Category Archives: Chatto & Windus

The Girls – Emma Cline

One of the books that is, without question, being most talked about this summer is Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls. It is one of those books that seems to be everywhere and everyone is raving about, in fact they were before it came out which I have to admit put me off reading the proof. However the urge suddenly grabbed me, I am great believer in reading books when your mood is just right, a few weeks ago. Several weeks later I am still mulling over the way the book made me feel because I think it is fair to say I had rather a roller coaster of extreme feelings about it which are only just starting to settle down.

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Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2016, fiction, 355 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.

In the summer of 1969 Evie is just fourteen and struggling with school friendships, hormones and her mother gaining a new boyfriend. From the moment she spots a group of slightly older girls getting off a coach and wandering around her town she becomes somewhat besotted. These are the girls she dreams of having friendships with, these are the kind of girls that she dreams of being and so she starts to, in a cutely naive and slightly doe-eyed way, linger around waiting for an opportunity to engage with them. After a rather daring act for her age she does indeed befriend one of them, Suzanne, who is also seemingly the leader of this girl gang. Soon Evie is drawn into a whole different sphere as she follows the girls back to where they live, which happens to be the home of a cult and its charmingly manipulative leader, Russell.

I think it is pretty common knowledge that Cline has centred her book around a fictional take of the Charles Manson murders, which I have to admit I knew (and still know) very little about. So from the start we know that there is going to be something horrific that happens at the end. What we don’t know, and really becomes the momentum for why we keep reading, is how implicit Evie becomes in those dreadful events. Cline does something else to add a layer of enigma to that when she alternates chunks of the book with Evie at 14 and then several decades later when she is staying at a friends house hiding away from the world.

This also rather brilliantly adds a very clever dynamic to the narratives of Evie, particularly as when she is younger we have the naivety of her age at the time, as well as her rebellion, but also a slight sense of hindsight because of the older Evie telling us that story now. It creates a slight unseen sublayer that also makes us question how much of what she is telling us is the complete truth; you all know I love a good unreliable narrator. With this technique Cline does wonderfully evoke the thoughts, feelings and most importantly the vulnerability of being a teenager, when you think you know how the world works and you are a complete grown up but years later realise you had no clue, and the whole idea of hero worship.

As soon as I’d caught sight of the girls cutting their way through the park, my attention stayed pinned on them. The black-haired girl with her attendants, their laughter a rebuke to my aloneness. I was waiting for something without knowing what. And then it happened. Quick, but still I saw it: the girl with black hair pulled down the neckline of her dress for a brief second, exposing the red nipple on her bare breast. Right in the middle of a park swarming with people. Before I could fully believe it, the girl yanked her dress back up. They were all laughing, raunchy and careless; none of them even glanced up to see who might be watching.

Because of all these factors I raced through the first part of the book, even when it starts to get a little bit icky towards the end when Evie and Russell finally meet. Admittedly, as well as the book grabbing, part of why I was racing through it was for Evie to get to the cult and to then see how Cline evoked the persuasive nature of a leader who could get people to believe in the oddest of things. She does this brilliantly chillingly and uncomfortably. My skin was crawling as you feel yourself being groomed through Evie’s eyes.

“We can make each other feel good,” he said. “You don’t have to be sad.”
I flinched when he pushed my head towards his lap. A singe of clumsy fear filled me. He was good at not seeming angry when I reared away. The indulgent look he gave me, like I was a skittish horse.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, Evie.” Holding out his hand again. The strobe of my heart going fast. “I just wantto be close to you. And don’t you want me to feel good? I want you to feel good.”

Yet after the initial introduction to the girls, the cult and the repulsive Russell the book took a couple of turns for me as a reader that I wasn’t expecting. I hate to say it but in part two I got really, really bored. Let me explain why. For some reason just as Cline gets us to the cult storyline she turns away from it, even though Cline has said this book is about peripheral characters around a horrendous event which is fair enough. She instead veers away and takes us to the present where Evie strikes a weird friendship with a much younger woman. Whilst I understood why she did it, after I realised which Evie we were with, as it is another discussion of female role models and bonds between women, it just felt a bit clunky and unnecessary. Then when we do go back to the summer 1969 suddenly seems to shy away from the cult and just focus on the girls causing mild havoc in suburbia instead. I was a bit miffed frankly. However her writing and the brooding slightly gothic sense of doom led me on to part three… the part which made me utterly furious. See I said it was a rollercoaster of a read for me.

