Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Meena Kandasamy, Publisher, Setting

‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy

When I hit you

Fiction – hardcover; Atlantic Books; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Shocking. Disturbing. Oppressive. But not without hope. These are the first words that spring to mind to describe Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018, and longlisted for both the Jhalak Prize 2018 and the Dylan Thomas Prize 2018, this short novel is a ferociously powerful story about a young woman who endures an abusive marriage but manages to escape it in what appears to be the nick of time.

A brief, tumultuous marriage

When the book opens, the unnamed narrator has fled her unhappy marriage which lasted just four months. It’s five years after the fact, and her mother, with whom she now lives, “has not stopped talking about it”.

But the “writer is the one who controls the narrative” and so, by chapter two, we are thrust into the young woman’s past life as a new bride, living in an unfamiliar city in a small house where, within the space of two months, she has already learned to escape her husband’s wrath by dressing as dowdily as possible:

I should be blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out. Like a house after a robbery. Like a mannequin stripped of its little black dress and dragged away from the store window, covered in a bedsheet and locked off in the godown.

The book charts the disintegration of this mismatched pairing between a vibrant, worldly-wise middle-class woman, who is a writer, and a dashing university lecturer, who is abusive and controlling. It begins with small things — he forbids her from using Facebook, for instance, and then deletes her email account — and then, once he’s totally isolated her from family, friends and colleagues, slides into more damaging psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Thematic chapters

Kandasamy doesn’t tell the story in a straightforward narrative arc. Yes, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, but the book is structured around thematic chapters: there’s the one about the narrator mourning all the lost lovers she never had; another about the two-year long love affair she had with a politician who was 20 years her senior; another looking at what prevents a woman from walking out of an abusive relationship; another about her husband’s slide into paranoia and delusion. But it’s the entire chapter devoted to rape within marriage, which makes for particularly uncomfortable (and sickening) reading.

Always there is the threat of violence in the air, the feeling that one must tip-toe around the home — no longer a place of sanctuary — to avoid being punished.

My husband is in the kitchen. He is channelling his anger, practising his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

The prose, as you can probably tell from the excerpts I have quoted, is eloquent and heavy with metaphors and similes. I normally shun the clichéd phrase “beautiful writing”, but it’s a perfect description for what Kandasamy does here. She’s also a poet and I think that is very much evident in her narrative style, which feels so effortless to read.

Intellectual rigour

Yet on every page there are lines and entire passages that are ripe with meaning. There’s an intellectual rigour at play too, which may not be a surprise given that the author is also an academic who is outspoken on a range of issues including feminism, violence against women and annihilation of caste. I underlined so much of its contents I fear I may have ruined the book’s pages forever.

And while the contents are dark — boy, are they dark — the reader comes away feeling hopeful that the narrator has the potential to forge a new, happier life for herself, free from the shackles of a man who wanted to destroy her.  Intriguingly, Kandasamy says the book is based on her own brief, violent marriage in 2012. (This interview with her in The Wire explains more.)

When I Hit You was named in the Guardian‘s Best Books of 2017, the Daily Telegraph‘s Best Books of 2017, the Observer Best Books of 2017, and the Financial Times Best Books of 2017. It will probably appear on my best books of 2018 list at the end of the year.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Casey, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sinners’ Bell’ by Kevin Casey

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 228 pages; 2017.

A few years back I read Kevin Casey’s A State of Mind, a memorable novel about a struggling writer living in Co. Wicklow, whose life is under threat from the IRA. Loosely based on British author Frederick Forsyth’s experiences as a tax exile living in Ireland in the 1970s, it was part political thriller, part romance. I thoroughly enjoyed it but was disappointed to find that the rest of Casey’s work (three earlier novels from the 60s and 70s) was out of print.

So imagine my delight to find that his debut novel, first published by Faber and Faber in 1968, sitting on the table in Hodges Figgis Bookshop on a recent trip to Dublin. Reprinted by Lilliput Press, The Sinners’ Bell comes with a short introduction by the author, who says his original intention was to write about the small Irish town in which he was born and raised to show how societal changes impacted the young people living there.

