Category Archives: Books of 2018

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.

Advertisements

1 Comment

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.

1 Comment

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.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

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