As most readers will know there are going to be murders I don’t think it is a spoiler, or much of a leap of common sense, to know these will happen towards the end. For me Cline suddenly ramps everything up and sends us suddenly to that point. Two weird things happened as we got to these murders, which to be honest suddenly came quite left field after quite a few pages of meandering elsewhere, for me. Firstly I was taken back to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where as you get to the actual description of the murders I started to feel sweaty sick and actually cried as they went on, so Cline had got to me in some way. Then, unlike with In Cold Blood in fact the polar opposite, I suddenly felt incredibly manipulated by this book, then disgusted. Then really, really, really angry.

Whereas with In Cold Blood (which is a masterpiece and slightly unfair to compare this novel to but it is my reference point and what I thought about after reading The Girls) you get to know the murderers and their motives inside out as well as the lives of the victims, you don’t with The Girls. The girls themselves are quite shadowy and two dimensional, Evie is really the only fully formed character, who still in some ways remains an enigma. So therefore the intended impact for me to be horrified yet try and understand how these girls ended up doing such a horrific thing, was completely lost. Instead it felt more like Cline had decided to write about a famous murder and the people behind it but chickened out somewhat and wrote about the character on the periphery instead but kept a big, slightly voyeuristic gory murder scenario in because that is what would sell books. At least that is how that all made me feel which I am sure is not what Cline intended at all, it is just what I was left with.

Extreme I know, but that is where this book took me which I am actually really sad about because Emma Cline can clearly write, her prose is wonderful throughout even in the horror-fest which as I said did the job because it moved me to tears. I just wish I had felt it was all for more of a reason and I didn’t. Really strange. Funnily enough I was talking about this book just the other day and was saying how this is probably how it feels to be someone who loathed A Little Life, which you know I have a special place in my bookish heart for, and felt it utterly manipulated them. I am also clearly in a very small minority because everyone I love and turn to for book recommendations has been utterly bowled over by it. It is also for that reason, though I would never tell you not to read a book, that I would still say give the book a whirl and see what you think… then come back to me and have a natter about it please.

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Filed under Chatto & Windus, Emma Cline, Review

Physical – Andrew McMillan

I don’t really feel qualified to write anything about Andrew McMillian’s debut collection of poems Physical because as we have discussed on here before, many a time, I am not one of poetry prowess. Poems on the whole tend to scare me, as I don’t feel I understand them as I should. (I mentioned this when I was discussing Sarah Lowe’s collection Loop of Jade a few weeks ago.) However a collection like Physical is one that you simply cannot ignore and I simply have to write about because it embodies, see what I did there, everything I want from poems and poetry… a reaction that hits me right at my core, an honest voice and an experience that fiction couldn’t conjure if it tried.

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Chatto and Windus, 2015, paperback, poetry, 56 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Physical, as the title might suggest, is all about the body. However as we read on (or as you might guess from the cover) we come to learn that this is all about the male body, what it can do, what is it meant to do, what it shouldn’t do, how it comes in all shapes and sizes, how it can be desired, loved and sometimes feared. Andrew McMillian’s debut collection is all about masculinity, no scrap that, Andrew McMillan’s debut collection is a book that ponders, despairs and celebrates what masculinity is meant to mean.

If this all sounds like I have gone bonkers, let me explain with the help of the first two poems. In the opener, Jacob With The Angel, and its follow up Urination McMillan plays with our expectations and turns them on their head. What we instantly think is about one thing, is another, something which might occasionally or often shock and surprise us. When we read Jacob With The Angel we initially thing of a classic, literally, poem of a religious scene however the more we read on we start to wonder if this is not in fact the meeting of two gay male lovers.

