2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

Anne Enright, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 310 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road has been long listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. This is the Irish writer’s  sixth novel, but only the third one of hers I’ve read.

The first one I read, The Gathering, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize and, perhaps somewhat unfairly, gave her a reputation for writing rather grim literary fiction, particularly as it looked at the outfall of sexual abuse on a family. The second book, The Forgotten Waltz, was slightly more accessible, but it still explored dark territory —  that of an extramarital affair as told by the “other woman”.

But this new novel treads totally different territory. It’s not exactly light-hearted but there are elements of black comedy in it, which make it a fun read as opposed to a depressing one.

Family life

The Green Road is essentially a forthright family drama following the lives of four siblings — Hanna,  Emmet, Dan and Constance — and their needy, domineering mother, Rosaleen, over the course of 25 years. Each character gets their own section, beginning when Hanna, the youngest child, is just 12 years old, and culminates with all of the siblings  returning to their childhood home as adults for a Christmas dinner in 2005 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.

The novel highlights the differences between each of the siblings and the ways in which they all grow apart as they get older and pursue their own lives and careers so that they effectively become strangers — and yet as soon as they’re thrown together for a Christmas celebration all the old tensions, resentments and childhood dynamics come to the fore, almost as if they never moved out of the family home.

Enright takes her time fleshing out all of the characters — most of whom we meet as adults— each of whom is grappling with private difficulties: Dan, who once wanted to be a priest, has reinvented himself as an artist in New York but is living a double life during the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s; Emmet, an aid worker in Africa, has rejected the materialism of the modern world but finds it hard to make meaningful connections with women; Constance, raising her own family in Ireland, has a health scare that she keeps to herself; and Hanna, a first-time mother and struggling actor in Dublin, has an ongoing problem with alcohol.

But it is the central character, Rosaleen, that lends the book its gravitas — and humour.  This Irish mammy is manipulative, self-absorbed, living “her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people” and vacillating between “a state of hope or regret”:

You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare. Even though nothing happened – she saw to that too. Nothing was discussed. The news was boring or it was alarming, facts were always irrelevant, politics rude. Local gossip, that is what his mother allowed, and only of a particular kind. Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road. Her own ailments of course, other people’s diseases. Mrs Finnerty’s cousin’s tumour that turned out to be just a cyst. Her back, her hip, her headaches, and the occasional flashing light when she closed her eyes – ailments that were ever more vague, until, one day, they would not be vague at all. They would be, at the last, entirely clear.

Evocative writing

As ever, Enright’s writing is sharp and lucid and full of beautiful phrases and descriptions. I especially loved her depiction of the Green Road from whence the novel takes its name:

This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – the rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare. And if you lifted your eyes from the difficulties of the path, it was always different again, the islands sleeping out in the bay, the clouds running their shadows across the water, the Atlantic surging up the distant cliffs in a tranced, silent plume of spray. Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.

And her ability to dissect family life in all its madness and joy is truly wonderful. Somehow she’s able to show exactly what it is like to be a parent, a child, a sibling, a lover and a spouse, whether male or female, and how the “pull” of home never truly leaves us, even if we move countries or continents.

It’s also an interesting look at how our world view and attitudes are shaped by our travels. In this case, Rosaleen, who has never left Ireland, is parochial in outlook, while most of her children, who have had to move away to find work (and love), tend to be more open-minded and “educated”.

But for all the novel’s strengths, I found the structure somewhat let it down. Each character’s story is told in self-contained sections, rather than employing interwoven narrative threads, so it almost feels as if you are reading a collection of short stories. The final part, which brings all the children back home to Ireland for Christmas, feels slightly more novelistic and acts as a nice counterbalance, but overall I found that the whole wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts.

Yes, The Green Road is a more gentle, forgiving, entertaining and accessible novel than Enright’s previous efforts, but whether it impresses the judges enough to make the Man Booker shortlist remains to be seen.


As an aside, I saw the author do a reading at Foyles flagship store here in London on 7 May. She was down-to-earth, forthright and funny — adjectives that could also be used to describe the book.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir


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, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Setting

‘Her’ by Harriet Lane


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

Whenever I’m feeling under the weather I love nothing more than curling up under the duvet with a good psychological thriller: something that’s fast-paced and won’t tax my brain too much. So this weekend, after four very intense weeks at work (in the lead-up to my Christmas break), I finally succumbed to a horrid head cold. Thank goodness, then, for Harriet Lane’s latest novel, which was an effective diversion from the aching sinuses, the snotty nose and the ever-increasing mountain of used tissues by my side.

