Category Archives: Books of 2018

The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

One of my favourite books of the year so far (and if you want to see my top books and possibly win a selection of them, then head here) is without question Kate Mayfield’s debut novel The Parentations. Now I mention getting nervous about books quite a lot, like I am constantly having to smell salts in my library which is not the case, but the size (500 pages) and premise of this book (immortality) did originally give me pause for thought. Yet I was swiftly enveloped in this novel and reminded that there can be nothing more rewarding than a big chunky book with an incredible tale to tell, and this is quite the tale indeed.

OneWorld, hardback, 2018, fiction, 500 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They aren’t even sure he’s still alive. They’d tossed around ideas about him so often and for so many years that they’d created a shared fantasy about the kind of man he might have become. He might still be a boy, they reasoned. They considered, too, that he might be dead. They have no way of knowing.

The Parentations starts in 2015 as the Lawless sisters wait for three things. The first is the day that they can go and look for a boy who they see as a son, in a designated place they return to each year not knowing if he is still alive but always hoping. The second is for a regular sleep that each of them takes for a long time while the other watches over. The third is a delivery of some kind of medicine. We then flit across London to the Fowler household where a similar shipment is due to arrive and where some members of the house are also trying to find a secret stash of it they believe has been hidden. To find out what links these two households and why they are awaiting this tincture we must head back several hundred years to a volcanic eruption in Iceland that reveals a pool of immortality.

Now initially I admit I was a little bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight then’ however we are soon completely with Stefan in 1783 as this volcanic eruption takes over the island and how once having stumbled across this pool he soon becomes a guardian of sorts for it. Over a few hundred years (which Mayfield deftly and swiftly moves us through) more people drink from the pool who create a secret community. These include a couple who have a child with special gifts, who needs to be sent away and hidden as it seems their immortal secret has been discovered by those who wish to use it for harm. This is how we end up back in London in the early 1800’s and from here the story, which has already been brimming, takes its full gothic turn and force as we join the lives of the Fowlers and Lawless sisters and see how their lives become entwined. I will say no more on the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the twists, turns and delicious romp you have ahead.

At nine o’clock no movement is detected. A group of women have come forward. They have paid a large sum to test the miracles of the gallows. One woman bares her breasts. The hand of a hanged man is believed to cure tumours. She mounts the scaffold. She has no fear, no hesitation, as she takes Finn’s hand in hers. Just as she raises it to her breast, his head rolls and his eyes open and meet hers. The woman faints clean away.

If you love all things gothic then you will adore this book, especially if you like your gothic Victorian, and who doesn’t? Mayfield takes us through the darker parts of the societies and streets of London from orphanages to grand houses, from prisons to the gallows and everything in between. We have dramatic deaths, murders, saucy shenanigans of all sorts all with that ‘sensationalist’ pace and plotting that the likes of Wilkie Collins revelled in so much. You know Mayfield is having a huge amount of fun as she writes this and it’s an utter pleasure to be along for the ride, she also builds this dark and brooding London fully to life, in all its shadowy layers. What you also have is Clovis Fowler, who is one of my new favourite wicked women of fiction. I will just give you a little glimpse of how her husband sees her below, just to whet your appetite, she could almost give Mrs Danvers of Lydia Gwilt a run for their money.

‘Finn, I prefer that you not eat in the bedroom.’
‘You prefer? Another word you’ve picked up at those lectures of yours? I’ll eat where I like.’
‘I thought it would please you. I try to improve my English.’
Clovis waits for a response, but he eats and drinks and grows weary – weary of her. His wife’s beauty no longer interests him. There is no gown, no simple or complicated design that is capable of dimming her voluptuous body, yet he no longer has the addiction he once did for her. In this, most men would think him quite mad, or a sodomite, but a man, especially a man like Finn, does not like to be used, and the feeling in his tackle goes limp whenever he thinks of her trickery. So he dines in silence.

Yet amongst all this romp and sensation there is some incredibly moving moments and thoughts subjects The Parentations. The immortality which I initially felt a bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight then’ about goes from being the best thing you could wish for to the ultimate curse. How do you have to look after yourself if you have to try and live forever? What situations must you avoid? How do you cope as some of those around you that you live age and die? How must it be to want to die and be unable? The other particularly poignant strand of the novel is how we see society and culture progress and change over the years and how some of the characters we come to love, but might not live to see these changes, would benefit from them. I found that incredibly emotive.

