prove a point and, I suspect, to make her writing feel more “rich” and “abundant”. But when every page is dotted with sentences structured in this way it becomes kind of annoying. Here is a couple of examples:

The smell, the sight, the colour took her back to a bed soaked red and a room of carnage, of violence, of appalling crimson.

And:

The hawking, honey-producing, ale-trading priest will marry them early the next day, in a ceremony arranged quickly, furtively, secretively.

Plot implausibility:  This is a tough one to write about because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know, but basically, O’Farrell employs a readerly “trick” that is implausible. After devoting 70-plus pages to the prospect of young Judith dying from the plague, she survives, but at the very last minute, Hamnet dies instead. There’s also an entire chapter about how the flea, responsible for Judith’s illness, travels from Venice to London that just felt like it had been lifted from a fairytale and felt out of keeping with the rest of the novel.

My conclusion

I guess the best way I can sum up my feelings for Hamnet is ambivalence. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the concept of it but had issues with some of the delivery.

I felt a bit like this when I read O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, so am beginning to wonder whether she just isn’t the writer for me. Either that or I am reading her books at the “wrong” time or I am reading the “wrong” books by her.

I haven’t given up though — I’m now eying off her memoir, which has been sitting in my TBR for a few months and which would qualify as another #20booksofsummer read.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my friend Armen in London.

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

‘The Language of Birds’ by Jill Dawson

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

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

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

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

But this is NOT a crime novel.

A new life in London

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

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

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

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

Two narrative threads

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

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

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

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

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

If you liked this, you might also like:

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

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

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

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

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

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

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

Structured around three siblings

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

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

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

Airport interrogation

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

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

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

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

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

Based on a Greek myth

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

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

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

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

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Simon & Schuster, Sweden, TBR40, Tom Rob Smith

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster UK; 384 pages; 2015.

Looking for something easy to read on a recent weekend jaunt to Rome, I extracted Tim Rob Smith’s The Farm from my electronic TBR. A strange and twisted story about madness, lies, secrets and gaslighting, it kept me entertained for the duration of my trip — but I had very mixed feelings about it.

A parental tug-of-war

The tale centres around Daniel, a young man living in London, who gets drawn into a dispute between his parents who now live on a remote farm in Sweden having retired from their business (a garden nursery) a few years ago.

One morning Daniel’s father, Chris, calls him to say that his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has fled the hospital where she had been committed. He’s warned that his mother is dangerously unwell and potentially violent.

Moments later Daniel receives a phone call from his mother, Tilde, saying that everything he’s been told by his father is a lie and she has the evidence to prove it. “I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow,” she says.

From thereon in, the narrative is structured around Tilde’s story of what happened to her. She sits in Daniel’s kitchen (and later a hotel room) and tells her story in strict chronological order, interrupted only occasionally by Daniel who wants to clarify things (or jump to conclusions), before a dramatic shift about 100 pages from the end which jumps ahead to reveal that Tilde is now in a psychiatric unit in London.

Who to believe?

What makes The Farm so compelling to read is not quite knowing who to believe: is Tilde really psychotic or is her tale of strange goings on in the local community, presided over by a creepy, manipulative neighbour, Håken, really true? Has she been gaslighted into believing that the crimes to which she alludes are just figments of her imagination? And is the disappearance of Håken’s adopted 16-year-old daughter, the beautiful Mia from Angola, connected to a pedophile ring (or something similar)?

What didn’t quite work for me is never fully knowing Chris’s side of the story. He is largely seen through Tilde’s eyes so we can never be entirely sure if what she’s saying about him is reliable.

Daniel’s own investigation — he heads to Sweden on a solo mission to uncover evidence for himself — seems a bit rushed and he never seems to quite ask the questions I wanted him to ask. This, in turn, made me wonder if his account was unreliable, too?

And the ending itself felt abrupt — and hugely disappointing. I don’t expect everything I read in novels to be neatly tied up at the end, but this left open too many dangling threads for my liking. So while I largely enjoyed the journey I was left disappointed with the destination.