Similarly with Urination we think it is a poem about the awkwardness of urinating at such close proximity with a stranger (which remains odd no matter how old you get, especially if it’s your CEO and they want to chat to you which has happened to me in past jobs) and then swiftly turns into those domestic moments of ritual within a relationship, the moments we should treasure. This wonderful trickery is something I have only seen once before in that famous scene in Keith Ridgway’s equally brilliant, quirky and just as original novel Hawthorn & Child. In many of these poems we are pulled through the squeamish, the uncomfortable, the thrilling, the erotic, the joyous and the heartbreaking moments of men’s lives be they heterosexual, homosexual, undecided or it doesn’t really matter.

Admittedly there is a main focus on homosexual relationships, it is not the whole story though. Not that it should or would matter if it was. We all feel love and lust, we all compare ourselves to other people of the same sex, often admiring them even if there is nothing sexual in it. Plus when McMillam does write about sex or initimate moments between two men it is done directly and visually but always with a beauty even at its most base of moments. Sex is sex. Love is love. We all go through these things whatever gender, sexuality and race. It is all about how we relate to each other, men and men relating (or not) being one of the themes here too.

Speaking of which, back to the masculine nature of the collection though… There are a whole spectrum of machinations of masculinity, from the danger of Leda To Her Daughter to the questioning and pondering How To Be A Man from the erotically charged Saturday Night to the vulnerable and open Screen, which shows you the bare insights of a lover looking at the object of his love and then at the objectification of the man in the film, albeit a porno, see there are those brilliant twists and flipping things on their head moments again.

at the beginning I asked you
to let me watch you watching porn    I think
I needed to see you existing
entirely without me     your face lost
(from Screen)

There is another interesting construct to Physical and that is that it is made of three parts; Physical, which houses 15 poems; Protest of the Physical, which flips the style of poems as we are used to them (or at least as I am) on their heads; Degredation which consists of a final nine poems. Now as I have mentioned before I am now connoisseur of poetry, though the more I read the more I enjoy it,  but I found this a really interesting shift in perspective and in gear even if I couldn’t quite understand if it had a  purpose. This is me not being au fait with the art form rather than anything McMillan does and I enjoyed it regardless. With the first and final sets of poems being slightly more conventional in terms of form, if not subject, Protest of the Physical is something quite different. It is one great big piece of poetry made up of smaller poems (well that is how I read it) some which take up a whole page, be it in length or in random places literally all over the page, or just a few lines. It is something I will need to read again and again to get more and more from, rather like a painting that holds you and gives you more and more as you stare.

I am worried I am making this sound a little too worthy or too serious and there are a lot of laughs and funny moments in Physical. Firstly from its northern nature and narrative. As you read of Manchester bedsits and poems entitled The Fact We Almost Killed A Badger Is Incidental the wonderful warm Northern tone comes through which is always has a twinkle in its eye, well tone. Elsewhere, yes there is the titillation of the writing of sex, porn, urination etc which might have you expelling a mild giggle before being lost in McMillan’s words. Amongst all this and the honest and thoughtful more serious poems there are some belly laughs. I for one still cannot read the opening of The Men Are Weeping In The Gym without laughing out loud, before the poignancy of what follows settles in.

the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs    their hearts have grown too big
for their chests     their chests have grown too big
for their shirts      they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit
they are crying in the toilet

Physical is a stunning, raw and direct look at what it is to be male. It celebrates the male physique in all its forms as much as it celebrates the foibles of the male species. It is a collection that asks a lot of questions, primarily ones such as in the poem Strongman, which asks ‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight?’ Be you male or female you need to read this collection. Books, poems and stories are all about experiencing the world of others and walking in their shoes, Physical excels at this and from an unusual and original view point. I cannot wait to see what Andrew McMillan creates next.

