20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh

Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 256 pages; 2015.

Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a coming-of-age story set in the Catholic working-class and Irish Republican district of Ardoyne, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles.

It is narrated by a schoolboy, Mickey Donnelly, who’s a smart kid with big dreams — when he grows up he wants to move to America.

I can’t wait to get to America. I’m going to work in a diner. I’ve got dreams.

But life is tough for Mickey, the apple of his mother’s eye, because his one shot at going to St Malachy’s, the local grammar school, has just been blown: his father has spent the required funds on alcohol and gambling.

Summer holiday

The book follows nine weeks in Mickey’s life during the long school summer holidays in which he dreads having to go to St Gabriel’s, where’s his older brother Paddy is in the sixth form and where all the boys are horrible and there will be no dancing or singing or acting lessons.

Caught between childhood and puberty, Mickey longs for his voice to drop so he can be regarded as a man rather than being labelled “gay” and “weird” by other children, including Paddy. It doesn’t help his reputation that he mainly hangs out with his little sister, Wee Maggie, whom he dotes on, and her friends instead of other boys (with the exception of Fartin’ Martin, a boy from school) and speaks in a “posh” way, using good manners which mark him out as different to other boys his age.

During his holidays he mainly plays with his pet dog Killer, lusts after his neighbour Martine, who encourages him to teach her to “lumber” (slang for sex) and has occasional run-ins with local bad girl Briege, whose father is in prison — rumour has it, he stole some sausages for the IRA.

Mother love

Mickey runs a lot of errands for his mother, whom he loves dearly. She becomes increasingly dependent on him to be her “good son” when Mickey’s dad leaves, taking the TV with him, but this proves a challenge when his freedom is constantly curtailed.

I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s No Man’s Land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where they throw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating. Oh, and don’t go onto the Eggy field cuz there’s glue-sniffers. Ma should have just tied me to the gate or locked me in a cupboard.

On one occasion, when he ventures to a part of town he is forbidden to visit, he gets caught up in a bomb explosion that kills his dog and injures his own head, though not seriously. He hides this fact from his mother, worried that he will get in trouble, and does not tell her that he saw Paddy, who may or may not be involved with the IRA, at the scene.

It’s this kind of careful balancing between comedy and melodrama that gives The Good Son its emotional power. It’s the kind of book in which the reader laughs out loud on one page, then turns over to be confronted by the stark reality of what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

I check there’s no Prods or gangs about in Alliance Avenue and cross to the corrugated iron barricades. There’s a tiny little door to the Prods. You’re not allowed to use it. You’d be murdered. They’ve started callin’ them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.

As the story inches towards the end of the school holidays, the drama slowly builds as Mickey’s family get caught up in events that put them at risk, forcing the “good son” to do something bad to protect them all. It’s a deftly told tale, compelling and charming in equal measure, but also alarming and heart-rending too.

The Good Son won the Polari First Book Prize in 2016.

Cathy, who blogs at 746 books, liked this novel a lot too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy, surrounded by violence and danger, who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

This is my 12th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on 30 August 2017, I think because I had seen a good review of it on Savidge Reads, back in the day when Simon blogged.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

First-execution

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Terry Hayes, Transworld Digital, Turkey, USA

‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 625 pages; 2013.

Proof that my tastes are fairly wide-ranging and eclectic doesn’t come more obvious than this. Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim is one of those hefty tomes you pack in your holiday luggage, not only because it will keep you occupied for the entire length of time you’re away, but also because the story is so thrilling you won’t grow bored. Except… well…

To be honest, I had no intention of ever reading this book. Then two people recommended it to me, just days apart. And then I found out the author was once a broadsheet journalist in Australia and a close associate of film maker George Miller — the pair wrote the screenplay for Mad Max 2 together. So when I went on holiday to the UAE earlier this month (to visit my sister and her family) I took a copy with me, thinking it would keep me entertained if it was too hot to do much outdoors. As it turns out, it was too hot, and yes, I am Pilgrim kept me entertained. However… well…

Let me back track first and tell you a bit about the storyline. It’s essentially a modern-day spy thriller cum crime novel and most of the story is narrated in the first person by Scott Murdoch, codename “Pilgrim”, a secret agent with a covert organisation that has links to US intelligence. He is brought out of semi-retirement to save the world from an impending outbreak of smallpox that is going to be unleashed on the USA by an Arab Muslim (cast in a similar vein to Osama Bin Laden).

Just to make the story more exciting — or more complicated, depending on your point of view — there’s a crime to unravel as well. When the book begins, a woman’s body is found in a hotel room. She’s lying in a bath of acid, which has eaten away all her identifying features, including her face and fingerprints. The odd thing about this murder is that there’s nary a clue to be found — and it follows, almost to the letter, advice that Scott Murdoch wrote in a definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. This begs the question, how much responsibility should he take for the crime?

Octane-fuelled narrative

Intrigued? Well, admittedly I was, right from the start. This is an octane-fuelled narrative that swings across the globe — Manhattan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Nazi Germany — at a dizzying rate of knots, following all kinds of plots and sub-plots, some of which are told in the third-person.

There’s violence, death and mayhem at almost every turn, but the story — or twin stories, as it turns out — is told in such an engaging and, indeed, filmic way, it quickly becomes a rather addictive read. The plots are complicated and some might argue far-fetched, but that’s not a complaint I would make — after what happened on 9/11 I don’t think anything terrorism related is out of the question these days.

It’s also an intelligent read and a fascinating insight into international politics, espionage, terrorism and forensics. It might be a fast-paced thriller but it’s not dumbed down. It’s got the kind of detail in it that suggests it has been very well researched and it feels authentic, almost as if it’s been taken from the front page of a newspaper or the lead news bulletin on TV.

Attention waned 

However, I have to say my attention waned once I’d reached the half-way point and I considered abandoning it. Perhaps it’s because my holiday had ended and I had to go back to my usual routine, but once I was back in London I’d kind of lost interest in the story. I began to pick faults:  the links between the terrorism plot and the murder plot seemed, well, weird; I grew sick of being told on every second page that Murdoch was the best secret agent in the business; and I kept seeing endless references to Australians (I know we travel a lot, but couldn’t the author have included other nationalities every now and then?). Minor annoyances, I know, but little things can grate.

Eventually, I made a decision that I had to finish the book (I’d read 300 pages after all) so I devoted several evenings and an entire afternoon to completing it. It concluded exactly as I expected: with a bang and all the loose ends nicely tied up.

It’s not the kind of book that’s going to win high-brow literary awards, though it did deservedly win the Thriller and Crime Novel of the Year award at the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards in the UK. But that won’t matter when the film comes out: MGM has bought the rights to produce a Bond-like franchise. It has ker-ching! written all over it.

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

‘The Ever After of Ashwin Rao’ by Padma Viswanathan

Ever After of Ashwin Rao

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

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

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

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

Survivors of a terrorist bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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