Category Archives: Fourth Estate Books

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Sometimes you just get a gut feeling about a book don’t you? You see it in a bookshop, or hear about it somewhere and just think ‘that is probably going to be the book for me’. That was the case with Eleanor Wasserberg’s debut novel Foxlowe, a book which caught my eye with its cover (a creepy looking big house gets me every time) and then became a must read when I discovered it was about communes. So I promptly asked the publishers if I might snaffle a copy. Yet once it arrived I did that awful thing when you have I crush, I became a bit shy of it (coy some might say; sideways longing glances and smiles) and dared not pick it up in case it wasn’t all I had hoped. Thanks to a booktube buddy read with Jean, Jen, Mercedes and Brittany I finally picked it up.

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Fourth Estate, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Tiny red beads came from the lines on my arm. Those soft scars give away like wet paper. There’s a game that helps: footsteps in the dust, twisting to match the old strides without taking any of the skin away from the Spike Walk. Another: name steps all the way to the yellow room end of the Spike Walk. Freya, Toby, Green, Egg, Pet, the Bad. I made it to the final nail and squinted at the arm. Red tears and the lines woollen hot; a crying face. I turned to Freya, her long arms wrapped around herself at the ballroom end of the Walk. She nodded, so I breathed deeper and licked some of the salt and coins taste to make it clean.
Freya spoke. – And back again, Green.

As Foxlowe starts we are thrown headfirst into the world of Green and the realm of the rambling old house of Foxlowe. Green , a young girl whose age we never really know because she doesn’t, we soon learn has done something she shouldn’t and so is undergoing ‘the Spike Walk’ a form of punishment by the commune of Foxlowe’s (self proclaimed, we discover) leading lady, Freya. Seemingly something called ‘the Bad’ from the outside world has worked its way into Green, children being more susceptible, and needs to be exorcised.

From here, through Green’s youthful and rather naive eyes, we are soon show how life within crumbling Foxlowe works; Richard and Freya being two of the Founders who have created various myths, half truths and full on falsehoods to keep both the younger (Green and October, or Toby) and older members (Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg) of ‘the Family’ away from the outside world. Green has never questioned the, often unwritten but very much felt, rules and regulations in free spirited Foxlowe, that is until Freya comes home with a new baby, Blue, who Green instantly hates with a jealous vengeance and starts to rebel against. Or has ‘the Bad’ taken her over?

It didn’t take long for Freya to see how I hated new little sister almost from the beginning. It was in the faces I gave her and the way I held her a little too rough. Then she overheard my name for her. I thought it would be the Spike Walk but instead I was Edged. Freya told the Family this one morning by tossing me the burnt part of the bread and they all saw. They all had to look away when I spoke and no one was allowed to touch me. I was alone, edging around the circles the Family made around New Thing. I snatched eye contact and accidental touch, watching and listening, haunting rooms.

After the arrival of Blue into Green’s world Wasserberg starts to turn things up a notch, the initial slightly creepy tension building and becoming more and more uneasy. At the same time the relationship between Freya and Green, who you are never sure if are real mother and daughter or not, starts to deteriorate and Green rebels. Throw in all the questions and hormones of a girl on the cusp of womanhood and you have quite the potent concoction that not even the most skilful of witches could brew up. It is here that Wasserberg then surprises us, as we lead to what we think is the dénouement, she takes us somewhere totally different years after and then asks us to work backwards. Suffice to say I loved this and not many authors can pull that trick off.

I was hooked from the first page (though the prologue did throw me a bit, just crack on after that and you’re fine) until the end, which I have to say absolutely chilled me with its final paragraph. No, I am not spoiling it by saying that, it is just fact and was also something that made me love the book all the more. That said it takes more than a full on body icy dread chilling ending to make a book a success, you have to get there first and Wasserberg had me captivated throughout.

One of the main reasons for this are the twists and turns and mysteries within Foxlowe and its characters, plus the dynamic of the internal world and the external. The other is Green’s narration, which might take you a little while to get into the rhythm of, as she writes with a mixture of hindsight, a child’s eyes and slightly skewed viewpoint. Her naivety and misinformed (or groomed, if we are being honest) mean she spots things that seem normal or minimal to her, yet we read very differently. I bloody loved this, and then there was Freya…

Freya loved rolling dough. She thwacked it onto the bench, pummelling with her fists. I gave up mine, stuck on the bench in stringy clumps, and watched her. A thick line of white ran through her black hair, which she wore twisted up in a high bun. Her long skirt was pulled down over her hips, and above it she had tied her t-shirt in a knot. Silvery lines zigzagged over her skin, around her back.
She caught me with her eyes. In the gloom of the kitchen there wasn’t a fleck of colour in them, so dark they made the whites seem to glow.