Some of you may recall that I read Lane‘s debut novel, Alys Always, in the summer and loved the story of a manipulative young woman who inveigles her way into the life of a rich author, so I was looking forward to her new one.

Her, which was published in hardcover in June and is due for paperback release next month, is cut very much from the same kind of cloth. It’s a proper page turner that brings to mind the likes of Nicci French — one of my favourite psychological thriller writers — but never slides into farce or violence. Instead it’s rooted very much in the every day, which makes it all the more sinister.

An unlikely friendship

The story revolves around the unlikely friendship between two women, both of whom are around the same age: Emma has given up a TV career to have children and is caught up in the day-to-day struggle to raise two young ones while her husband juggles a freelance job that barely covers the bills; and Nina is a successful artist, with an equally successful architect husband and a 17-year-old daughter (from her first marriage).

The pair meet when Nina returns Emma’s wallet, which she claims to have found on the local high street. What Emma doesn’t realise — and which Nina takes great pains to disguise  from her “new” friend — is that the pair met 20 years earlier, as teenagers.

As Emma and Nina’s lives become more and more entwined over the course of the novel, it becomes clear (to the reader) that Nina is a rather nasty piece of work, hellbent on wreaking revenge on a rather hapless and naive Emma. But she does it in such a smooth, almost guileless way, that no one seems to notice, making her behaviour all the more chilling.

A tense read

Both Emma and Nina take it in turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters, which is a great device for building tension. It also shows Emma’s desperation to be viewed as a person (rather than a mother, whose life now revolves around “scraping and rinsing and wiping and sweeping”) in contrast with Nina’s chilling level of self-control. But if I was to fault the novel it would be that the two voices are barely distinguishable from one another.

However, that doesn’t really matter, because what makes Her work as a page turner is two-fold: we never quite know what is motivating Nina — what is it that Emma did that requires this level of well-plotted revenge? — and will Emma cotton on to the threat before it’s too late?

Admittedly, the denouement falls a bit flat, but I loved the slow-building of suspense and my inability to guess Nina’s next move. It’s a deeply unsettling read that feeds into every mother’s deepest fears — and the danger that lurks where we least expect it.

Annie Ernaux, Author, Book review, Books in translation, France, memoir, Non-fiction, Quartet Books, Setting

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux


Non-fiction – paperback; Quartet Books; 96 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story is a deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

It was first published in France, in 1988, where it became a bestseller. It has just been reissued by Quartet Books — which first published it in English more than 20 years ago — in a rather handsome edition, complete with French flaps.

Mother-daughter relationship

At just 96 pages in length, A Woman’s Story packs quite a lot in. Ernaux not only examines the relationship she had with her mother — often in painstaking, heartbreaking, too-close-for-comfort detail — she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her bored (and somewhat meaningless) retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of two women tied together by their biological relationship but never, truly, close. While it’s not a rosy account — there’s too much bitterness and conflict between them for that — it does reveal Ernaux’s admiration, her love and her attempt to reconcile her mother’s senile dementia with the “strong, radiant mother she once was”.

In many ways, the book is as much about mothers and daughters as it is about growing old, of the burdens we can place on loved ones and an examination of the grieving process.

The author, however, describes it like this:

This book can be seen as a literary venture as its purpose is to find out the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words. (Neither photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family can bring me this truth.)

Conflicting views

This is a theme Ernaux returns to again and again: this itching to get to the truth, to portray her mother in a fair light, even though she knows that her memories are coloured by emotion. She has a hard time trying to put her mother’s brusque manners, her desire to be a confidante, yet always bitterly critical, her lack of education and her desperate social climbing into context.

About midway through she confesses that she sometimes thought she was a good mother, at other times a bad one. “To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter that wasn’t me,” she writes.

This objectivity feels authentic, because there are thoughts and incidents revealed here that feel too painful and honest. It’s not an uncomfortable read — indeed, I flew through it in an hour or so, the writing is so eloquent — but it is a deeply affecting and poignant one.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, Jennifer Lash, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Ties’ by Jennifer Lash


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 375 pages; 1997.

English novelist Jennifer Lash never lived to see her last novel, Blood Ties, published. She died from cancer in 1993.