Again, this shows the brilliance of Mayfield’s writing. Her characters are wonderful, even the ones you are meant to hate (yes, the fabulous Clovis) and come fully formed with all their complexities and how they change in the subtlest of ways along with the times – another interesting element of the book – and as they try to survive what life throws at them. Mayfield also writes the shifting of these time periods and the atmosphere and changes in London as it moves towards 2015, without hitting you over the head with changes in technology, décor, etc she fully evokes exactly whichever decade you are in.

The room is dripping in tat. A frayed lampshade sends a sickly, yellow glow into a grey corner that rivals the afternoon’s clouds. Puckering across the single bed a dingy, blue blanket fails to disguise the lumpy mattress. A weathered, Lusty chair, meant for a garden and cocktails, sits beside a small, unused Victorian fireplace in this rented room in Pimlico. It’s noisy, a bit smelly, and a hidden paradise. Kay Starr sings from a beaten up portable gramophone, two men stand entwined in a small moon-shaped space in the centre of the room. To dance naked is unbearably exciting. Jonesy lets David take the lead.

As I said earlier The Parentations was an instant hit with me, hence being one of my books of the year so far. I have no doubt that it will be one of my books of the year full stop as ever since I closed the final page these characters and their stories have held a place in my heart which continues to grow. Go and get your hands on it. Right now.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Kate Mayfield, OneWorld Books, Review

West – Carys Davies

One of the best discoveries of my time blogging has to be the fiction of Carys Davies. I first read her short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, when I was judging Fiction Uncovered back in 2015 as a submission and remember pondering if we could give it all of the prize money, it was that good. Every tale defied expectation, without the need for twists in the tale, and each had an epic scope even if it was a pages long. I then read her debut collection Some New Ambush at the start of 2016 and was blown away once more. So I was very, very, very excited when I heard that she had written her first novel, West, though of course instantly got nervous as to whether I would love it or not. I finally turned to it earlier this month and once again fell helplessly in love with Davies’ writing.

Granta, hardback, 2018, fiction, 160 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

 “Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father,” said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.
“Regard him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one. From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad. Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.”

So says Bess’ aunt Julia as Cy Bellman leaves his family home in Pennsylvania in search of the ‘mammoth beasts’ whose remains have been found ‘in the West’. The discovery or even capture of these beasts Cy believes will be the making of his name and, much more importantly to him, improve the life of himself and his daughter who he is heartbroken to leave behind. Many think him mad for going on such a journey that will certainly involve many dangers, in fact many people believe he will not make it back again. Yet go he does, leaving his daughter Bess behind in the safe care of his sister, yet what he hasn’t thought of is that there may be as many dangers to Bess back home as there could be if he had taken her.

It is at this early stage that the novel splits in to the two stories of Bellman and his daughter as time moves forward. We follow Cy as he heads out on a journey that could lead him anywhere, through small towns, where in one he hires the help of a young native Shawnee boy called Old Woman From A Distance to help him journey further with added knowledge of the perils that might lie in store. Back in Pennsylvania, while her aunt reminds her regularly that she is probably now an orphan, Bess has to deal with the arduous danger or a young farmhand and an older librarian both who have their sights set on her and not necessarily for marriage. I found this nod to the fact men must go and seek out danger far and wide whereas danger will seek women out closer to home both a brilliant analogy of both the 1800’s when the book is set and also still as prevalent right now rather poignant.

I won’t give anything more about the book away, I will say though that the sense of dread and the brooding atmosphere for both Bess and Cy as the book goes on pulses through every line to its unforgettable conclusion. Not a word is wasted as Davies takes us over hundreds of miles trekking through vast expanses with Cy or hundreds of days back home working out the way society and the world works for Bess. It is a mini epic in its truest form.