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Filed under Andrew McMillan, Books of 2015, Chatto & Windus, Poetry, Review

Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett

If I had to pick the book which I have picked up and put down most in book shops in 2015 then A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass would probably win that title. Everytime I picked it up the same things went through my head. Yes, for the name, which I found cheekily (no pun intended) daring. No, because it compared itself to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which takes itself far too seriously and takes me back to secondary school drama where I was a beetle for a month and a table for two. Yes, lots of people I trust really loved it and spoke of it highly all over the shop. No, lots of people I trust felt let down by it at various points. Someone at Chatto &Windus clearly felt my panic in the ether (or as some call it Twitter) and soon it kindly fell through my letter box and, instead of my usual ‘pop it on my chest of drawers and think about it’ routine I started reading it straight away…

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Chatto & Windus, 2015, paperback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Furo Waiboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion tha swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap. He stared at his hands, the pink life lines in his palms, the shellfish-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white… same as his legs, his belly, all of him. He clenched his fists, squeezed his eyes shut, and sank into the bed. Outside, a bird chirruped short piercing cries, like mocking laughter.

When Furo wakes up on the morning of a very important job interview, as job interviews are few and applicants many, he initially thinks that he is still dreaming for the body he seems to be housed in no longer resembles his own. Overnight it seems that somehow he has turned white, well not quite all of him, as the titles suggests part of his anatomy is still very much its original colour (something we the reader know from the off but Furo discovers sometime later in a very funny scene). What follows in Blackass is how Furo deals with the physical change, initially just in the interim and then over the longer term, followed by the deeper change as he discovers life as a white man in Nigeria is initially alienating and then quite useful, if somewhat detrimental to his soul.

I found following Furo a rather eye opening experience unsurprisingly. As he walks through the streets of Lagos people point, jeer and mutter. He has become a minority very quickly, yet once he starts to speak to people in Nigerian he becomes an oddity, why would a white man know pidgin Nigerian, something must be suspect with him. Yet at the job interview this makes him a valuable asset in the business world and soon finds him offered a position far above the one he was aiming for, all because of his skin colour, but what will he do in the two weeks before he starts his job? Can he go back to his family and if not what will he do as a poor man, easily noticeable and therefore vulnerable?

He had always thought that white people had it easier, in this country anyway, where it seemed that everyone treated them as special, but after everything that he had gone through since yesterday, he wasn’t so sure any more. Everything conspired to make him stand out. This whiteness that separated him from everyone he knew. His nose smarting from the sun. His hands covered with reddened spots, as if mosquito bites were something serious. People pointing at him, staring all the time, shouting ‘oyibo at every corner.

Initially we have the discussion of race and skin colour, how does the colour of your skin affect you and define you? Yet as the book goes on the remit gets wider both as Furo’s situation changes but also through the people he meets along the way. Through his circumstance we soon look at how the world changes be you rich or poor, lowly or powerful. As he meets Syreeta we are initially given an insight into the world of the trophy mistress and the kept woman, yet with her relationship with Furo we find ourselves looking at the trophy white lover and the kept man, which I found fascinating.

In a rather unexpected twist, with the character of an author called Igoni, we also look at the changes in gender and hinted sexuality. If I had one wish it was that the Igoni sections had been fleshed out and explored more as they were really interesting and yet we don’t get into the crux of them as much as I would have liked, there felt much more to discuss rather than a whole section of the book being in tweets. There was a lot that could have been done here and whilst I found a whole section of the book in tweets very modern, and rather meta with the character of the author having the same name as the, erm, author, I felt we only skimmed the surface of this transition and we could have got even more riches if Barrett had gone deeper. Anyway, a small quibble that has lead me to digress.

There are many layers and many riches in Blackass. I found the way Furo changes externally drastically yet changes internally much more slowly compelling and rather confronting reading. It raises all the questions I mention before whilst also unflinchingly and bluntly looking at society and the flaws it can all too often try to hide. Yet whilst doing this it doesn’t take itself all too seriously or do it without any witt or vibrancy, quite the opposite and how could it with its title which is a very clever move. Lagos pours off the stage with it’s hustle and bustle, the smells, tastes and noises all unfurl around you and the characters, if often not always likeable, arrive fully formed with all their complexities and quirks.