Also known as Jini Fiennes, she was the mother of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes. And if there has ever been a more shallow reason for reading a novel, then I am yet to find it.

On all kinds of levels Blood Ties is a remarkable piece of work. At its most basic level you could describe it as a a classic nature versus nurture story — are children born evil, or does their upbringing play a part? But it is also literary fiction of the highest order — peopled by intriguing, complicated characters; written in achingly beautiful prose; and filled with scenes that swing between sardonic wit, unbelievable cruelty and high drama.

The story is set largely in Co Tipperary, Ireland, and south-east England, including west London. It traces one Anglo-Irish family — headed by stern matriarch Violet Farr — over the course of three generations.

Violet is a bit of a cool fish. She has a saying that “bad blood will out”. But despite her fine standing in the community, her big house, her wealth and her good looks, she lacks any kind of maternal feeling or ability to bond with other people. And when she marries Cecil — a closet homosexual who has repressed his sexuality altogether — it takes 10 years for Violet to fall pregnant.

Their son, Lumsden — named after Violet’s father — is kept very much at a distance and at the first opportunity he is shipped off to boarding school in England, where he is bullied for being Irish and disliked by the staff. When he returns home for holidays it is clear that his mother loves her faithful dog, Birkin, more than him. A decision is made. If he can’t get love or attention for following rules and being good, he will behave badly.

This is the lynch-pin upon which the rest of the novel hangs, for Lumsden turns into a thoroughly wayward teenager beyond anyone’s control. Indeed, it is only when he returns home to Ireland — getting drunk in the local pub, stalking local girls — that his behaviour threatens Violet’s standing in the community. Instead of addressing the issue properly, it is left to drag on. And then Lumsden does something he shouldn’t — and the local priest sees that he is not only run out of town, but shipped back to England forever.

There’s a level of cruelty in operation here that almost defies belief. Violet, so inward-looking, cold-hearted and controlling, thinks nothing of having her only son booted out of the country. Meek, mild, emasculated Cecil drives him to the ferry — and doesn’t even bother to stop and wave goodbye.

Lumsden, for all his failings — and there are many — typifies what happens when love is absent from the home. The sad thing is that this heartless upbringing is repeated in the next generation but this time it is taken to the next degree — neglect and abuse.

There’s no doubt that this book has a strong moral message, nicely tied up in an ending that is both uplifting and redemptive. But its clever, circular plot — the novel starts with Violet’s first grandchild arriving on her doorstep before looping back to her courtship with Cecil — means this is not a straightforward run-of-the-mill read. I found it totally engrossing and hope that this review might help bring Jennifer Lash’s work to a wider audience.

Author, Book review, Emma Donoghue, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 320 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I had not planned to review Emma Donoghue’s Room quite so soon after reading it. But then it was named on the Booker Prize longlist on Tuesday and I figured now was a good a time as any to share my thoughts.

The novel, which is Donoghue’s seventh, is an extraordinarily atmospheric read. I use the term “atmospheric” to describe the feelings it evokes in the reader and the ways in which those feelings linger for days afterwards. I found myself not so much reeling in its wake but feeling as if something had shifted inside of me, so that I could no longer perceive the world in the same way.

Donoghue, who is Irish but lives in Canada, largely achieves this by the curious narrative voice she employs. The entire story is told through the eyes of Jack, a five-year-old boy, who is locked in a room with his mother and has never stepped outside its four walls. (There’s an interesting plan of the room on the Picador website.)

To Jack the world is the room in which he lives. And even though he watches TV, he does not realise that what he sees on screen is “real”. He has no concept of what lies beyond the locked door and the skylight above his head.

Everything he does, everything he says, everything he thinks is limited by his lack of interaction with the outside world. The language he employs has a wide vocabulary but is occasionally stilted.

When the book begins we do not know how Jack and his 27-year-old mother came to be locked in the room. We just know that they are there, that their days are filled with ingenious games and ways of passing the time, and that they enjoy each other’s company. But at night things are different: Jack hides away in a wardrobe and Ma has to “entertain” their captor, Old Nick, who “creaks the bed”. His very presence is menacing without Jack being able to explain why it is menacing.