For a week he lay beneath his shelter and didn’t move. Everything was frozen, and when he couldn’t get his fire going he burned the last of the fish because it seemed better to be starving than to be cold.
And then one night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.
Later that day he caught a small fish.
Berries began to appear on the trees and bushes.
Winter ended and spring came and he continued west.

What adds to its epic nature all the more is the interweaving of both huge topics of the time and mini stories that might take a mere sentence or two, or a paragraph at the maximum. The early 1800’s were a turbulent time in the US with Native American’s being displaced and plundering of their lands and indeed there people. This is never explicitly discussed or shown, the tension between Cy and Old Woman From A Distance says it all as their power struggle develops with no common language, just common ground which both are trying to gain ownership of over the other. Back in Pennsylvania as we meet some of Bess’ fellow townsfolk we discover stories of love that almost was and innocent seeming folk with much darker hearts.

West once again showed me why I love Carys Davies writing so much. Within her vast landscapes Davies also creates mini worlds which is the power of all her prose and storytelling. In fact let’s call it story weaving, because it does feel like it has been so intricately woven together. Yet there is no mucking about with never ending floral prose, it is beautifully crafted short and sweet sentences that condense what would take some authors a chapter potentially. She also has the power to make you darkly chuckle before having your heart broken. It is for all these reasons that I would highly recommend you read West and get lost for a few hours in some of the most wonderful writing, then head straight to Davies’ short stories if you haven’t already.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Carys Davies, Granta Books, Review

My Books of the Year So Far (And A Chance To Win Some of Them)

I have been wracking my brain to work out if I have ever done a post mid-year about the books I have loved so far that year? I think it is only something that I have done since Booktube, but I could be wrong. I know I have done books that I am excited in the second half of the year, but I don’t think that I have done favourite books so far. Anyway, I could debate that for hours it seems and you don’t need that in your life.

What you might need, or maybe like, in your life is (as part of us catching up) is to know what my books are so far this year and, possibly even better, win some of them. How can this magic happen? Well, I shall insert the video of my favourites books of 2018 so far below and you can watch and then comment as instructed to potentially win a package of some of them.

A brief post I know, but thought it would be a good chance for a catch up AND a chance for you to win some lovely books. Hurray. You have until the end of July. Good luck!

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Filed under Books of 2018, Give Away

From The Wreck – Jane Rawson

Sometimes you hear about a book that might be somewhat off your usual and possibly well worn and beaten fictional path, yet it calls to you. This was the case with Jane Rawson’s From The Wreck a book I knew very little about other than it was very quirky and all the people in Australia (which I still believe is my spiritual home and the reason I haven’t been is because I might love it so much I wouldn’t come back) were loving it, no one in bloody Britain was publishing it though. By this point I was so desperate to read it, I sent out a small Twitter plea and who came to the rescue but Jane herself winging a copy over oceans (aptly) to get here. No sooner had I got it in my hand than I started getting nervous about it, what if I didn’t like it… the author had sent it me. But I reminded myself of my initial instincts and so I started it and fell in love with it, even though it started on a boat and longstanding readers of this blog will know I do not like books about boats, but I was hooked – line and sinker, sorry.

Transit Lounge Press, paperback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the author

It is 1859 and not long after seeing a mysterious woman talking to the horses aboard the SS Admella, George Hills finds himself next to her on the floating wreckage of the boat out in the open water. What the pair endure together George believes links them forever, however once they are rescued this woman, Brigid, vanishes. Many people believe she was taken to a different place to recover, some believe she might not even have been there, George is certain that this woman was real. And he is right, she was, what George doesn’t realise was that she was also a telepathic shape shifting alien cephalopod who once on land turned into a cat to escape and carry on trying to find another of ‘her’ kind. Some of you might now be thinking ‘WTF that sounds bonkers/ridiculous’, some of you might be thinking ‘Simon have you gone crazy’, you might be right on both counts, what I am certain of is that give this stunningly written book a chance and you will absolutely love it.

One eye open, then the other.
Am I still me? I touch here, taste this, smell that. I remember. I am still me. One thing holding fast in this shifting, blurring mass.
But the rest of it? None of the shapes are right. Is that a life form? Is that? There is neither the sight nor feel of wrapped tight energy, of breathing hot, of burning fuel, of soul-filled bursting selfness that is like anyone I have ever seen. I don’t even know who to eat.