I can’t really comment on the parrallel’s or riffs that it has with Kafka’s Metamorphosis if that is what you are after, I have tried to wipe those weeks being a table from my memory. I don’t think it is right or beneficial to either. How can you compare the two?  Yes they both have levels of metamorphosis in them, yet one is a cult European classic and one a new satirical (and a lot more fun) tale of modern Nigeria. Where does it get us to compare the two? Read them both if you like, or don’t – personally I would suggest reading this one, you’ll have more fun and be made to think just as much.

I think Blackass is a really interesting and different novel from many of the things I have read, or have seen published, this year. You can simply read it as a darkly witty escapist fairytale/myth/fable or you can or as a wonderful, sattircal and occasionally daring way to look at society and questions of class, gender and race. Either way you are going to have a great read ahead of you. One thing I know for sure, I need more of this kind of quirky and thought provoking fiction in my reading diet. Don’t we all? I should have picked it up off the book shop shelves sooner.

I didn’t read this book for #DiverseDecember, it would be a great one to add to your reading list for the month though if you are still looking for titles, really it should just be on your reading list regardless. Has anyone else read Blackass and if so what did you make of it? Have you read Barrett’s short story collection, I shall be adding that to my collection at some point in the future.

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, A. Igoni Barrett, Chatto & Windus, Review

Loop of Jade – Sarah Howe

I am a late bloomer when it comes to poetry. I still find it slightly difficult to talk about because I think the reactions that you have to poetry are rather different to ones you have to novels and short stories and more like the ones you have to art. More often than not, though I would like to caveat that this isn’t always the case, my reactions to poetry is very immediate. I either like it or I don’t, it resonates with me or it doesn’t. I hate going to art galleries with people for this reason, I will whizz through a collection muttering ‘no, no, no’ and then happily spend an hour or more just sat staring at one. I tend to do this with poems. So when I found out Sarah Howe had won the Young Writer of the Year Award I promptly pulled it off the shelves to have a read.

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Chatto and Windus, 2015, paperback, poetry, 80 pages, kindly sent by FMcM

Loop of Jade is a really interesting collection as in one sense it is a collection of poems that tell the story of Howe herself going back to her childhood and roots in Hong Kong, in another it is a collection about her mother’s past and it is also a collection that seemed (to me) to celebrate history, or herstory, itself. Yes, I know, that sounds quite grand doesn’t it yet there is really no other way to try and put the collection. Especially as with Howe’s debut these poems all  feel like they relate to each other more than many collections I have come across, with some poems talking to ones prior to them and some to ones ahead of them before the reader realises it, for example Crossing from Guangdong and Islands.

Interestingly those two have much in common as they are both about the history of Hong Kong and both take on a fascinating look at the landscape, culture and the imagery we have of it on the other side of the world, which of course makes sense with Howe’s dual nationality and backgrounds. It was this twist and edge to a lot of the poems that I really liked, so much so some about the mystical past of Hong Kong were amongst my favourites. I loved the added flavour and twist that this gives to the collection.

It is not just history from Asia that Howe writes about. Greek and Roman classical elements with poems like Sirens, Death of Orpheus, (h) The present classification and Pythagora’s Curtain all have that feel. We don’t stop there though, there are also nod to Egyptian history as well as some western history, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Maybe my earlier comparison between a poetry collection and an art gallery is wrong with Loop of Jade it is more like taking a wonder around the wonders of the world housed in a museum. Yet world history is not all, there are many in this collection that speak to a much more personal history like Mother’s Jewellery Box.

It should be no surprise that any poetry collection is about language but there are some of Howe’s poems which really hit home its powers. From simple word play like Start with the Weather which starts every stanza with ‘whether’ to Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush which looks at lost languages and how they are created. She also uses the forms of her words in really interesting ways, most noticeably in title poem Loop of Jade where one poem is intersperse with another and then suddenly takes on a whole new form. To all Laments and Purposes is like something I imagine Ali Smith’s poetry is like, shame on me that I have not read any, there is so much word play in it.