What ensues is not only a credible portrait of a town undergoing change, it’s a melancholy portrait of a miserable marriage between a young woman and the local publican’s moody son. It’s incredibly atmospheric and captures the loneliness, despair and isolation of the new bride so perfectly I feel my heart aching with each turn of the page.

A doomed wedding

From the book’s opening on the day of Helen and Frank’s wedding in a small town in Ireland, we know the marriage is not going to be a charmed one. It’s raining, Frank drinks too much, the piano is out of tune and played badly, and Keenan, the father of the groom, vomits at the reception. Later, safely arrived at their honeymoon destination — a seedy hotel in London’s Paddington — Helen hopes things will improve. They don’t.

She had borrowed a travel book from the library and read of the Tower and the Palace and Madame Tussaud’s. London meant excitement to her. […] Frank had spent two years there but seldom spoke about them.

Frank’s lack of talking about his time in London should be a warning to her: what is he trying to hide? But she’s just 20 years old and is rather naive. Raised by her father after the untimely death of her mother, she’s not exactly worldly-wise. She’s a good daughter, kind-hearted and optimistic about the future, but the first few days of her marriage are a major disappointment: there’s nary a word of romance or tenderness between the newlyweds (the wedding night itself is a shock to her), nor is there any chance to go sightseeing. Instead, Frank drags Helen to a succession of sordid pubs, so he can go drinking with his old mate, Tom.

When the couple return to Ireland, living in a provincial backwater town, it’s not much better. They move into rooms above the pub that Frank’s parents own and where Helen does shifts behind the bar. It’s a lonely, joyless existence. Frank is volatile, manipulative, childish. His parents offer no support: his mother is cold and indifferent to Helen; his father is an alcoholic prone to grotesque displays of drunkenness, which often requires medical intervention.

Her own father, with whom she has always had a close relationship, keeps his distance, not wanting to meddle in his daughter’s affairs now that she is married and no longer in his care. And strangely, she does not seek comfort from him, preferring to just get on with her lot, even if she’s desperately unhappy and doesn’t know where to turn.

A claustrophobic read

Largely told from Helen’s point of view, The Sinners’ Bell could be seen as a dreary, domestic novel, but Casey’s ability to get inside a woman’s head and to articulate her thoughts so well is a minor triumph. There is sadness, disappointment, betrayal and moroseness here, a dutiful daughter and wife whose passivity slowly gives way to a mounting anger and desire to take control of her own destiny — even if it’s too late.

I read this book with a sense of dread. But I loved it’s beautifully evoked sense of claustrophobia, where everyone in a small town knows everyone else’s business, and where the Church controls every facet of a person’s life. It reminded me very much of  John Broderick’s The Pilgrimage, which is also about small town life in 1960s Ireland, and Elizabeth Harrower’s Down in the City, which is a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage between polar opposites that is doomed to failure.

The Sinners’ Bell isn’t a cheery read. But it’s bold and atmospheric, an unflinching examination of a way of life long since over. Thank goodness.

I read this as part of Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Kate Jennings, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 154 pages; 2001.

Sometimes it’s the things that aren’t said which make a book more powerful than a verbose, overly written one. That’s certainly the case for Kate Jenning’s debut novella, Snake, which was first published in the UK in 2001.

A portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia, it’s written in bare, lean prose — the word “skeletal” comes to mind — and yet the story has an intensity that only comes when the author has taken the care to make each and every word count.

A novella in four parts

Snake comprises fragmentary “chapters” reminiscent of the style used in recent novels, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, some of which are only a page long, and is divided into four parts.

The first part introduces us to Rex, whose wife Irene despises him and whose children ignore him. It’s written in an almost scathing tone of voice, but its second-person style is not indicative of the rest of the novella: it simply sets the scene for what follows. Or rather, it tells us how this man’s life has turned out after many years of marriage, which begs the question: how did it all go so drastically wrong?

That’s fleshed out in the rest of the novella, which, in part two, rewinds to the wedding day: one that brims with promise even if “man-crazy” 20-year-old Irene has rushed down the aisle without proper regard for whether the union is likely to be a long-lasting one. In just 13 pages (and six chapters) we get an overview of the newly married couple and their respective parents  from a variety of perspectives — and it’s clear this is not going to be a love match made in heaven.