After the shipwreck George is haunted, in part by what he had to do to survive but also by the seeming phantom of the women he knows he was with. Yet he must try to carry on as normal, he must start a family and make a future for himself. What he doesn’t realise is that unable to trace another of ‘her’ kind, the alien cat has been drawn to George again and soon transforms into the birthmark of his newly born son Henry.

This is where I think the book gets even better as it divides into further strands. You have the strand of George who has become haunted by the wreck and slightly unhinged with an obsession to find this woman. You have an alien cephalopod who is trying to find the rest of her kind who becomes more and more lonely and potentially more and more needy and dangerous. You also have the story of a young boy Henry who grows up a little bit different, slightly creepy and who desperately tries to understand human kind, his place in it and what it means to be human if only to quiet the strange voice he has in his head. All this delivered in the form of a ripping romp of speculative historical sci-fi yarn. I will say it again. It. Is. So. Bloody. Good.

‘Men are prone to overreact. They meet a woman, she’s beautiful, she talks to them and they think, oh, she likes me, we’ll get married. And she doesn’t return the favour, doesn’t like him as much as he likes her, so then she’s evil, isn’t she. She’s some kind of hell-spawned bitch to spurn him in this way. And he has dreams where he’s tupping her and she laughs at him and then that’s it, she’s haunting him, she really is a witch. Is that what happened with your… friend, did you say it was?’

What is also brilliant about From The Wreck is that is an insight into the social constructs and mores of Australia at that time, with a worrying amount of them still being rife now, especially in the respect to women which Rawson really delves into. Women are wives, mothers, daughters, ladies, lovers, whores or witches and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between, or at least in the eyes of most of the men. Rawson therefore brings all the women around George and Henry to the fore, interestingly with the exception of George’s wife – I couldn’t work out if Rawson was trying to say something there. (Doubly interesting that this shipwreck was real and Jane is one of George’s descendants, a twist to the whole thing I also love.) Our cephalopod is seemingly female, though gender isn’t really a construct for ‘her’ which is also fascinating, and often the questions asked internally of Henry do have a feminist leaning. One of my favourite characters is that of Beatrice, a woman many believe a witch, who has a wonderful back story to tell which I found very moving.

Beatrice Gallwey had come to South Australia from the colony of New South Wales. Her husband had died, the way husbands so often do. A bite from a flea or a mosquito, they said, and some infection of the blood. It hadn’t taken terrifically long. They didn’t like each other much, Bea and her husband, and she didn’t miss him but still, she’d rather they’d got around to leaving one another than that he was cold in the ground. She wouldn’t have held it against him had he found somewhere else to go.

So what more can I say? This book had it all for me; originality, wonderful writing, a brilliant twisting plot, fantastic characters and some themes within it that you can really get your teeth into, should you want to – though obviously there is nothing wrong with reading a book to simply escape. I feel that this book has it all and can almost 100% promise you that if you give it a try you will love it. What I can also promise you is that just when you think the book is going to go a certain way, it just won’t (which you will love it all the more for) instead it will probably head somewhere a bit stranger and almost definitely somewhere a bit darker.

He suddenly remembered: the mark was back. No surprises there. You can’t erase wickedness that easily. It had to go. The mark had to go or the boy hard to go. ‘You saw what he had in that cupboard? Bodies, corpses. Festering jars of muck. And those things he draws. He’s not normal. He’s not a normal boy. We need to fix him, William. The women can’t do it. Eliza can’t do it, she doesn’t even see it. She thinks he’s sweet. She doesn’t know anything about what the world is like. But you and I do. I’ve seen terrible things. You’ve read terrible things. Tell me what to do.

Without a shadow of a doubt From The Wreck is my book of 2018 so far. Now if you are despairing that you might not be able to get your hands on this book any time soon there is some exciting news, since I waxed lyrical about it on my channel and on social media, Picador will be publishing this in the UK next April, I’ll be reminding you to get it then and sincerely hope it will be winning many awards this side of the pond in 2019.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Jane Rawson, Review, Transit Lounge Press

When I Hit You – Meena Kandasamy

One of the joys about a prize longlist, and forgive me because I am sure I have said this before and am pretty certain I will say again, is discovering authors and books that you might not have otherwise. This was the case with the inclusion of Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist earlier this year. Having read it though, I am sure it is a book that I am sure will be very high on my ‘best of list’ at the end of the year as whilst it is an incredibly confronting read (trigger warning here) it is also an exceptionally powerful and important read too.