Many of Howe’s poems also stand like short paragraph length stories (Crocodile, Innumerable) and occasionally I wondered if this collection was a mixture of verse and short stories. I wonder if anyone who has read this feels the same way? Regardless, Howe is clearly aware of the power and poignancy of language, words and form and also wants to experiment with them and see what happens, which I liked very much along with her writing and lines like Dying is such thirsty work and this snail’s slow ribbon turns the asphalt into gold.

I mentioned earlier that I find poetry collections like art galleries (or should we scratch that to museums as discussed?) and there were several in particular which I lingered on. Crossing from Guangdong I could read many a time for its descriptions of place and also how it looks at combined and contrasting cultural heritage with east vs west and east meets west. In the same vein but much briefer and sharper Suckling pigs had me giggling to the point of appropriately almost snorting. [There were barnacles…] is also a gorgeous para-poem (as I am now calling them) about the humble and not often celebrated creature of our rock pools. Embalmed is a wonderful piece of history told in poems I have read.

There was one poem in particular that I could read over and over and over again… Tame, a poem-cum-myth-cum-fairytale which just completely enchanted me. I think in part this is because I love myths and fairy tales and so it instantly chimed with that sensibility in me. There is more to Tame than that though, it is probably one of the most full and poignant poems I have read. Short and yet epic with its ability to tell an entire story, throwing in so much atmosphere and character you cannot help but be moved by it even though it’s quite macabre – as all good myths and fairytales should be. It embodies everything that is wonderful in Howe’s writing in one large concentrated dose. I have read it more than ten times already. Stunning.

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Filed under Chatto & Windus, Review, Sarah Howe

The American Lover – Rose Tremain

If one book could sum up my reading year it would probably be Rose Tremain’s collection The American Lover. In part this is because this has been a year in which I have rediscovered my love of the short story. It wasn’t that I had abandoned them; I think I was just reading the wrong ones. It is also the year that I finally read Rose Tremain, after reading her work in honour of Granny Savidge who rated her as one of her favourite living authors. I am kicking myself for not having read her sooner and The American Lover again shows why she is such a master of the story whatever length.

Chatto & Windus, 2014, hardback, short stories, 232 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the things that I most love about Rose Tremain’s writing is how she gets into the heads of the outsider or the underdog, or indeed the forgotten voices in society. This is probably the theme that runs through all her work and is the only thing that really connects The American Lover which is about as eclectic a selection of short stories as you could ask for in terms of scope, lengths and subject matter.

We have all felt, even the most confident of us, like outsiders at some point in her lives and this theme chimes within us even if we aren’t like the two old men in Captive or Smithy, who both live alone and try to get by and be helpful both (heartbreakingly so), we can empathise with them from what we have experienced as we do in all the stories. Rose also looks at people who choose to be outsiders such as Walter and Lena in A View of Lake Superior in the Fall who have become recluses hidden away in the wilds to hide from their grown up daughter, you will laugh and you will cry; and in another tale the very real Leo Tolstoy who appears, having escaped his horrendous wife in The Jester of Astapovo. She also looks at Sapphic love and how being different in whatever way makes us feel an outsider in the brilliant Extra Geography. Another highlight for me though was the appearance of one of my very favourite fictional outsiders…

Everybody believes that I am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. They say I am a creation: ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’, in the opinion of many. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul. I am a breathing woman.

You can imagine my chills of excitement when I saw that yes, Rose Tremain takes on Rebecca in The Housekeeper looking at it from a completely different angle of the relationship between muse, writer and the finished works. In fact writing is one of the themes interspersed throughout The American Lover, indeed in the title story we discover the tale of Beth whose affair with a much older man when she was younger inspired the bestselling novel The American Lover, yet what was she left with after. This is a wonderful and, another Tremain trope, heartbreaking tale and you can see why it was up for the short story award earlier in the year. As we have a reimaging of how Rebecca was inspired and how Tolstoy spent his last days we also get a wonderful modern retelling of a rather famous Shakespeare play with 21st Century Juliet, which had me cackling. The excerpt below made me laugh and also reminds you all to pop my birthday date in your diaries, ha!

