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

‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill


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, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín


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, Faber and Faber, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Lucy Caldwell, Northern Ireland

‘All the Beggars Riding’ by Lucy Caldwell


Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 253 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Imagine that you grow up with a father, never knowing that his long absences from the family home are not due to his job, but because he is leading a secret life in which he is married with two other children. This is the premise behind Northern Irish playwright and author Lucy Caldwell’s novel All the Beggars Riding.

The story is told from the perspective of Lara Moorhouse as an adult nearing 40. She’s coming to terms with the break down of her own long-term relationship and the impending death of her mother, and begins writing a kind of memoir about her childhood as part of the healing process. She tries to imagine what it was that her mother, a Harley Street nurse, saw in the man who wooed her but never married her — and why it was that she never confronted him about the truth of their relationship.

It’s a highly readable account, full of emotion — anger, sadness, joy, frustration and shame. Most of all it highlights the way in which one man’s hidden life has long-term repercussions on those he brazenly betrayed.

Despite the premise at its heart — a successful plastic surgeon has a “first” family in Belfast, but hides his “second” family, which comprises a mistress, a son and a daughter, in rather shabby digs in West London — it feels wholly credible throughout. Indeed the author, whom I met at a Faber preview event shortly before the book’s publication last year, told me she’d done mountains of research about men and their hidden families and what she’d discovered was shocking. The effects on the children, particularly when they discovered the truth, were what she found most disturbing.

My only quibble with the book is that the narrator constantly apologises for struggling to express herself, which wears slightly thin, but on the whole this is an engaging — and redemptive — story about family secrets and the power of love.

Author, Book review, Canada, Emblem, Fiction, Katrina Onstad, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad


Fiction – paperback; Emblem Editions; 312 pages; 2012.

Katrina Onstad’s Everybody has Everything — longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — is billed as a story about parenthood, but I think it’s more accurate to describe it as a portrait of a marriage. It is also a compelling examination of how different people find fulfilment in different ways. More importantly, it is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.

A portrait of married life

The story revolves around a married couple — Ana, a high-flying corporate lawyer in her late 30s, and James, 42, a documentary film-maker who has just been laid-off from his television job. From the outset, it can be assumed that it is Ana, the major breadwinner and ambitious career woman, who wears the trousers in the relationship, but as the narrative evolves we learn that nothing is quite what it seems and that both partners are deeply flawed and grappling with their own needs and desires. The title of the book may suggest that “everybody has everything”, but do they really?

For a start, Ana and James cannot have children. They find this out on the morning they are to attend the wedding of their friends Marcus and Sarah, who is eight months pregnant. They have only known Marcus and Sarah for a short time, but the friendship becomes a central part of their busy lives and the resultant child, a boy called Finn, effectively becomes the child they couldn’t have.

James had developed an unspoken narrative in which he and Finn had a special bond. He did not tell Ana how it made him feel, this warm bag of socks over his shoulder, the pleasure he got when Finn moved his penny-shaped mouth. […]  Sarah and Marcus waved as they walked away, pushing the stroller, calling thank-yous behind them as Ana and James stood on the porch, James’s arm protectively around his wife, wondering if anyone else had noticed that Ana had never once held the baby.

This difference in attitude towards Finn — James is warm, affectionate and doting; Ana cool, detached and indifferent — comes into sharp relief when a car accident leaves Marcus dead and Sarah in a coma: two-and-a-half-year-old Finn is left in their care. Having parenthood thrust upon them in this way is an unexpected — and for Ana in particular, unwanted — challenge. Much of the book highlights how they deal with this change in circumstances and priorities.

Finding fulfilment

The crucial element of the story is not so much whether everyone can be an effective parent, but how people find fulfilment in their lives. For Ana fulfilment comes through work and career; for James it is is being a father. It is this unconventional take, in which Onstad pits the ambivalence of motherhood against the warm glow of fatherhood, that I most admired about this book. And because she does it in such an intelligent, perceptive way, without ever casting judgement or aspersions on Ana, it feels all the more real — and hard-hitting.

In highlighting the ways in which both individuals approach their new-found parenthood, Onstad is able to show their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. And by the end of the novel you come to understand that no matter how far apart marriage partners may grow, the importance of a shared history can never be underestimated. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Joshua Henkin’s 2008 novel, Matrimony, which is a wonderful portrait of marriage over the course of 15 years.)

Admittedly, there are a couple of narrative “twists” near the end which I felt weakened the story  (I won’t reveal my concerns, for fear of the spoiling the plot), but on the whole I loved this sharply observed novel and devoured it in a weekend. It is tender and compassionate without being cloying or sentimental, and intelligent and wise without being dry or preachy. And I would dearly love to see Everyone has Everything make the short-list for the Giller Prize, which is revealed on Monday.

Alejandro Zambra, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Chile, Fiction, literary fiction, Open Letter Books, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘The Private Lives of Trees’ by Alejandro Zambra


Fiction – paperback; Open Letter Books; 98 pages; 2010. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Late last year Alejandro Zambra was included on Granta magazine’s list of Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists. And yet Zambra, who was born in Chile in 1975, hasn’t actually written a novel. He has, however, had two novellas — both less than 100 pages — published to critical acclaim.

The Private Lives of Trees, first published in 2007 and translated into English last year, is his second novella. (The first, also about trees, is called Bonsai.)

It’s a bit difficult to explain what The Private Lives of Trees is about, because this is one of those clever postmodern stories that is essentially a story about other stories. It has a rather timeless setting — it could be any city in the world at almost any time in the past 30 years — and a dream-like quality to the writing.