Perhaps Billie, Irene’s bridesmaid, sums up the mismatch best:

Her eyes skipped over the guests until she located the groom, whose name was Rex. He was chatting with Irene’s parents, a handsome fellow with a gentle manner and a modest row of medals pinned to his uniform, and of interest beyond his role as groom, being freshly returned from the Victory March in London. Billie found it easy to understand why Irene had fallen for him. But, poor lamb, he did look bewildered, rather like a schoolboy who’d lost his lunch money.

A failed marriage

The rest of the book follows the course of the marriage through its ups (of which there’s not very many) and its downs. The couple settle in an old house on an 800-acre irrigated farm that once belonged to Irene’s father. It’s 500 miles from the nearest city — and Irene hates the isolation, especially when her first child, Girlie, comes along. (A boy, named Boy, follows shortly after.)

Before long she takes her irritation out on all those around her — “Irene’s moods filled the house; there was no escaping” — while Rex, who wonders if there might be something wrong with this wife, only loses his temper when he’s been goaded into it; he mainly remains quiet. This is the routine to which their lives fall, and not even infidelity and other distractions (gardening, a new job at the local radio station, raising the children) can break the pattern of bad behaviour and non-communication.

While there’s plenty of black humour throughout, it’s heartbreaking in places, for the absence of love not only marrs their marriage but it also affects their children, neither of whom seem to have much respect for their parents. It seems pertinent that the snake, usually a symbol of fertility and the creative life force, is used throughout as a metaphor for the poison at the heart of the union between Rex and Irene.

In its examination of lives sullied by disappointment, contempt and regret, Snake is a commanding novel: one that will leave an impact. And despite its flat, matter-of-fact prose style, the narrative reads like a series of hypnotic poems brimful of acute observations and eloquent language. I read it in the space of an afternoon and when I came to the end it felt like emerging from a powerful dream. More please.

This is my 28th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 19th for #AWW2016.

Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

The-grass-is-singing

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.

 

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, Catherine Lacey, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, New York, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Nobody is Ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey

Nobody-is-ever-missing

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I must admit to getting a bit tired of reading contemporary novels about marriages gone wrong which are told entirely from the wife’s angst-ridden perspective — think Hausfrau and Dept. Of Speculation — but Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing is cut from (slightly) different cloth.

Running away to the other side of the world

For a start, there’s no sex in this novel, there’s no affair, indeed there doesn’t appear to be any good reason as to why the narrator, Elyria, would want to leave her stable life in Manhattan to do something totally unpredictable, irresponsible and dangerous. But that’s what she does. She buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand, presumably to get as far away from her husband as possible, and tells no one of her plans. She doesn’t even leave a note.

On the other side of the world, with little more than a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it to guide her, she hitchhikes from the north island to the south, having mini adventures and escapades along the way, until she lands at the farm she intended to find. Here, she moves in with Werner, a writer she once met in Manhattan, who casually invited her to stay in his extra room if she ever wanted to visit New Zealand.

Their relationship is purely platonic — she tends his garden in exchange for room and board — until she overstays her visit and is asked, quite forcefully, to move on. From there, Elly’s  adventure descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her current and her future.

A hyperactive voice

What I liked most about this book was Elly’s voice — it’s hyperactive, energised and full of mordant humour — reflected in breathless prose characterised by long, convoluted sentences that loop back on themselves or unfurl into unexpected directions. The following is a good example:

What I meant was I knew I had to do something that I didn’t know how to do, which was leaving the adult way, the grown-up way, stating the problem, filling out the paperwork, doing all those adult things, but I knew that wasn’t the whole problem, that I didn’t just want a divorce from my husband, but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history; I was being pushed by currents, by unseen things, memories and imaginations and fears swirled together — this was one of those things you figure out years later but it’s not the kind of thing you can explain to an almost stranger in a broom closet while you’re mostly drunk and you barely know where you are or why you are there or why some people can smell secrets.