24th March
Cook supper for Cousin Tibs. I adore the bastard like the brother I never had. We get smashed on the (four) bottles of Corvo he’s brought and I tell him about Mayo and about Perry’s declaration. Relief to get everything out in the open. And Tibs is really sweet and on my side and agrees with me that good sex is awesomely rare and that Perry Paris is verging on being a pillock.

What I also love about Rose Tremain’s writing (and I have a lot of love for it if you hadn’t noticed) is that she explores all aspects of we strange human folk. She looks at loneliness, grief, rage, love, loss, death, kindness, bitterness in all their forms. One of the tales that did this best (and is probably in my favourites of the collection with The American Lover, Captive and obviously The Housekeeper) is BlackBerry Winter where we meet Fran as she goes home for Christmas. Here with time to reflect she does the things we all do now and again, and something that Tremain is very good at discussing in her work, asking the questions of ourselves we don’t like to face or are shocked to face. Some are hard and dark; what are we doing with our lives, are we in the right relationship, do we like ourselves? Some are dark but funny (Tremain does black comedy so, so well) like when we contemplate killing our mothers, or wishing we were dead, even just for a moment.

Fran unpacked her clothes and put them in her old wardrobe, which used to creak and grumble in the night, like something alive. Then, she sat down on the single bed and took out her BlackBerry and emailed David. She told him that she almost wished Peggy had been sliced in half by the gin trap; she told him that the moonshine on The Trib had made her long to be a Tahitian again; she told him that her love for him was as dark and familiar as the wood. When she signed off and contemplated her evening alone with Peggy and the TV, she experienced thirty seconds of wanting to be dead.

I loved the whole collection of The American Lover, there is so much that is wonderful in here I haven’t managed to mention A Man in the Water, Juliette Greco’s Black Dress, Lucy & Gaston  or The Closing Door which are all marvellous, and all have all the Tremain-isms in them that I mention above. Also you might need another reason to quickly run and get this from the shops for loved ones, though really I would recommend you just treat yourself and find a few hours to curl up with it and all the worlds and stories Rose Tremain creates for you.

When Simon Met Rose...

When Simon Met Rose…

I had the joy of meeting Rose, who is just lovely, and talking about The American Lover and some of the other books she has written (and indeed I have read for Trespassing with Tremain, the review of Restoration coming before the end of the year) a month or so ago which you can listen to here on You Wrote The Book. Who else has read this collection and what did you think? What about Tremain’s other works? I still have plenty to go which I am so excited about; she is definitely a firm favourite author of mine now.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)

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Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.

Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.

Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.

One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.

She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.

One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.

The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.

As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.

A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…

As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.

Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.

The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.

The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.

I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Review, Richard Flanagan

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

You may remember at the very beginning of 2013 I raved about a debut novel with the rather ‘stop and stare’ title of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It was by a debut author Kerry Hudson who seemed, by some kind of witchcraft, to totally depict and understand my childhood; lots of moving, not masses of money, lots of trips to the library etc. It was one of those ‘blimey, this book gets me and I get this book’ moments that we are lucky to have every so often. After a small amount of stalking and some meringue caterpillars (long story) weirdly this Kerry Hudson became a mate who loved Alphabites and gelato – not together – as much as I do. A true bonus from a brilliant book. Yet this of course created a dilemma when Thirst came out. I wanted to read it because its predecessor was so brilliant however Kerry was also a mate. So I decided I would do what I would do with any book I want to read, and always will do, and just judge the book on the book. So here goes…

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Security guard Dave first meets Alena, not long arrived in the UK from Siberia, when he catches her trying to steal an expensive pair of shoes from a luxury store (which naturally pays its staff piss poorly) and helps her from being arrested, much to the dismay of his manager. Why Dave does this he is not sure, though the fact she is rather attractive may help, and neither is Alena yet in Dave she senses a safety from the world which she desperately needs and soon manages to find a way into his life and into his flat. No, not in that way you dirty lot but from this initial meeting and in the weeks after a relationship of sorts starts though if it is one that either can speak of or will last neither of them know, especially when their backgrounds, and indeed their baggage, start to come to the fore.