Sometimes, when she is in a more relaxed mood, and feeling flush with tenderness for her husband of thirty-six years, she will say something along the lines of: ‘He is such a devoted father. You remember the time we had that trouble, and my daughter came back to us, with her feet looking like a prisoner’s, all blackened and cracked and scarred and dirt an inch thick around every toenail? He washed her feet with his own hands, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing them with hot water and salt and soap and an old toothbrush and applying cream and baby oil to clean and soften them. He would cry to me afterward. If this is the state of her feet, what must she have endured inside her? Her broken marriage broke my husband, too.’ But that is the kind of thing that she says only to close relatives, to family friends, and the few remaining people who are cordial to her even though she has a runaway daughter at home. That is about six and a half people in all of Chennai.

As When I Hit You opens, we meet our unnamed narrator as she is recovering from her abusive marriage back at her parents’ house. It is in this place where she is spoken about almost as if she is not that, more a shadowy form within the household, that after hearing her story told by others so many times that she decides that it is time for her to tell her own tale and in doing so find her voice and it’s power once more. She has had her story and voice claimed before and she will not have it happen again.

As the title suggests this is not going to be a comfortable read, nor should it be. We follow our narrator from just before she meets her husband to be, her writing career is going well and she is not long out of a relationship that didn’t work out for many reasons when she meets the also unnamed university professor. The two catch each other’s eye and eventually they marry and that is when everything changes. They move to a new city in a different part of the country where the language is not her own, making shopping difficult let alone any possible friendships or future cries for help. Then, in a slow well planned and systematically manipulative way, her husband starts to police her phone, delete her contacts, her email accounts, alienate her for her loved ones (or watch her when she phones them) and colleagues, slowly she becomes isolated almost without being certain it’s happening, or worse, seeing it as unreasonable.

There are not many things a woman can become when she is a housewife that does not speak any of her mother-tongues. Not when her life revolves around her husband. Not when she has been trapped for two months in the space of three rooms and a veranda.
Primrose Villa, with its little walled garden, its two side entrances, has the quaint air of kept secrets. It is the sort of setting that demands drama. The white and magenta bougainvillea creepers in their lush September bloom. Papaya plants, along the east wall, with their spiralling, umbrella leaves and frail trunks. A coconut tree in its advanced years, its leaves designed to frame the solitary moon at night and play an air-piano in the rain.

One of the things I found so powerful and yet so unsettling is the style in which the narrator delivers When I Hit You. There is a certain way in which Kandasamy puts you so completely in the narrators head that you feel like you are being coerced as you read on. It may seem an odd comparison, I was reminded of the storyline in The Archers, where Helen was coercively controlled by her husband Rob. His voice was in your ears through the aural power of radio which made you feel he was actually in your head, When I Hit You does this in book form which I didn’t think would be possible in text, Kandasamy proves me wrong.

No one knows the peculiar realities of my situation.
How do you land a job when:

  • you end up somewhere in the middle of the teaching semester?
  • you have no contacts in a strange city?
  • your husband has forced you off social media?
  • you have no phone of your own?
  • your husband monitors and replies to all messages addressed to you?
  • you do not speak the local language?
  • you have the wifely responsibility of producing children first?

That’s a long list already. These are not the regrets of an unemployed person. These are the complaints of an imprisoned wife.

The other elements of the power of the text is partly in the slow way it builds up, like it does in a coercive nature, beguiling you. It is also in the way that for the first two thirds there is almost no description of the physical abuse that she starts to endure, the mental abuse being the focus. This shifts in the final third and because you have been left to imagine how awful the abuse, violence and rape are, it becomes all the more horrifying when it starts to be described, more than you could ever imagine. I found this harrowing yet done to illustrate the horror fully, not to make you a voyeur or become graphic in some complicit way. It is shocking but it isn’t just done ‘to shock’.