For much of the novel Elly is trying to figure stuff out, so what you get is a kind of mental diarrhea on the page, full of her thoughts and insights spilled out without any kind of filter. What she thinks and what she does often reveals her alarmingly naivety, but there are occasional flashes of brilliance that show she’s mature beyond her years.

Nobody-is-ever-missing-US-version

And while you could bill  Nobody is Ever Missing as a road adventure, it’s more akin to a psychological journey  in which the narrator tries to find herself without going completely mad. It’s occasionally frustrating to see her repeat mistakes over and over, or to think about the same things continually, and I admit that by the time I’d got half way through this book I was finding Elly’s company more of a chore than a joy. Indeed, once she’d reached Werner’s farm I was bored with the whole damn adventure and wish she’d just get back on that plane and save her marriage.

But it’s worth hanging in there. That’s because the author cleverly holds back key bits of information, so we’re never quite sure of Elly’s motivations until little revelations get dropped in and you begin to understand some of what is going on. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time too, inline with Elly’s memories, so that a disjointed picture begins to build up of her past life in New York where she made a living as a writer on a soap opera and married a mathematics professor much older than herself.

Key to all this — her current state of mind, her crumbling marriage, her desire to find herself — is the suicide of her adopted sibling, which runs like a refrain throughout the entire story, which is as much about loss (and grief) as it is about the search for meaning.

All up, I enjoyed (and admired) Nobody is Ever Missing. It’s very much about what it is to be human, to love and to be loved, and how important it is to find a place for ourselves in a complex world where nothing stays the same for very long.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Granta, Jenny Offill, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill

Dept-of-speculation

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 180 pages; 2015.

Expectations are funny things, aren’t they? When you pick up a book and start reading, your expectations can do so much to your enjoyment of the reading experience: too low and you can be pleasantly surprised; too high and you’re disappointed. Sometimes you can have no expectations at all and be completely wowed.

With Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, a book I’d heard so many great things about (mainly via Twitter), it was a case of super high expectations not being met. It’s not that I didn’t like the book, because I liked it a great deal, but I couldn’t help thinking, is that it? Why is everyone raving about this?

First up, the good points.

Thumbs up for the fragmentary structure

The novel has an interesting and unusual structure. It comprises fragments, written mainly in the first person and occasionally in the third, which chart one woman’s experience moving from romance to marriage to parenthood to possible divorce.  In isolation, these individual snippets don’t mean much, but taken as a whole they add up to a rather effective, if slightly predictable, story spanning about seven years.

It’s a rather wonderful portrait of a marriage, though we only ever hear one side of the story. Interestingly, for much of the novel the narrator describes herself as “the wife”, and it becomes clear as her married life progresses that her identity is so caught up in the idea of marital harmony that when it begins to go wrong, when it starts to unravel, she’s at a loss as to what to do. Yet the signs had been there all along.

When we met, he wore glasses he’d had for fifteen years. I had the same bangs I did in college. I used to plot to break those glasses secretly, but I never told him how much I hated them until the day he came home with new ones.

 

I think it was a year later that I grew out my bangs. When they were finally gone, he said, “I’ve always hated bangs actually.”

 

My sister shakes her head at this story. “You have a kid-glove marriage,” she says.

Dept of Speculation is also a fascinating look at parenthood, especially the changes that arise with the arrival of the first child.  Offill depicts those early months as a parent with great insight and honesty: here is a new mother, her life forever changed, grappling with sleep deprivation and a baby that won’t stop crying while her husband goes off to work and leaves her to cope alone each day.

What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.

The book is also very good at mood. There’s a lot of anger in it (and a little bit of wry humour), though the overriding emotions are sadness and despair: the narrator never seems happy or content with her lot and even when her marriage is on a sure footing she doesn’t quite believe it’s ever going to last.

And now you’re wondering about the bad points, right?