Nevertheless, The Farm is an entertaining, suspenseful (but slow-paced) read. It’s just a pity that what started out as a truly intriguing premise for a story got waylaid somewhere along the line.

This is my 18th book for #TBR40. According to my Amazon account, I purchased this book on 14 March 2015 for £2.85, but I have no idea what prompted me to buy it. Was it someone else’s review, perhaps?

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, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jamaica, Kerry Young, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Pao’ by Kerry Young

Pao by Kerry Young

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2012.

Kerry Young’s Pao tells the story of Jamaica’s history through the eyes of Yang Pao, a teenage boy who emigrates from China with his mother and brother after the death of his father in the  Second Sino-Japanese War.

It charts Pao’s life over the next 40 or so years and shows how he rises to become the gangland boss of Chinatown, inheriting the role from Zhang, his father’s friend who sent for their passage in 1938.

Written in a hypnotic Jamaican patois, it is this forthright, rhythmic voice that brings both Pao and Jamaica to life.

A charming but fallible hero

Using Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a code by which to live his life, Pao comes across as a likeable and charming man, but he is a complex and deeply flawed individual.

This is best expressed by his attitude to women: at the same time he marries Fay, the headstrong, mixed race daughter of a wealthy Chinese merchant, he commences a lifelong affair with Gloria, a black prostitute, with whom he falls in love. He manages to juggle these two relationships relatively successfully, fathering children by both women without them knowing of the others’ existence, all the while carving a successful smuggling and protection racket that turns him into a rich and powerful man.

I was torn by Pao. I loved the intimate nature of his voice, but he’s an unreliable narrator, dropping the odd hint here and there of his tendency towards violence, but because his gangland activities happen largely off the page it’s easy to fall for his charm. And he *is* charming, always ready to help others in need, whether financially or otherwise.

The most interesting aspect of the book, however, lies in its vivid portrait of an inter-racial society and the shaping of Jamaican history between 1938 to 1980. This period covers British rule and the turbulent period that followed after independence was granted in 1962.

Sometimes when Pao is talking about the political situation he loses his patois, so it feels a bit like the author has shoehorned these bits in from her research, but on the whole I much enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the follow-up, Gloria, which takes in Gloria’s side of the story, and Show Me a Mountain, which is told from Fay’s point of view.

Pao was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2011.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Naomi Alderman, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

The Power

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin (Waterstones Exclusive Gift Edition); 352 pages; 2017.

Naomi Alderman’s The Power won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I treated myself to the hardcover gift edition (only available to purchase in Waterstones) as an early Christmas present last November and loved the look, feel and weight of it in my hand (there’s something so satisfying about holding a well made physical book, isn’t there, especially if the pages turn and lie open easily and the text doesn’t run into the gutter). The contents, I’m pleased to say, were just as satisfying.

Like most dystopian fiction with a feminist slant, the story owes a lot to Margaret Atwood’s classic of the genre, The Handmaid’s Tale. But in Alderman’s tale, the women have not been subjugated by the men; instead they have achieved an extraordinary level of power, not in the conventional sense, but in a new female-only ability to electrocute people by touch.

[…] a team in Delhi […] are the first to discover the strip of striated muscles across the girls’ collarbones which they name the organ of electricity, or the skein for its twisted strands. At the points of the collar are electro-receptors enabling, they theorise, a form of electric echo-location. The buds of the skeins have been observed using MRI scans in the collarbones of newborn infant girls.

An historical novel with a difference

The story, which unfolds over a 10-year period, is written as though it is historical fiction from the perspective of a matriarchal society. It is bookended by correspondence between two friends, one of whom has written a manuscript called ‘The Power’. (The writer is Neil Adam Armon, which is clearly an anagram of Naomi Alderman; there are a lot of clever jokes in this novel, it has to be said.)

From this, the reader knows that somewhere along the line the patriarchy has been overthrown. The compellingly written narrative works its way, 12-month period by 12-month period, towards that event.

