Author, Book review, Books in translation, Caroline Vermalle, Fiction, France, Gallic Books, general, London, Publisher, Setting

‘George’s Grand Tour’ by Caroline Vermalle


Fiction – paperback; Gallic Books; 192 pages; 2015. Translated from the French by Anna Aitken. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Caroline Vermalle’s George’s Grand Tour is the latest in a burgeoning new genre of feel-good novels, such as Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which are bright, happy and poignant reads.

Admittedly, I tend to like my fiction on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something that practically brims with sunshine and good vibes. I read this when I was feeling slightly miserable for myself (thanks to a pulled calf muscle) and by the final page (yes, I read it in one go while lying on my bed with my leg elevated) I felt immensely cheered. It also made me want to book a holiday to France because Vermalle writes about it so evocatively, especially the fishing ports dotted along the Breton coast.

I should, however, point out that I’m going to keep this review short and sweet — a bit like the book, really — because the real joy in reading this novel is simply going along for the ride knowing as little about it as possible.

The ride, as such, is actually a road trip undertaken by George, an octogenarian, who decides to set off on a great adventure following the route of the Tour de France — in a car, not a bike — taking in 21 stages, 49 villages and covering 3,500km  over two months. He takes his best friend and neighbour Charles with him, but there’s a lot of subterfuge to his plan. First, he has to wait until his over-protective daughter is away, and then he has to figure out how to divert his landline telephone to his mobile so that when his granddaughter calls from London (to check on him) she won’t know he’s out on the road.

There’s a delightfully mischievous tone that runs throughout the narrative. There’s a touch of romance, much sightseeing, beautiful scenery, the occasional satnav diversion, a lot of drinking — and the odd hangover.

George discovers that he’s not too old to learn new things: his mastery of text messaging allows him to reconnect properly with his granddaughter Adèle via mobile phone and their exchanges, dotted through the narrative, are an absolute delight:

We r in L’Auberlac’h, Fnstr, nice port w blu boats.
(We are in L’Auberlac’h, Finistère, nice port with blue boats.)

And while the novel is framed around a road trip there’s much more to it than a long journey in a Renault Scenic: it’s an exploration of the gap between generations and our prejudices against both the young and the elderly, and shows how you are never too old to grab life by the horns and try new things. I adored it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Brooke Davis, Fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis


Fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Advance warning: Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found is going to be everywhere and you are going to have trouble avoiding it. And with good reason: this is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending.

The book has already garnered lots of attention in the author’s native Australia, where it has been a best-seller since its release last year. And it sparked a bidder’s war at the London Book Fair, suggesting that the publishers knew a good thing when they saw it. It has since been sold into 25 countries and translated into 20 languages.

I cracked it open last weekend not quite knowing what to expect and then I went on a wonderful little journey with a trio of remarkable characters that were a pleasure to spend time with. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.

Obsessed by death

When the book opens we meet Millie, who is obsessed with death and dead things. She’s recently lost her pet dog Rambo and then, more tragically, her father. By page six she’s “lost” her mother — in the literal sense, not the euphemistic sense — when she’s told to wait in a department store’s “Ginormous Womens Underwear” section, while her mum disappears into the distance — never to be seen again.

Millie will carry this around with her from now on, this picture of her mum getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It will reappear behind her eyes at different times throughout the course of her life.

An overnight stay ensues, hidden under the giant undies, and then she meets Karl the Touch Typist, an 87-year-old man who has escaped his nursing home and is living in the department store without anyone’s knowledge. The pair form an unlikely friendship.

Later, when Millie makes her way home alone, thwarting the best efforts of the police and social services, she meets her neighbour, 82-year-old Agatha Pantha, who hasn’t left her house since her husband died. Instead, she spends her time shouting insults through the window at passing strangers, earning a reputation as the neighbourhood’s “crazy lady”.

Together the trio set off to find Millie’s mum. What follows is an exciting — and somewhat manic — cross-country road trip involving buses, trains, a stolen car — and a department store mannequin.

A kooky cast of characters

What I loved most about this book is the characters. They really get under the skin and feel real: Agatha with her tendency to shout inappropriate Tourettes-like “sound bites” at all and sundry, Karl who constantly taps, taps, taps his fingers in memory of his life as a typist, and Millie with her dogged determination to avoid the police and find her mum.

While 80 years separates the oldest from the youngest, the three have one thing in common: they are all grieving: Millie for her dad (and her mum), Karl for his beloved wife Evie, and Agatha for her husband Ron. Interestingly, Brooke Davis wrote Lost & Found as a way to deal with her own grief after the sudden death of her mother seven years ago, and with this knowledge in mind, the reader can’t help but see Millie’s sense of abandonment as a reflection of the author’s.

It’s important to have your mum. Mums bring you jackets and turn on your electric blanket before you get into bed and always know what you want better than you do. And they sometimes let you sit on their lap and play with the rings on their fingers while Deal or No Deal is on.

But while the novel is about grief and death, it’s also about the joy of living and posits the idea that you’re never too old to do new things or start again. Yes, it is moving in places, but there’s an undercurrent of mischievous delight and black humour that stops it from being sentimental or emotionally manipulative. And Davis reigns in the “cutesy” factor so that it never succumbs to schmaltz, either.

Lost & Found  might be whimsical and comic, but to dismiss it as a “frothy” read would miss the point: this is a novel that has deeper philosophical meaning, one that will make you feel good about the possibilities that life offers when you grab it with both hands — no matter how young or old you might be.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Meike Ziervogel, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘Clara’s Daughter’ by Meike Ziervogel

Clara's Daughter

Fiction – paperback; Salt Publishing; 133 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you have ever read any translated novellas published by Peirene Press, then Meike Ziervogel* will be a familiar name for she is the founder and publisher of that independent and award-winning London-based company.

Meike is also an accomplished writer, and her first book, Magda, which fictionalised the story of the wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was published by Salt Publishing to critical acclaim last year.  (I am yet to read it.)

Her new book, Clara’s Daughter, explores universal themes focused on love, marriage, growing old and the sometimes complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.

Strained relations

Set in north London, the story revolves around middle-aged businesswoman Michele, who is successful at her job — she loves the “status and illusion of power that it gives” — but is floundering at home. Her children, Felix and Thea, have finally left the nest, and now Michele and her husband, Jim, are forced to confront the reality that they no longer have anything in common after 25 years of marriage.

To complicate matters, Michele’s mother, Clara (of the title), needs looking after — there is talk of placing her in a home, although Michele’s sister, Hilary, doesn’t like the idea. Eventually, Clara is installed in the basement of Michele’s home, but despite sharing a house the two are unable to relax in each other’s company and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to communicate.

I hear her turn the key, open the door, close it. For a moment there is silence while she quietly removes her shoes. Then she tiptoes into the kitchen. I hear her take a glass. Silence. Then water is running out the taps. I know she will stand at the top of the stairs to the basement, holding her breath, listening. Nothing except darkness will meet her. I am pretending to be asleep.

The book highlights the tensions in Michele’s marriage as well as the tensions between her, her much more “forgiving” but highly strung younger sister, and Clara, who is fiercely independent but also fearful, lonely and increasingly paranoid.

Clever structure

Clara’s Daughter is told in uncluttered prose (though, admittedly, the first chapter feels a bit “flowery”, which is not indicative of the rest of the book), from various viewpoints and in brief chapters that jump backwards and forwards in time. The narrative is informed by an uncanny sense of silence and of space, which not only gives the story room to “breathe” but helps create a sense of increasing tension.

The clever structure shows how past resentments can fester if not dealt with, as well as fleshing out the frailty of sexual love, the harsh realities of family duty and the different sides of ourselves that we present at work and home.

I found it a rather taut drama about domestic and matriarchal power in which each character is stuck in a “role” from which they can’t truly escape. It made me think a lot about how we treat our aged parents and whether daughters are always destined to become their mothers. This story doesn’t exactly provide the answers, but for a book that is less than 140 pages, it certainly packs a lot in.

It’s occasionally chilling but has a distinct ring of truth about it. I came away from the book feeling slightly unnerved, as if I’d had a ringside seat at a family gathering I wasn’t supposed to attend. It’s not designed to be voyeuristic, but the characters are so realistically drawn, so flawed and full of foibles, I felt I’d got personally caught up in their funny little power plays…

* In the interests of full disclosure, I know Meike personally.