Thumbs down for the fragmentary structure

For me it was the narrative composed entirely of fragments. Yes, I know I’ve already suggested the structure was one of the positives, but overall the fragments felt too elusive, too fleeting, too brief, too much like Tweets (I’m sure most of them were no longer than 140 characters) or Facebook posts, so that I raced through the book in two hours without properly taking in the detail. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame the author for this; I should have simply slowed down and savoured each snippet, yet the structure didn’t particularly lend itself to a careful reading. In some ways it felt like a book for the internet age, for people with short attention spans.

And the story, while told in an original way, felt self-indulgent and too focused on the navel; and the tone was simply too petulant and whiney for me. I know that you don’t have to like a character to like a book, but I think you do need to like the voice and I really didn’t like this one.

All up, I’m glad I read Dept of Speculation, if only to see what the fuss was all about, but I came away feeling disappointed. Don’t let that put you off, however — the great and the good seem to adore this book. The quotes on the blurb of the British paperback edition are littered with words like “brilliant” and “beautiful” and “glorious”; it was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Pen/Faulkner Award and the L.A. Times Fiction Award; and was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll probably love it…

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

Austria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jill Alexander Essbaum, literary fiction, Mantle Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Hausfrau’ by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau

Fiction – hardcover; Mantle; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau, seems to be everywhere at the moment. I don’t normally succumb to hype, but there was so much “buzz” about this book I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I now wish I hadn’t bothered. This is a horrid, grubby story written in a plodding, pedestrian style. I truly don’t understand the appeal.

A bored housewife

The book focuses on Anna, the hausfrau (housewife) of the title, who is an expat American married to a Swiss banker. The couple lives in a suburb of Zurich and have three children: two young sons and a baby girl.

Outwardly, they look like the ideal family, but Anna is desperately unhappy, suffers from insomnia and rarely feels at ease in her own skin. She has lived in Austria for nine years but has never bothered to learn the language so hasn’t made any real friends. She’s also struggling with the idea of motherhood.

Anna hadn’t longed to be a mother. She didn’t yearn for it the way other women do. It terrified her. I’m to be responsible for another person? A tiny, helpless, needy person?

She’s not even sure she’s married the right man, because her relationship with Bruno is one-sided: they rarely speak (he hides away in his office when he’s at home) and together they don’t do much socially. Anna can’t drive and doesn’t have a bank account of her own, so her independence is limited. Yet Anna’s passivity has merit:

It was useful. It made for relative peace in the house on Rosenweg. Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She simply followed.

When she finally decides to go back to school to learn German, she sets off a chain of events that have long-lasting repercussions. Here, she meets Archie, an expat Scotsman, with whom she has a rather sordid affair. But as the story unfolds, we learn that this is not the first time Anna has been adulterous. Extramarital sex, it seems, is one way of making her feel alive.

Pedestrian prose

I think my problem with this book was not so much the content — yes, there’s quite a bit of sex in it, but it’s written so coldly that it’s not exactly titillating — but the way in which the narrative plods along in pedestrian-like prose. I’ve read reviews describing the writing as “haunting”, “elegant” and “exquisite”, others say it’s written in a “cool European tone” but I think we must have been reading different novels. Essbaum is a poet, but her novel-writing style is far from lyrical: for most of the time it’s perfunctory, mechanical and wooden. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:

Two weeks later, on a Sunday, the last day of the month, Anna, Bruno, Ursula, and the children boarded a 10.00 a.m. train. They were on their way to Mumpf, a town in Kanton Aargau near Switzerland’s north border, where Daniela, Bruno’s sister, and her partner David lived. It was Daniela’s fortieth birthday. Taking a train often made more sense than driving. Today the choice was made by circumstance: with Ursula joining them they couldn’t all fit inside the car. The only inconvenience of the plan was two changes. David would meet them at Bahnhof Mumpf when they arrived.

On top of this, the author treats her readers as if they can’t think for themselves by spelling out every single thing, including all the metaphors:

‘There are two basic groups of German verbs,’ Roland said, ‘strong and weak. Weak verbs are regular verbs that follow typical rules. Strong verbs are irregular. They don’t follow patterns. You deal with strong verbs on their own terms.’ Like people, Anna thought. The strong ones stand out. The weak ones are all the same.