I think this is the strength of Donoguhe’s skill as a writer. Because the entire story is told from a child’s perspective, ordinary everyday tasks take on an extraordinary dimension. And because we are reading it through the lense of adult experience, we have the ability to understand far more about what is going on than Jack does without Donoghue having to spell it out. (There are shades of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Night-Time in this approach, but without the sentimentality of those novels. I was also reminded more than once of Nikki Gemmell’s slightly more sinister The Book of Rapture but that’s more to do with the subject matter than the voice.)

The narrative kicks up a gear when Jack is told about the world outside the four walls in which he has lived his entire life. The news does not sit well with him. It’s too strange, too unbelievable to be true. He cannot grasp its meaning. Even when his mother begins to plot their escape, you know that Jack has not understood the consequences.

If nothing else Room is a story about a child’s journey from a completely sheltered existence to a new world full of hidden dangers. Indeed, Donoghue said she was inspired to write it a few days after the Fritzl family were discovered in their dungeon in Austria. In the press material that came with my book, Donoghue says: “If such a story of being born into captivity were told from the child’s point of view, I thought, it would not be a horror or a sob story, but a journey from one world to another.”

This is an astonishingly good novel, one that is ambitious in subject matter and perfectly executed so that you read it, partly in awe, partly in shock, but always completely immersed in the story. It’s got cracking dialogue, an irrepressible narrative voice and the kind of page-turning quality that makes you eat up 320 pages in one sitting. I am conscious of the fact that I haven’t told you much about the plot, but to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the tale which, as it unravels, envelops you in a kind of fug that is difficult to shake off. It’s tender, funny, disquieting and thought-provoking.

Will it win the Booker? Only time will tell.

Room is published in the UK on July 30. You can read an extract on the Picador website.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting, Véronique Olmi

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi


Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 121 pages; 2010. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

Véronique Olmi’s novel Beside the Sea has been a bestseller in its native France since publication in 2001. Thanks to a new London-based independent publishing house, Peirene Press, it has now been translated into English for the first time.

Peirene’s mission is to publish contemporary European literature in translation that is thought-provoking, well designed and short. Beside the Sea certainly ticks all those boxes — and then some.

The book opens with a single mother taking her two young boys, Stan, 9, and Kevin, 5, on their first visit to the sea. Immediately the reader realises that this is no ordinary trip — they leave on “the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us” — and this is no ordinary mother — “Yep, sometimes I sit in the kitchen for hours and I couldn’t give a stuff about anything”.

And even before they arrive at their unnamed destination things do not go according to plan: the boys play up on the bus (“talking loudly, peeing and blubbing”), and the mother, who narrates the story, is worried that other passengers are talking about them and that she will miss her stop. When they do arrive it gets worse: it’s raining, they get lost in the dark, and when they eventually find the hotel, it’s a severe disappointment:

Everything was brown: the walls, the lino, the doors, it was an old-fashioned brown – they can’t have repainted the place for centuries, and it looked like years of dirt had stuck to the walls and floor, it was like being inside a cardboard box, a shoebox actually.

This sets the pattern for what can only be described as a rather sad and squalid holiday, in which it becomes increasingly clear that the stark reality of the trip does not mesh with the mother’s expectations. Olmi plays her cards very close to her chest and drops the odd clue to the woman’s background without spelling anything out. We discover the woman has no teeth and “quite often I daren’t smile or laugh without putting my hand over my mouth” but we do not know how she lost them. Is a poor diet to blame? Perhaps domestic violence? A drug habit?

We know that she has mental health problems (“It’s not true that I’m paralyzed by my anxieties, like they say at the health centre”) and that she often takes to her bed to shut out the realities of her life. She’s also very poor and has paid for the trip using “all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker, and sometimes at the supermarket”, bringing her coppers long in a little tea-tin.

But it’s also apparent that she loves her boys very much and that the whole trip has been planned so that they can see the sea for once in their lives.

Notwithstanding the brevity of the book, it does not take long for an ominous sense of doom to rise off the page. Despite the mother’s best intentions “bad luck” has a habit of getting in the way and screwing everything up. It’s hard not to feel pity for her and even more pity for her boys. You wonder where it might end.

And then Olmi delivers her final shocking blow. To be perfectly honest, I had seen enough reviews of this book on other blogs to guess that something very bad was going to happen. However, I still found the ending so powerful, so intense and so quietly devastating that I’m still thinking about it a week down the line… By showing the extraordinary in the very ordinary, Olmni has crafted a fine novel indeed. Beside the Sea may not be a cheery read, but it’s a hugely emotional one that deserves the widest possible audience.