The protagonist, Julián, is a literature professor. He lives with his wife, Verónica, and Verónica’s eight-year-old daughter, Daniela.

One evening, when Verónica is at art class, Julián tells his step-daughter an improvised story, about “a poplar tree and a baobab tree”. As the night wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Julián believes his wife is not going to come home.

And while The Private Lives of Trees is told in the third person, we get an insight into Julián’s thought processes, as he grapples with this possibility. As he sifts through his memories, he looks back on his relationship with his wife, his previous girlfriend Karla, and even his own childhood. He then begins imagining what it will be like for Daniela to grow up without a mother — and projects her life at the age of 20, 25 and 30.

Tied up in all this is Julián’s obsession with writing and success. What will a motherless Daniela, as an adult, think of his novel?

I can’t say that this book will change your life or make you rush out to read everything that Zambra has written. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, one that casts a bit of a spell, while delivering a few laughs, too (there’s a tongue-in-cheek comment about Paul Auster, whom Zambra’s work is obviously inspired by, which made me giggle).

But, for me at least, the book feels too slight to have any lasting impact.

Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Nick Cave, Publisher, Setting

‘The Death of Bunny Munro’ by Nick Cave


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 304 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If modern fiction has produced a more deluded, creepy, sex-obsessed “hero” than Bunny Munro I’ve yet to encounter him. If you’ll forgive the crudity, Bunny Munro is a wanker — a literal wanker. He’s obsessed with “beating off”, as he puts it, and he doesn’t particularly care where he does it or how often.

If that’s not enough, he sleeps with prostitutes, waitresses, clients, in fact anyone who succumbs to his lecherous ways and sexual magnetism.

And yet Bunny Munro is a married man, and, by his own account, a very happily married man, who loves his wife deeply but fails to truly understand her “medical condition”. The book opens with her suicide, which seems to have very little emotional impact on Bunny — when he discovers her body he notes that “her tits look good”. It gets worse. Midway through her funeral, after eying up all the female guests, he’s in the toilets masturbating. Later he has unsatisfying sex with the girlfriend of his best friend.

But while he seems unable to feel any grief over the loss of his wife, as a reader you can’t help but feel some sympathy for him. Perhaps the shock has rendered him emotionally crippled? Has her death not yet hit home?

It’s when Bunny takes to the road, his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, in tow, that you get the true measure of the man. As he peddles cosmetics door to door, making desperate attempts to jump in the pants of countless depressed housewives up and down England’s south-east coast, you begin to understand he’s losing his grip. He’s been a bad husband, a bad father and a truly awful salesman, but his shocking lack of self-awareness means he never truly realises what a terrible, treacherous human being he really is. It is you, the reader, who comes to realise he’s unhinged, that his psychopathic tendencies are becoming more and more pronounced, and yet he’s been so sympathetically drawn it’s difficult to hate him.

Cave achieves this measure of pity by painting a much worse character in the form of the “Horned Devil”, a knife-wielding murderer whose trail of death is being reported on the nightly news, and whom Bunny himself finds scary and unbelievable.

And it also helps that Bunny is a father, a terrible wayward father, but a father nonetheless, and that his son, a smart, academically inclined kid, hero-worships him. Bunny might be a creep who preys on vulnerable women, but he’s human and even though you know he’s going to meet his end at some point — hence the book’s title — there’s hope of redemption.

While The Death of Bunny Munro treads some dark territory, it’s incredibly funny in places, which means you end up laughing at the “hero” rather than wincing at his every ridiculously audacious move. And those who are familiar with Cave’s long musical career and Australian background will appreciate his in-house joke (although it does wear thin after several repetitions) in which Bunny Munro has a “thing” for Australian songstress Kylie Minogue. (There’s an apology to her at the end of the novel.)

Reading this book is a bit like riding a rollercoaster, full of immense ups and downs, with unexpected twists and turns, and a cracking pace that threatens to derail it all. Whether you want to get on the ride depends on your constitution, because the only fluffy thing about this book is the bunny on the cover. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Author, Book review, Coronet, Fiction, general, Jodi Picoult, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘My Sister’s Keeper’ by Jodi Picoult


Fiction – paperback; Coronet Books; 448 pages; 2005.

Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper is an intriguing and intelligent book about a moral and ethical medical dilemma: is it OK to conceive a genetically matched child so that the baby’s cord blood cells can be donated to her older sister who is sick and dying from a rare blood disorder?  And if the “designer baby” is continually “used” to help her sister, should she be able to say no at any point?

After a lifetime of medical procedures to help her sister, 13-year-old Anna decides she has had enough and takes the drastic step of suing her parents for the rights to her own body. The outfall is, obviously, emotionally powerful: anger and heartbreak mixed with confusion, pain and disbelief. The mother’s initial reactions are particularly telling.

I found the subject of Picoult’s eleventh novel fascinating and her writing deft and free from cloying schmaltz. Each character in the novel takes it in turn to narrate chapters, which is a great device for being able to show the range and complexity of different conflicting viewpoints. However, I found that trying to tell everyone’s story only served to make an already complicated book even more complicated. And the love element between Anna’s lawyer and the woman appointed to look at Anna’s case just added to the confusion – I really couldn’t have cared less about them.

On the whole, while My Sister’s Keeper didn’t really grab me by the jugular, I thought it was an interesting and entertaining read. The twist at the end, which came right out of left field, almost reduced me to tears it had such a forceful impact: it made reading the book all the more worthwhile.