Advice to young women who are into hero-worship: the world is full of women in love with the men who you are in love with.
Learn to live with that.

Kandasamy brings society, class and politics are all brought into the text too in varying ways. Our narrator doesn’t just blame her husband for what is going on, although it is his physical actions. She in part blames society and the role of wife, which she admits at points she tries to act as stereotypically as possible to be in order to be ‘the perfect wife’ who won’t get hit. How complicit is she, and any women, trying to conform and play that role? This isn’t portioning the blame on other women, to clarify, but looking at gender politics, what is deemed ‘correct behaviour’ for the sexes and why is it not fought against. Politics also becomes a part of the abuse, her husband often punishing her for not conforming to, questioning or worse making him question his communist views. How dare she have an intellect and voice it. That voice must be supressed, that intellect questioned and broken.

This links to what I thought gave this tale an additional edge. Our unnamed narrator is middle class, domestic violence is often portrayed as being something that happens predominantly in the working classes. The implication often being that anyone suffering at the abusive hands of their partner isn’t clever enough, or socially mobile enough, to chance – which we all know is utter rubbish. As Kandasamy shows, both in the text and in the fact that this is auto fiction, this can happen to anyone regardless of their class, race or intellect.

As you may have guessed by now I think that When I Hit You is an incredible book. It is (and I don’t really like this term but there is no other word for it) an important book that needs to be read. Kandasamy creates such a vivid claustrophobic world that slowly engulfs you as it does the narrator. Her writing, which I haven’t really talked about in terms of form, can go from poetic darkness to stark pointed poignancy (there are bullet points in some parts, like the narrator is trying to work out the system behind her situation, there are short powerful thought provoking bursts of a sentence or two) in either scenario never a word is wasted. It is the book that, without question, I will giving to everyone I know this year.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2018, Meena Kandasamy, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Isn’t it funny how our minds work? Well, what I really mean is… isn’t it daft how my mind works? Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing had been one of the most talked about books last year, winning the National Book Award and being praised by waves of people, some of whom I trust the opinions very much. In fact I was sent a signed American edition before the buzz from two lovely, lovely bookish friends out there. All this talk though made me somewhat wary, this book was going to have a lot to prove just based around all the buzz, before I even started it. It was also my mother’s favourite to win the Women’s Prize, which I how I ended up getting to it much quicker than I might have otherwise because of my silly wariness.

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the Womens Prize

I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see the black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate  innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today is my birthday.

In a book which starts with a death, ends with a death and has death almost literally floating around it you need some delight. Jojo is that delight, despite his circumstances. As we meet him on his thirteenth birthday, about to help his grandfather with some slaughtering, he is soon to learn that he will be taking the long journey with his mother Leonie, her friend, and his sister Kayla, to pick up his father Michael who is shortly to be released from jail. And so the road trip which becomes most of the novel starts. For me the road trip is not really what the essence of this novel is about. It is about family, history, love and hope. Oh and the aforementioned death, more on that later.

What is family? What is the definition of a parent? The latter being something I am rather fascinated by at the moment. Jojo, nor his sister, have the best of relationships or bonds with their parents, their mother being a distanced and difficult woman and their father having been mainly absent. His grandparents filling the parental role for Jojo, despite his grandmother being sick, and he in turn for his own sister, bonds his mother resents. These bonds being built all the tighter and her exclusion all the bigger because of these resentments, her behaviours and ways of dealing with them. How is it to be excluded from your own family, or just not feel part of it, seems to be where Leonie is coming from.

Jojo is the hope and joy of Sing, Unburied, Sing his mother Leonie is at the polar end of the spectrum of emotions. Under many an author Leonie would almost become a caricature of the evil mother. However, whilst continuously unlikeable, Ward creates a character who will make you question how you judge or understand someone (as I mentioned in my review of Home Fire) and their mindset. She is not maternal, but that is not what makes her so dislikeable, not being maternal is not a crime, it can be misunderstood though, or people can have preconceived ideas around it. What makes her so dislikeable is her addictions, to a man and to a substance. Leonie is a drug addict, she got pregnant by a white boy at the age of 17, a white boy who then went to prison on more than one occasion and leaving her with more than one child and an addiction before she was twenty. When high she tries to play the role of mother, when on a comedown her own understanding of why she isn’t the ‘perfect mother’ become a complex ball of rage only heightened when she sees the love between others that she is no part of.