It is told through the eyes of four different characters: Roxy, the daughter of a London gangster, who witnessed the brutal murder of her mother; Margo, an ambitious local politician in the US, who has to hide the fact she has “the power”; Allie, who escapes the sexual abuse committed by her foster father, and reinvents herself as Mother Eve, the spiritual leader of the world’s female population; and Tunde, a Nigerian boy, who becomes a journalist committed to documenting the rise of women across the globe.

Their individual stories are told in alternate chapters, all in the third-person. Alderman writes in the present tense, which can often be wearing, but it works here to inject a real sense of immediacy and authenticity to the narrative, almost as if you are reading factual reportage as events develop. There’s a filmic quality to Alderman’s style, too, and it’s easy to see how the entire novel would translate to the screen.

What happens when women are in charge?

That’s not to suggest this book is simply a light-hearted romp that would make good TV. It’s much more than that. Yes, it’s a compelling, entertaining read, one that I gulped down rather greedily one cold winter’s day, but there’s much more going on here. Reading between the lines there’s a lot of commentary about the current state of the world, the ways in which women often play second fiddle to men, and the political, economic and social structures that are in place to keep it that way.

But this isn’t a feminist rant either. Alderman’s carefully constructed tale shows that power, no matter who holds it, must be handled carefully. It can go to people’s heads, it can be abused, it can be used not to help others but to harm them if it’s not treated as a privilege and an honour to hold. I came away from this book recognising that when the balance of power swings too far in one direction we all lose out.

The Power isn’t a perfect novel. Sometimes it feels too violent (there are rapes and beatings and murders described in vivid detail), but it’s a great conversation starter, one that would make a terrific book club read, for no other reason that it challenges the presumption that if women were in charge of the world it would be a much nicer, safer place. Alderman’s thesis suggests otherwise.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Benjamin Myers, Bluemoose Books, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Beastings’ by Benjamin Myers

Beastings

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bluemoose Books; 280 pages; 2014.

I have a penchant for stories told in strong, distinctive voices using sparse, pared-back prose and Benjamin Myers’ Beastings certainly ticks all those boxes.

This simple tale is essentially a chase novel in which a priest enlists the help of a poacher to pursue a young woman who’s stolen a baby. This cat-and-mouse game occurs on foot across the wild, weather-beaten landscapes of northern England over the space of a few days. And believe me when I say it’s real heart-in-the-mouth stuff for all of its 280 pages.

This book reads like a thriller but it also has all the elements of a Gothic horror story: dark woods, strange noises in the night, danger at every turn and a deranged man hellbent on finding his quarry dead or alive.

English Gothic

When Beastings opens we know very little: only that “she” has fled a house with a “bairn”, a kind of mercy mission to rescue the baby (and possibly herself) from an abusive man.

Over time, as she hurriedly makes her way across a rain-ravaged Cumbria, other pieces of her story begin to fall into place: that she is dumb, but not deaf; that she was raised by nuns and that when she came of age was placed with a farmer and his wife to help around the house.

Her pursuer is the priest in charge of the orphanage in which she was raised. His motivation for finding her is not as holy or as well-intentioned as he makes out. As the narrative unfolds we discover he is capable of extraordinary violence and that this does not bode well for the young woman he is trying to find.

Strange and beguiling tale

There’s a lot to admire in this strange and beguiling tale, not least Myers’ vivid descriptions of the landscape as a living thing, often beautiful and monstrous at the same time:

The girl stood to look at the lake again which had become less silver. Now it was dark and still and she looked at the way the mountain’s fells plunged straight down into the water over at the far side without even stopping to create a shore. In places the scree dropped near-vertically into the dark waters and it scared her to think how deep it might be and what lay at the ice-cold bottom of the lake down there and how long it had been this way. The vast unknown of the water made her feel as uneasy as the solidity of the silent mountain provided comfort.