Even the bits of the story that focus on Anna’s sessions with a therapist are nothing more than too-obvious vehicles for getting certain messages across to the reader. Indeed, they’re about as subtle as a garbage truck roaring down a quiet residential street at 5 in the morning.

‘A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.’ Doktor Messerli spoke with grave sincerity. ‘A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.’

Aaaaargghhh! Can you hear me screaming from here?

There’s a couple of shocking revelations midway through the story that do add a frisson of excitement — let’s face it, the sex scenes don’t achieve that — but I find it hard to say anything particularly positive about Hausfrau. It just didn’t appeal on any level. Perhaps the best thing was the ending — and I’m not just talking about the final two sentences, which pack a real punch of the oh-my-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety, it was the fact I could put the book down knowing I’d never have to pick it up again!

Clearly there’s an audience for these kinds of novels judging by all the five-star reviews on Amazon and all the buzz about it on Twitter, but I’m not it. If I wanted to read a book about a depressed (and repressed) married woman I’d simply reread Madame Bovary

Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Wales

‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones

The-Long-Dry

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 104 pages; 2014.

Earlier this year I read Cynan Jones’ extraordinarily powerful novel The Dig and was so impressed I quickly sought out his first book, The Long Dry, which was published in 2006 and won a Betty Trask Award the following year. Cut from similar cloth as The Dig, it depicts a world that is earthy, rough and rugged but it is written in such lyrical pared-back language it practically sings with the beauty of the rural landscape in which it is set.

A lost cow

Set over the course of a single day, it tells the tale of a farmer looking for a missing cow. But this is much more than a simple search-and-rescue mission, for as Gareth searches the parched fields we learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Central to this is Gareth’s connection to the land — he is a second generation farmer, having inherited the farm from his father who bought it after the war because he no longer wanted to work in a bank — and his community, including Bill, the simple-minded neighbour who was given a few acres of the farm by Gareth’s father, for whom he feels responsible.

We also hear from the wife — in brief, first-person snippets — who is worried that she’s no longer sexually desirable, suffers headaches and depression, and has a dark secret of which she is very much ashamed.

Then there’s the teenage son, who’s more interested in having fun than carrying out his tasks in any kind of responsible way, and the young daughter, Emmy, wise beyond her years and very much-loved and doted on by her father.

And finally, the lost cow’s wanderings — she is heavily pregnant, which is why it is so important for Gareth to find her — are threaded into the narrative, which is punctuated by little fragmentary set pieces, mini-stories within the story, that showcase life and death on the farm.

Nature writing

The Long Dry is very much a paean to nature, which is beautifully evoked in simple yet vivid descriptions, occasionally using unexpected words that not so much as confront the reader but check that you’re paying attention:

Damselflies and strong white butterflies, delicate as hell, are everywhere around the pond, and machine-like dragonflies hit smaller insects in the air as they fly. The reeds are flowering with their strange crests and on the island in the middle of the pond the willow herb is starting to come to seed, and the thistles.

There’s also some unexpected humour, too:

People are seduced by ducks: by their seeming placidity. They fall for the apparent imbecility of their smiles and their quietly lunatic quacking. But they are dangerous things which plot, like functioning addicts. In the local town — a beautiful Georgian harbour town which is not lazy and which is very colourful — the ducks got out of hand. […] If you tried to drink a quiet pint on the harbour the ducks were there and they sat squatly and looked up at you and seemed to chuckle superciliously, which was off-putting. If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby-shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week.

But mostly this is a tiny book packed with startling little moments and quietly devastating revelations — mainly about the farmer’s wife and the couple’s young daughter — that come out of the blue and turn the entire story on its head.

The Long Dry is beautiful and sad, poignant and often quirky, but full of human empathy. It constantly spins and shimmers and dances along the very fine line between sex and death — this book brims with both — and the way in which we are all essentially animalistic, in our basic needs, our desires and our behaviour. It explores the fragility of life, of holding on to happiness and how tragedy can strike at any moment. And it’s filled with vivid, sometimes unsettling, imagery that lives on in the mind long after the book has been put down.

It is, quite frankly, an extraordinary achievement to do so much in such a slim volume. I’ll be holding on to this one to read again…