Hudson writes both of these characters intricately, and also does something very clever by revealing their pasts in glimpses here and there and creating layers of both Alena and Dave at their best and their very worst, their most attractive and their most ugly. Initially I struggled with Alena as though I knew she had a dark mystery she was running from in her past, which gives the novel a great momentum from the start, I couldn’t work out if she was an innocent victim caught up in something horrendous, or someone far more calculating and unlikeable.

She went to the mirror again and inspected herself; she didn’t have food around her mouth, anything in her teeth; she had good lips, pretty eyes and beautiful breasts, everybody said so. She checked that her expression wasn’t too pathetically grateful, though she was. She was so grateful and very afraid of being sent away, but the trick of staying was to make him the thankful, fearful one. And as she caught herself smiling in the mirror she reminded herself that this was all just a trick, there was nothing real here, and killed the smile instantly, like a small insect under a hard finger tip.

The same applies to Dave, though almost in reverse. Initially we see him as the lonely good guy who looked after his mother when she was dying of cancer and also followed her dying wish of marrying the wrong women. Poor Dave. Yet as we learn more his story gets darker as grief and regret, along with loneliness inside a relationship, all take over. Who here is really the good and who is the bad? Do we have to be one or the other or do we have both in us which we have to keep in check?

Of course these are the points that Hudson is making with Thirst, or one I thought she was making, is that no character is black or white, nor is anyone wholly good or wholly evil. We are all various (I nearly said fifty, shame on me) shades of grey and we have all done things in our past that are commendable and things that we all feel ashamed of. Hudson looks at these both with Dave’s failed marriage and also Alena’s past (which I don’t want to give too much away of because it’s utterly chilling and needs to be experienced cold) as she becomes caught in the sex trafficking industry and has to do anything she can, no matter how bad or how dark, to get through it. Both characters ask the questions of how far we can be pushed as people both physically and emotionally and what we will do in order to survive life and all it throws at us.

Before I make all this sound to dark and depressing I must mention two things. Firstly there is a love story at the heart of this and one which thankfully isn’t saccharine or sugar coated but real and bumpy and awkward and wonderful. Secondly there is a lot of humour in Hudson’s writing, a sentence can make you laugh before the next one tears you apart emotionally and vice versa. There is also hope. Though by me saying that don’t think this book has a happy ending; you will be left to decide that, which is another brilliant stroke. Like its predecessor Thirst looks at the sense of belonging, be it to places or people, that we as humans all hunger for (no pun intended) and the journey that the quest to find it takes us on, be it another country or just through the highs and lows of getting through your day to day life.

He went and sat on the scorched, scratchy piece of grass outside with his food. The dogs did nothing, just flicked their tails in his direction and flared their dry black nostrils when he opened a bag of crisps. And there they sat together, all of them with nowhere to go.

To bring up Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma again, the things that I loved about it are the things that I also loved about Thirst and I think could be the things that carve Hudson’s career for the long haul and make her stand out. Her characters are real, funny and flawed, they walk the places we walk and whilst they pay attention to the beauty, or beautiful ugliness, of their surroundings and the people who walk in and out of their lives, they also live and breathe, go to the toilet and eat crisps like we all do. Hudson’s celebration of the simple and everyday actions making them all the more vivid. They are also about those people who might not be able to put pen to paper and write about their own life experiences and yet whose stories need to be told in all their beautiful brutality.

Phew, if I had hated it that could have been awkward. I would have just never reviewed it and anytime it was mentioned swiftly say ‘Did someone say free gelatos?’ There is the slight point that I now think Kerry is rather a genius and have some internal envy and rage going on, but let’s move on. If you want to see more rave reviews (they are popping up everywhere) head to Lonesome Reader and Workshyfop. Who else has read Thirst and what did you make of it? What about Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma? Which other books have you read which brilliantly celebrate the small day to day things in life that make us who we are? And which books have you read that shine a light on the people in society whose voices are sometimes lost in the literary middle classes?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Kerry Hudson, Review