But in these wild places, the woman finds a world full of fascinating (and not always scary) elements, too. And even while she’s struggling to find food in this alien environment, she finds comfort in beauty, in birdsong, in the simple act of being able to bathe in clear ice-cold water:

She walked around the tarn and into the trees and then sat down. It was getting dark. The trees across the tarn were becoming washed out through the twilight haze and were blurring at the edges. She watched the water and listened to the sounds of the birds getting ready to roost. She sat for a long time. She watched the sky turn and the clouds soften and the light wane then she stood and stripped to her underwear and unclothed the baby and walked into the open. She waded into the water. The cold felt like nails being driven into the soles of her feet. The girl tried to walk quickly but her feet sank into the tarn bed’s silt. It billowed up around her as she disturbed it. Turned it cloudy. It felt unctuous on her skin. Oily almost.

These evocative, almost gentle, descriptions are in stark contrast to the priest’s mission in which he becomes increasingly agitated, angry — and righteous:

All I care about is serving Him snapped the Priest. Everything I do is for Him. If I had it my way I wouldn’t have to listen to another mangled word of English from your ugly rotting mouths. If I had it my way I’d whip your stupid eyes. But such is the way of this calling. And as you yourself said you’re not a believer so why should I care about you or your gammy leg or any of your other misfortunes. You are a sinner and you are going the way of all sinners: to hell.

A superb suspense story

There’s no denying that Beastings is a rather dark and unsettling tale; there’s no wit here and little or no light relief. It plunges you into a world that feels like it’s from another century, perhaps the early 19th, but there are modern elements (electricity and telephones, for instance) which suggest it might be set in the here and now, which makes it all the more creepy.

As a suspense story, it is superb (I furiously kept turning the pages, wondering what was going to happen next), but as a stylistic work of prose it is astonishing — there’s nary a comma in it, but that certainly doesn’t detract from its power. And the ending, when it comes, is a brutal one: I was shell-shocked for days afterwards.

There’s still a lot of reading left in the year for me, but I already know Beastings is going to make my top 10 for 2017. Yes, it really is that good.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Dig by Cynan Jones: A sparsely written tale, which pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man — and debunks the myth of a bucolic countryside once and for all.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in July 2015, not long after I read Simon Savidge’s review, for the ridiculous bargain basement price of 49p!

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Five Fast Reviews: Cristina Henriquez, Joseph Kanon, Brian Moore, Tiziano Scarpa and Muriel Spark

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‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Contemporaries; 286 pages; 2015.

The-book-of-unknown-americansI read Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans for my book group, but it also fitted in quite nicely with #DiverseDecember. It’s a timely story about immigration — to the USA from Latin America — and the challenges those immigrants face on a daily basis.

Written in a light, almost “frothy” style, the novel follows the fortunes of a wide cast of characters in two families. Each character takes it in turn to tell their version of events, but there are also several chapters written as stand-alone “testimonials” by others that have also immigrated to the US. This structure serves to create a clamour of voices that show the ups and downs of moving to a new country and trying to fit in.

The blurb on the back of my edition claims it’s a love story between two teenagers — the brain-damaged Maribel Rivera, who has immigrated with her family to seek specialist education and treatment for her condition, and her neighbour Mayor Toro — and that’s partly true, but the book is more about showcasing life as an immigrant in the US, where the road isn’t always paved with gold and where racism and victimisation is always on the doorstep.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly enamoured of this novel. I didn’t like the structure and thought the themes were overly simplified. But don’t take my word for it — many in my book group really liked it and it’s been a commercial and critical success in the US, where it was named a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, and named one of the best books of the year by Oprah.com, School Library Journal, and BookPage.

‘Alibi’ by Joseph Kanon

Fiction – paperback; Sphere; 416 pages; 2007.

Alibi by Joseph KanonFor those of you who follow me on social media — and Instagram in particular — you will know I spent Christmas in Venice. It was my fourth visit to the watery city, and this time it was very much about the food and the drink, rather than the architecture and the walking (although there was plenty of that too). I packed Joseph Kanon’s Alibi in my suitcase, because I always love to read books set in the places I’m visiting, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint.