“I’m tired of this shit,” I say. I don’t know why I say it. Maybe because I’m tired of driving, tired of the road stretching before me endlessly, Michael always at the opposite end of it, no matter how far I go, how far I drive. Maybe because part of me wanted her to leap for me, to smear orange vomit over the front of my shirt as her little tan body sought mine, always sought mine, our hearts separated by the thin cages of our ribs, exhaling and inhaling, our blood in sync. Maybe because I want her to burrow in to me for succor instead of her brother. Maybe because Jojo doesn’t even look at me, all his attention on the body in his arms, the little person he is trying to soothe, and  my attention is everywhere. Even now, my devotion: inconstant.

History is another huge part of Sing, Unburied, Sing, both family history and also some of the darkest parts of America’s history. Pop, despite his positivity and aura, is often lost in memories of a time in the past which he will half tell in stories to Jojo, a tale that comes more to the fore and we piece more and more together upon the arrival of Richie. A ghost.

The boy is River’s. I know it. I smelled him as soon as he entered the fields, as soon as the little red dented car swerved into the parking lot. The grass trilling and moaning all around, when I followed the scent to him, the dark, curly-haired boy in the backseat. Even if he didn’t carry the scent of leaves disintegrating to mud at the bottom of a river, the aroma of the bowl of the bayou, heavy with water and sediment and skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes and shrimp, I would still know he is River’s by the look of him. The sharp nose. The eyes as dark as swamp bottom. The way his bones run straight and true as River’s: indomitable as cypress. He is River’s child.

Yes, a ghost, and he isn’t the only one. Two relatives of this dysfunctional, or disfunctioning, family also form part of the story. And before I lose any of you who might be groaning at a ghostly twist, it really works. Richie not only is part of their families history, he is a manifestation of the family history and indeed the ugly history of the South and one whose legacy is often felt but never seen almost buried under the carpet yet who Jojo can see but can’t work out. Given however, another family member, only appears to Leonie when she is high, is he a manifestation or simply a hallucination of guilt and what she isn’t dealing with and what she might hide. It is hard to say more without giving any spoilers away.

These ghosts also become a literal symbol of death floating around the family, it’s history and also our one and only certainty in a world that often seems so uncertain. It looks at those dabbling with death through their actions, those who died innocently from the actions of others and those facing death because it comes to us all. Yet what Ward is clear to point out is that even in the hardest and darkest of times, love lives on and through that, no matter what we might face, we can always have and build on hope.

I couldn’t bear her being a ghost. Couldn’t take her sitting in the kitchen, invisible. Couldn’t take seeing Pop walk around her without touching her cheek, without bending to kiss her on the neck. Couldn’t bear to see Leonie sit on her without seeing, light up a cigarette, blow smoke rings in the warm, still air. Michael stealing her whisks and spatulas to cook in one of the sheds.
“It’s like walking through a door, Jojo.”

So, to round off, I am going to add to the buzz around Sing, Unburied, Sing as I thought it was a wonderful and moving tale. I can struggle on occasion with magical realism, I think I always try and analyse it too much rather than just let it take me away which Jojo and Richie did. It is a book that in some ways turns a road trip story on its head but really turns a family drama on its head and asks what it means to be a family and how family histories, told or hidden, can shape us in ways we least expect and that some of our darkest moments can become some of our most defining; sometimes for the bad but with hope mainly for the good.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2018, Jesmyn Ward, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

As I am sure you will know by now Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. For the second (or is it third) year in a row I have enjoyed reading the whole longlist, which I plan on doing again with my mother next year as something a bit different. I think will be lots of fun and also quite eye opening as when we agree, we really agree, and when we don’t we really don’t as we discovered in a pub in Conwy talking about some of this year’s books last week. One of the books that we both agreed was wonderful was this novel, which my mother had actually read way ahead of me when it was up for the Costa’s.

Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback, 2018, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by Womens Prize

It is almost too easy to start talking about this book and mentioning the, well documented, fact that Home Fire is the retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone, which I guess I have kind of done. I would like to park that for the rest of my thoughts as I think to do that may alienate anyone who doesn’t know the story. Which you don’t need to if you haven’t and also gives too much away. I had and teh ripples of my previous knowledge were sometimes felt though in many ways they added to the incredible tension building and sense of unease which Shamsie uses to create such a compelling read that you won’t forget it in a hurry. The ending will literally… well, suffice to say it will haunt you for quite some time.

However, Home Fire in its essence is a tale of three siblings, Isma and her twin sister and brother Aneeka and Parvais whose relationships, after the death of their mother, start to literally and emotionally fracture. Isma feeling, admittedly with a small pang of guilt, free from her family for the first time goes off to America to study. Parvais seeking to find out more about their mysterious father, who we the reader know became a Jihadist, and Anneka seemingly trying to keep the family together and safe as much as she ca whilst falling in love with the Home Secretary’s son, not the perfect match especially as the complexities of the novel move on. It is also in many ways what is it like to be London born of Pakistani descent in the UK right now, whether you have taken your families religion or not.

A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.
‘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.

The crux of the novel centres around Parvaiz. Whether he is at the forefront of the novel or not, the foreshadowing of his situation the reverberations afterwards are interwoven throughout every page whether it is his voice we are hearing or one of the other narrators be it Isma, Aneeka, Eamonn, Lone or himself. It is his search to find out more about his father, after the death of his mother and what he perceives as abandonment by his elder sister, which eventually leads him to the world of radicalisation himself.

It is this section of the novel that I found to be the most difficult to read and yet the most thought provoking. As we follow Parvaiz and his sense of loss, questions and feeling lost, we understand how someone could then harness that for their own horrific means. Here I felt Shamsie does two things that I have found incredibly trusting and powerful in two of the other Women’s Prize shortlisted books. As with Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, we become groomed as the characters are, not literally but yet as you read you can fully see and almost experience how this could happen. As with Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing we are taken into mindset of a deeply troubled character and asked to try and understand the thoughts in their head that are so alien to us. It is incredibly potent reading; cloying and claustrophobic whilst making you question what you would do if that were you, could you genuinely not end up in the same situation?

He’d grown up knowing that his father was a shameful secret, one that must be kept from the world outside or else posters would appear on the Preston Road with the line DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR NEIGHBOURS ARE? and rocks would be thrown through windows and he and his sisters wouldn’t receive invitations to the homes of their classmates and no girl would ever say yes to him. The secrecy had lived inside the house, too. His mother and Isma both carried around an anger towards Adil Pasha too immense for words, and as for Aneeka – her complete lack of feeling or curiosity about their father had been the first definite sign that he and his twin were two, not one. His grandmother alone had wanted to talk about the absence in their lives; part of their closeness came from how sometimes she would call him into her room and whisper stories about the high-spirited, good-looking, laughing-eyed boy she’d raised. But the stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became.

Whilst the subject of radicalisation is at the heart of Home Fire, there is also much more going on around that. Through Isma we see how difference is perceived by the US, which is of ever growing concern. Aneeka’s love affair takes us right into the heart of British politics and it’s confused and conflicting current state. There is also an interesting, and often subtle, look at religion and how everyone can take their holy words and perceive them in a way which works for them but would be read completely differently by someone else. In many ways it is this very thing which is at the epicentre of most of the conflict of today.

 ‘You know the Quran tells us to enjoy sex as one of God’s blessings?’ Hira said.
‘Within marriage!’
‘We all have our versions of selective reading when it comes to the Holy Book.’

Home Fire is one of the most haunting and thought provoking books that I have read in a long while. It is also a book that will subtly unsettle you in all the right ways and not just because of THAT ending. Kamila Shamsie does something incredible with this novel and her characters, you are not asked to judge them, you are asked to comprehend them and how each one of them might end up in the situation that they do. It is confronting, compelling and makes you want to delve deeper into the intricacies of one of the most controversial and troubling topics of our world today. Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2018, Kamila Shamsie, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction