2016 YWOYA, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Max Porter, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 128 pages; 2015.

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers recently won the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize. This prestigious award  is granted annually to the best published literary work (in the English language) written by an author aged 39 or under.

I read it for my book group (which explains why this is the first book by a non-Australian I’ve reviewed all year; I haven’t abandoned #ReadingAustralia2016, in case you were wondering), but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the meeting. Which is a shame, because I suspect this is the kind of book that would really benefit from discussion it’s so brimful of (sometimes puzzling) ideas and evocative descriptions of love and death and marriage and parenthood. And its literary “tricks” —passages that read like poetry, bits that evoke the atmosphere of a forbidding fable, the fragmentary nature of the narrative and prose littered with metaphors and idioms  — are discussion worthy too.

A curious tale

At just 128 pages in length, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a curious little novella, which tells the story of a young widower left to raise two young boys. Four or five days after the unexpected death of his wife, the doorbell rings. When “Dad” answers it, there is no-one there, but he is assailed by a terrible stench.

There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. […] I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.

Feathers.
[…] Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.

The crow says to Dad: “I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.” And therein the bird, an obvious metaphor for grief, moves in to the family home and makes a nuisance of himself. He’s scary, untamable, rather forbidding. His very presence is startling and deeply unsettling, and that’s reflected in the mood of the book, which feels like part meditation on grief, part Gothic fairy tale.

But there’s slightly more going on here, because Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and Ted Hughes, the British poet and husband of Sylvia Plath, once wrote a rather famous poetry collection called Crow, published in 1972, that is said to be ripe with mythology and history. I’ve not read Crow, so I’m inclined to think that  most of the references — I suspect they’re dotted throughout this novella, much like moulting feathers on an aviary floor (see what I did there?) — went over my head.

Wholly original

While it initially starts off full of clichés (the seven phases of grief, the hot food coming from neighbours and all the usual things that happen to the family left behind when someone dies), it then morphs into something wholly original, full of rich vivid imagery and rhetorical effects.

Having taken it on face value and seen it as a story about unexpected loss, I thought it was an interesting, hypnotic read (it feels very much like poetry in places). It was occasionally dark and terrifying but also grimly funny. But I felt I might have understood it slightly better if I was familiar with Ted Hughes’ poetry.

So, as much as I enjoyed this short foray into a fable-like world, I didn’t love it. But if you’re up for something a little different, or have experienced loss in your own life, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is sure to resonate.

UPDATE 6 NOVEMBER 2016 

This is my 1st book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hidden Symptoms’ by Deirdre Madden

Hidden-symptoms

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 144 pages; 2014.

In recent years, Deirdre Madden has become one of my favourite writers. She has 10 novels to her name, but I’ve only reviewed three of them — One by One in the Darkness (published in 1996), Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008) and Time Present and Time Past (2013) — which means I have many years of reading pleasure ahead of me if I space them out accordingly.

Her debut novel, Hidden Symptoms,  first published in 1986, is a densely constructed story about a trio of characters living in Belfast during The Troubles.

It revolves around university student Theresa, a devout Catholic, whose faith is tested by the murder of her twin brother, whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on a patch of waste ground near the city centre several years earlier, the result of sectarian violence.

Love and violence

But the story is just as much about the faith — and the trust — placed in friendships, for Theresa spends most of her time with Robert, a writer and frustrated intellectual, who aspires to better things and despises his sister’s sheltered suburban life, and Robert’s girlfriend, Kathy, a fellow student, who discovers that the father she thought had died when she was a baby is actually living in London with his new young family.

The background to these family dramas — “people marrying, mating and mixing genes” —  is Belfast in the 1980s, a time of great conflict between paramilitary forces, British state security forces and political activists. Yet despite the violence, Theresa views it as “normal” because, as she explains early on in the novel, “she had watched it [Belfast] sink since her childhood from ‘normality’ to its present state”.

What she cannot come to terms with, however, is knowing that someone in the city killed her brother purely because of his religion (he was not known to be a member of any paramilitary organisation). She is plagued by pain, distress and paranoia:

… she arrived too early for an arranged meeting with Kathy in a city-centre pub. She bought a drink and while she waited she looked around at the other customers, the majority of whom were men, until slowly the thought of the man who had killed her brother crept back into her mind. Those men who were laughing in the corner; that man with reddish hair and big, rough hands who was drinking alone; even the white-coated barman, cutting wedges of lemon for gin-and-tonics: any one of them might have done it. She gazed at each of them in turn and thought in cold fright: “Is he the one? Did he do it? Is he the man who murdered Francis?”

The political and religious divide

Admittedly, Theresa is not a terribly likeable person — she’s (understandably) bitter and angry, and all her conversations tend towards the argumentative, particularly where politics is concerned. Her relationship with Robert, initiated in a cafe when she roundly criticises and condemns a piece about Irish literature that he wrote in a magazine, is fraught from the outset but it soon descends into irreconcilable differences because their views on politics and religion are so polarised.

And yet despite her fierce talk and hard-held opinions, there’s a fragility about Theresa that is hard to ignore. Her grief, at times, is palpable, and it is to Madden’s credit that it never descends into maudlin self-pity or sentimentality.

Hidden Symptoms is a short novel — indeed, it was originally published in Faber’s First Fictions anthology where it was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1987 — but it’s so tightly written it would take an age to unpick all the issues and themes it contains. As a dark exploration of bereavement, faith, love, loyalty and violence, you would be hard pressed to find a book more powerful — or intelligent.

Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

Stella-Bain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

Author, Book review, Celeste Ng, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng

Everything-I-never-told-you

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 297 pages; 2014.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

So begins Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, a novel about the disintegration of a family in the wake of the eldest daughter’s death, which my book group chose for its March discussion.

The book is hugely popular — it’s been a A New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and was named as Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014 — and it’s easy to see why: it’s an effortless read and hugely engaging. I wanted to eat it up in one greedy gulp. Despite the tragedy at its heart, it’s a truly compelling story written in prose so polished it practically gleams. The characters are well drawn, if not always likeable, and the author fleshes out their fears and foibles to make them feel (frustratingly) real.

But two weeks after having read it, I struggled to even remember the most basic of details — the character’s names, for instance — and had to skim read sections to familiarise myself with it again prior to our book group meeting. This is not to suggest it’s a fluffy read, for it is not, but much like the convoluted title, it’s not exactly memorable. Yet if you had have asked me what I thought of Everything I Never Told You in the immediate afterglow of finishing  it, I would have said it was near perfect. Now? I’d describe it as very good — and I’d probably give it four stars.

A family in free fall

So, what’s the story about? Essentially it focuses on what happens to individual members of the Lee family following the death of 16-year-old Lydia, who drowned in the lake behind the family home. Initially, it’s not clear whether her death was an accident, homicide or suicide, but this book is not a crime novel: it’s an exposé on closely-held secrets, family history, parental expectations, sexual equality, identity, racism and grief.

Lydia’s parents have an inter-racial marriage — Marilyn is white, James is first generation Chinese American — so their children are mixed race. And in Ohio in the 1970s, when this story takes place, that sets this family apart. James, especially, has struggled his whole life to fit in, to be accepted as a “true” American, but has never felt comfortable in his own skin. This unease is passed on to his children — Nathan, Lydia and Hannah — as this extract, from Lydia’s point-of-view demonstrates:

Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn’t think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express—a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you’d been cut out and pasted in. You thought: Wait, what’s she doing there? And then you remembered that she was you. You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.

This desperation to belong — and to keep her parents happy — puts untold pressure on Lydia, pressure that James thinks may have led to her death. But this isn’t just about race, because Marilyn, too, has unwittingly added to Lydia’s burden by pushing her at school in order to become the professional career woman Marilyn was unable to become.

Portrait of a marriage

The book has a seamless narrative that spools backwards and forwards to focus on individual family members — including Lydia — before and after Lydia’s death. Central to this is the Lee’s marriage, which the author examines in exacting (and compelling) detail, tracing James and Marilyn’s relationship from the moment they met — she was a college student, he was a tutor — until it splinters under the weight of grief.

There’s an alarming lack of communication between them — neither knows the other’s innermost dreams or fears or desires. The only thing keeping them together is their children and, in particular, Lydia, who is fawned over as the “favourite” child, the one whom will fulfil their hopes and ambitions.

Their other children — space-obsessed Nath, who is never praised or encouraged in any of his intellectual pursuits, and young Hannah, who hovers around the edges, observant but ignored and somewhat neglected by her elders  —  must battle their grief alone.

It might sound like a heart-breaking read — and it is — but Ng pulls back from making it too cloying or sentimental. Perhaps the only faults are that we never quite get to know Hannah as well as any of the other characters — she’s simply a vehicle to observe the family’s breakdown — and the racism/identity theme gets slightly overplayed. But on the whole Everything I Never Told You is an astonishingly mature piece of work for a debut novel. Its precise, often painful observations about our deep need to belong makes it a powerful, heart-felt and intimate read. And I completely understand why so many people have been held in its sway.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Freight Books, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, UK

‘Any Other Mouth’ by Anneliese Mackintosh

Any Other Mouth

Fiction – Kindle edition; Freight Books; 224 pages; 2014.

Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth won last year’s Green Carnation Prize, a prize awarded to LGBT writers for any form of the written word, from memoir to fiction, poetry to non-fiction. The book is difficult to classify, because even though it’s novelistic it feels very much like a memoir, and it’s structured around a serious of almost stand-alone chapters, so it could also be viewed as a short story collection, too.

Not that any of this matters, because pigeonholing Any Other Mouth does it a disservice: it offers a fascinating glimpse of one young woman’s struggle with identity, depression and grief after the death of her father. Think Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar meets Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and you’ll be in the right ball park.

Looking for direction

Gretchen, the first person narrator, has a distinctive and likeable voice, but from the outset it’s clear she’s a little messed up and in need of some direction, none of which she gets from her widowed mother (who has her own set of kooky problems), nor her younger sister.

My grief is bigger than your grief. My grief is so big it stretches my skin. My grief is so strong it crushes my bones. So hard it gives me black eyes. So cold I weep icicles. And my grief is so long that it dangles over my food when I’m trying to eat, causing me to throw up onto my plate, and onto my grief.

The story flips backwards and forwards in time. Many of the chapters are simply about incidents from Gretchen’s past that she’s recalling. Some of it revolves around her childhood and memories of her father, but much of it is about her time at university, where she was clearly bright (she did a PhD, but failed it), yet was never able to settle down. This worsened when her father became ill.

There’s not much of a plot, though there is a sense of movement — of Gretchen trying to break through her grief so that she can make sense of herself and her future — but Any Other Mouth is largely a character study, even if that character is enormously self-absorbed and immature. You get the sense this is a young woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, constantly looking for her rightful place in the world and desperate for the love and attention she can’t seem to get from her own family, nor the dizzying succession of lovers (of both sexes) that she takes up with.

Lightness of touch

Written with a lightness of touch — “frothy” is a word that kept recurring during my book group’s discussion of this book — it is fast-paced and imminently readable. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for frivolity or superficiality, because Mackintosh addresses some important and “heavy” themes including sex, sexuality, mental illness, self-harm and drug use. I was particularly shocked by Gretchen’s experience on a night out in which she was gang raped by a group of strangers in a pub, a secret she kept to herself for years. For this reader at least, it was like being walloped over the head with a frying pan. But it also explained a lot about why this young woman was so mixed up and “damaged”.

As this might suggest, it’s a very raw and confronting read in places. It includes painful truths about growing up and trying to carve your own path in the world when things around you are falling apart and you’re not quite sure which direction to take. But it’s not a miserable book: among the pain and sadness there’s humour too — Mackintosh is exceptionally good at capturing the absurdity of student life and living in a shared household for the first time, for example.

But for all its strengths, Any Other Mouth does feel like a series of creative writing exercises strung together (many of the chapters have been published as stories in literary magazines and journals, and some have even won prizes), so it will be interesting to see what this author tackles next. A more traditionally structured novel, perhaps?

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

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis

Lost-and-found

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, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

The-closet-of-savage-mementos

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2014.

In late 2013 I read Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s astonishing debut novel You, which was about a young girl growing up in 1980s Dublin. Told in the present tense and in the second person (from the viewpoint of the girl), it was a truly memorable read, and when I heard the author had a new novel coming out I promptly bought myself a copy.

The Closet of Savage Mementos is perhaps the grown-up version of You, seeing as it tells the story of a young woman grappling with love, loss and difficult family relationships, who, some 20 years later, must confront the confusion, grief and anger associated with her past.

It’s a quietly understated read but hugely evocative of time and place, written in a straightforward prose style that brims with humanity and real emotion. It was only after I finished the novel that I discovered it was largely based on Ní Chonchúir’s own life, which only serves to make it a more poignant and profound read.

A novel in two parts

The book is divided into two parts. The first is set in 1991, when Lillis Yourell, a budding photographer who works part-time in a camera shop, takes a summer job as a waitress in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s something she’d been planning for a while, but when her best friend and sometime lover, Donal, dies in a motorbike accident it’s a way of clearing her head and coming to terms with her grief. It’s also a chance to escape her visual artist mother, Verity, an alcoholic with a tongue that cuts like a knife — “I hate people who remind me of myself. And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her” — and to ensure her gay brother, Robin, shoulders some of the responsibility of “parenting” her.

While in Scotland, Lillis falls for a much older man, and their romance, played out under the eyes of the small tourist community of Kinlochbrack, offers much-needed solace during a time of loneliness, but it also has unforeseen consequences that change Lillis’s life forever…

The second part of the book is set 20 years later. Lillis is 41 and back living in contemporary Dublin, where she continues to deal with her difficult mother, “a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian”. She’s recently married for the first time and just had a new baby. Life is interesting but what happened in Scotland all those years ago still niggles.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so you’ll have to read the book, but let’s just say Lillis has the courage to confront — and reconcile — her past, and it’s rather lovely and sweet and tear-inducing.

New and fresh writing

As ever, the writing in this novel is gorgeous, probably not surprising given the author is also a poet. But open any page and there are sentences that sing, little descriptions that really capture a scene or a moment in new and fresh ways: the “navy lumps of the hills opposite are like whales, huge and motionless”, a baby’s “skin is butter soft” and he has “lamb-chubby thighs”; a blue paperweight with bubbles of glass around a piece of seaweed “looks like fireworks have gone off underwater”.

And the characters are wonderfully drawn, though some, such as Robin, are frustratingly unknowable, probably because we only ever really see things from Lillis’s point of view.

The Closet of Savage Mementos could be called a coming-of-age story, but I think it’s more firmly rooted in a sharply observed “life story” and how the arrival of motherhood changes the perception of ourselves and our own mothers. Indeed, if there is an overriding theme it is that the thing Lillis fears most is turning into her mother, based, I suspect, on the belief that bad parenting causes bad parenting.

Robin bent towards me. “Hey, do you remember the time you broke her china jug and the two of us buried it in the bottom of the garden? I was thinking about that yesterday.”
[…]
“God, I’d kind of forgotten about that day. She kept at us and at us until we showed her where we’d hidden the bits.”
“Then she locked us under the stairs. Good old Verity and her brilliant parenting.”

The book deals with some heavy subjects related to parenthood, marriage, siblings, betrayal, grief, death and alcoholism, but the author keeps a tight rein on the narrative and never lets it turn into a misery memoir. It’s lightened by moments of gentle humour — even the idea of Verity collecting roadkill to turn into “taxidart” is quite funny:

“She skins and mounts them and dresses them in costumes […] she was presented with a monkey recently; she gave it a pipe, a pinny and high heels.”

But in essence The Closet of Savage Mementos is just a great read. It’s a raw, honest and uncompromising novel about one woman reconciling her past with her present. I loved it.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín

Nora-Webster

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 385 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It will come as no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, would be right up my street.

I enjoyed his 1992 novel The Heather Blazing, when I read it more than 20 years ago, as well as more recent forays into his work, specifically The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn (both reviewed on this blog), and I have been saving up some of his others for “comfort reads” — because, to be frank, that’s how I view his writing: it’s often unbearably sad and melancholic but I find his lyrical style, its form and rhythm, quite comforting. And yet, when I read Nora Webster, I didn’t find it particularly comforting at all… I found it, well, let me be frank once again, kind of lacking. Let me explain.

A woman’s grief

The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford (Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy to be precise) in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.

Early on in the novel there are two pivotal moments: the first is the realisation that Nora is broke and must return to work, something she hasn’t done since becoming a mother; and the second is her inability to see the harm she might have caused her two boys when she placed them in the care of an aunt while her husband was ill in hospital — during that time she never once visited them or let them see their father.

Now, bereft and grieving, she realises she must get on with life without her husband by her side. Her return to part-time work is fraught with difficulties — mainly in the form of a bitchy boss, whose antics are so over-the-top as to be cartoonish — and she’s constantly worried about her eldest son who seems to have developed a stutter, but there is hope and redemption too, mainly in the form of music, when Nora rediscovers her ability to sing. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of last year’s Giller short-listed novel Tell by Frances Itani, in which music and song serves to sooth the loneliness of a woman grappling with the return of her husband crippled during the Great War.)

Character-driven narrative

There’s not much of a plot in this book — it basically follows Nora getting on with her new life as a widow and raising her two now-fatherless sons as best she can over the course of several years. It’s largely character driven. Typically, the characters — Nora, her children, her siblings and their families, her work colleagues, new friends and the local nuns — are beautifully drawn, and Tóibín builds up a realistic portrait of a close-knit community at a time when life (and gossip) was so much simpler than it is now.

Indeed, Toibin is at his best when he focuses on the minutiae of Nora’s daily life — the housework, her job, the care of her sons, her singing practice — and the sense of community that surrounds, and occasionally smothers, her: this is a woman who wants to grieve alone but Irish village life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, refuses to let her do so.

It’s a slow, gentle read, and a moving portrait of one woman’s grief, but I kept wondering whether the narrative was going to build to any particular climax (it doesn’t). I felt as if the story was plodding along, going nowhere and I occasionally grew bored — I hate to say it, but even Tóibín’s lovely lyrical voice wasn’t enough to sustain me on the journey.

That said, I do need to issue two caveats. First, I read Nora Webster immediately in the wake of Mary Costello’s extraordinarily powerful debut novel, Academy Street, which meant it paled by comparison. And second, I did not realise the book was based on Tóibín’s own mother until I watched the BBC documentary Colm Toibin: His Mother’s Son just days after finishing it. I think having this knowledge in mind while reading the book would have certainly made me more sympathetic to the novel’s aims: to explore why Nora Webster — flawed and fragile — behaved in the ways she did during her husband’s illness and afterwards…

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Padma Viswanathan, Penguin Canada, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ever After of Ashwin Rao’ by Padma Viswanathan

Ever After of Ashwin Rao

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin Canada; 374 pages; 2014.

Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. The Ashwin Rao of the title is an Indian psychologist who returns to Canada — where he trained — to do a “study of comparative grief”.

His subjects are the family members who survived a terrorist attack in which Air India flight 182 was bombed over the Atlantic en route from Montreal to Delhi, via London Heathrow, in 1985. More than 300 people were killed — mainly Canadian citizens — but the case was not brought to trial until 2004, the year in which the book is set. (As an aside, you can read more about the incident on Wikipedia.)

Rao wants to find out how these people coped — “by what means did they go on?” — but his study is not exactly objective. He, too, lost family members in the tragedy — his sister and her two children — but he’s not always forthcoming about this, because he wants to keep his “professional distance”. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that in examining other people’s grief he is essentially exploring his own — even if he might not know it.

Survivors of a terrorist bomb

The novel, which spans summer 2004 to spring 2005, is structured around Rao’s interviews with survivors. Their individual stories — how their loved ones came to be on the flight, how they coped in the aftermath of the tragedy, what their lives have involved in the 18 years since — are “imagined” using a psychological technique Rao has been practising for his entire professional career.

This technique stems from his compulsive journal keeping, something that he has been doing since childhood:

But I keep a journal differently. I note, on a left-hand page, an anecdote — something characteristic or outrageous a friend or family member said, or perhaps a confidence told to me. On the facing page, for as many pages as it takes, I properly tell the story: third-person, quasi-fictionalised, including matters not witnessed, details I can’t really know, and so try to explain what I have seen or heard.

These stories are mostly unbearably sad but are lightened by a wry sense of humour. They are interleaved with Rao’s own story — his life in India rife with political and religious tension, the freedom he discovered in Canada when he arrived in 1969 to study medicine, the love affair he had with a Canadian woman who went on to marry someone else — in a voice that is distinctive, self-deprecating, occasionally angry, often melancholy, opinionated, philosophical and a little old-fashioned.

Unfortunately, Rao’s voice eventually gets subsumed by a larger story — that of Professor Sethuratnam, his daughter Brinda and his cousin Venkataraman, whose wife and son were killed in the tragedy — which comes to a rather unexpected and somewhat unbelievable conclusion.

While The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has worthy aims — to explore the notion of grief, to look at the long-lasting repercussions of terrorism, to examine multiculturalism and religion — the execution is confused and the narrative occasionally lacks focus. This is not to say it is a bad book — it’s far from that, as its prize listing would suggest — but it demands the reader’s full attention without necessarily offering much of a reward. Admittedly, I only continued reading it as part of my Shadow Giller jury obligations — I fear I may have abandoned it otherwise.