It’s largely billed as a murder mystery, but it feels more like literary fiction than anything else. It’s certainly intelligent, and the crime at its heart is almost too complex to follow, but it’s the scene setting — Venice in 1946, when everyone’s trying to deal with the outfall of the war —  which makes it such a great read. The characterisation is spot on too, especially the leads: Adam Miller, a traumatised war crimes investigator who has left the US Army and is now visiting his widowed mother in Venice,  and Claudia, an Italian Jew, who survived the death camps, with whom he falls in love.

The story, which is fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of two days, because I just had to know what happens next), is very much about love, forgiveness, war and moral culpability (one of my favourite themes in fiction and non-fiction). It brought to mind Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, which I read — and loved — years ago. This was my first Joseph Kanon; it won’t be my last.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Classics; 192 pages; 1995.

Lies of Silence by Brian MooreFirst published in 1990, Lies of Silence is one of those novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’ve had this little Bloomsbury Classic edition in my TBR pile for years, so when I was casting about for something quick and compelling to read it seemed like a good fit: I wasn’t wrong. From the first word, this is the kind of gripping read that makes your pulse race…

Set during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, it thrusts one man into a moral quandary: on the day he plans to tell his wife he’s leaving her for another, much younger, woman, the IRA orders him to park a car in the car park of the Belfast hotel he manages. Without knowing the specifics, he believes the vehicle contains a bomb. But if he refuses to carry out the task, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered; if he does what he’s told hundreds of hotels guests will be killed by the ensuing explosion. Whichever course of action he takes, there will be far-reaching and deadly repercussions…

In this intelligent, well paced novel, we see the themes of sacrifice, love, religion and war play out on a relatively small canvas. It is not your average psychological thriller. Yes, it’s a real page turner, but the prose style, almost old fashioned with an undercurrent of menace to it, lends it a literary feel. I loved it.

‘Venice is a Fish’ by Tiziano Scarpa

Non-fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 137 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside.

Venice is a Fish by Tiziano ScarpaThis is another book that I read while I was in Venice. Written by a native Venetian, it has real Italian flair: the writing is fresh and original, and much of the anecdotes contained within are humorous and (sometimes) surreal. It is strangely bewitching and, hands down, the most innovative book about Venice I’ve ever read.

Scarpa’s main thesis is that Venice is so beautiful — her paintings, her architecture, her canals — that the visitor can be inflicted with a disease known as “aesthetic radioactivity”, an idea that is pushed so much it soon becomes wearing. However, the book is filled with some good factual information of the historical variety — this isn’t a guide book telling you which hotel to stay in or what restaurant to eat at.

It’s divided into short chapters which are themed around the ways in which the visitor experiences the city. For instance, the first chapter entitled “feet” is about experiencing Venice on foot, “ears” explores the city’s noises and “nose” is about smell, and so on. My favourite, and the one that came in most handy for my trip, was “mouth”, which gave me the courage to order authentic Venetian food (rather than typical pasta and pizza) when out dining. Indeed, it’s thanks to Venice is a Fish that I soon developed an addiction to sarde in saór: fried sardines marinated in a sautéed mixture of onions, wine, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

(Note, the book could benefit from a Table of Contents and an index, and the last 40 pages fail to be clearly labelled as appendices.)

Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classic; 224 pages; 2014.

Territorial Rights by Muriel SparkTerritorial Rights is one of Muriel Spark‘s lesser-known novels — and, as I soon found out, there might be a reason for that. I read it on the basis it was set in Venice, so would be perfect holiday fare. To some extent that’s true: this was a very easy read, one that felt frothy and light and gave me several good belly laughs. But the storyline is absolutely bonkers.

I know that Spark’s plots are always a bit crazy and that her characters are often absurd and strange, but this one was filled with so many oddballs and misfits, all carrying on in weird and often abysmal ways, that I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what and why. And the ending, after all that hilarity, was also a bit of a let down.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book — it’s just that there are better Spark novels to spend your time with. But if you like farces, washed down with a good dose of eccentricity, you’d be hard pressed to find anything as perfect as this.

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Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

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‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