I am an absolute glutton for a villain in literature; regular readers will know how much I adore Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers, you shouldn’t but you do. Freya was like that only worse, I didn’t adore her but I was grimly mesmerised by her. She is a fascinating character study of what makes a cult leader. As much as she is beguiling at her core she is a scheming, vicious (some of the things she does to the children is appalling and some readers may find deeply upsetting, be warned), manipulative, power hungry monster who uses her body and people’s need for love and acceptance to get what she wants. And she gets worse and Wasserberg’s depiction of how people can be brain washed, at any age, is pretty haunting. I loved to hate her.

As well as some of the bigger elements Wasserberg captivates you with more hidden, subtle and intricate elements. This is all because of her writing; one of the things I liked in particular was how easily I was lead into such a dark book and all its themes, no showing off. For example she doesn’t make a big song and dance of how Foxlowe crumbles at the rate Freya’s relationship with Green does, or how that also links into the crumbling of Freya’s own power and mental stability. It is all just there in the background. Oh and another big favourite things of mine, fairytale and myth are all interwoven within Foxlowe which becomes as big a character as any of the people within it.

At the end of his first week the weather turned cool, and we made a hot dinner. I dipped bread in egg, pushing it under to make it soggy. Freya took the eggshells and smashed them in her fists.
– So witches can’t use them, she said, and winked at me.

I won’t forget Foxlowe for quite some time, and not just because of that ending, which gives me the shivers every time I think of it also because it is one of those books where it’s atmosphere lingers with you. It is an engaging, uncomfortable, gripping and pretty darn chilling story of the power of manipulation and desperation to be loved. It is also a deft exploration of the psychology of brainwashing both for those doing it and those who fall prey to it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; whatever Wasserberg does next I will be rushing to read it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Eleanor Wasserberg, Fourth Estate Books, Review

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As I mentioned when I shared the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist yesterday, it was International Women’s Day. I decided to mark the occasion by reading a book that felt appropriate for the occasion which was We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who I am a huge fan of. As someone who believes in equal rights for everyone regardless of gender, race, sexuality, disability etc, I believe that I am a feminist. Yet, as Chimamanda points out in this work, the word feminist really divides people. I have been told I cannot be a feminist because I am a man, though once I was told begrudgingly that I could be one because I was a gay man, interesting. I disagree. In fact some people may say I shouldn’t even be commenting on this book, or say I am ‘mansplaining’; well I’m not and I want to talk about it so I will…

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4th Estate, paperback, 2014, non-fiction, 62 pages, bought by myself for myself

In her essay We Should All Be Feminists, based on a TEDx talk that she gave, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looks at her experiences and relationships with being a feminist and the reaction her feminism that people have had. Chimamanda was first called a feminist when she was young and having debates with one of her best friends, Okoloma who was tragically killed in a plane crash some years later. The thing was that when he said it, it wasn’t a flattering statement. This experience continued in her education as she reminisces about a moment she competed to be a school monitor, only to win and find out only boys could be school monitors – a small matter no one bothered to mention or question. It has carried on into her career as a novelist.

In 2003, I wrote a novel called Purple Hibiscus, about a man who, among other things, beats his wife, and whose story doesn’t end too well. While I was promoting the novel in Nigeria, a journalist, a nice, well meaning man, told me he wanted to advise me. (Nigerians, as you might know, are very quick to give unsolicited advice.)
He told me that people were saying my novel was feminist, and his advice to me – he was shaking his head sadly as he spoke – was that I should never call myself a feminist, since feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands.
So I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist.

As she writes on Chimamanda looks at how the term ‘feminist’ has made people see her. From people thinking she doesn’t like men, to thinking she flaunts her feminism by wearing high heels, or trying to conform to the stereotype of what men find attracted. All wrong, all leading her to call herself a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not Men’. Blimey, that is quite some title. Which leads to the question which many have asked, and will sadly continue to ask, which is ‘why then call yourself a feminist?’

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender.  It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem is not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided humans into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

This I found really interesting. Firstly it is a perfectly correct and justifiable response which I hadn’t personally thought about. As I said earlier I see myself as someone who believes in equal rights which I thought automatically made me a feminist, but maybe it makes me a feminist by proxy instead, or not. It is the openness and/or interpretation of the word which differs so much that seems to cause much, not all, of the hoo-ha around it. Secondly, I wondered what Chimamanda’s thoughts on equal rights might be, as equal rights and human rights themselves can differ, dependent on the view. I think. Maybe. More food for thought. Thirdly I started to think about cultural backgrounds or beliefs and how they differ and was just pondering all this and what Chimamanda’s thoughts were on this (reading this became an interesting conversation in my head with Chimamanda that she wasn’t technically a part of but very much the catalyst of, if that doesn’t sound psychotic) when she second guessed me and brought it up.

Culture does not make people. People make culture. Chimamanda then goes on to look at how culture, informed by societies, makes the rules and sometimes those rules become outdated or simply become wrong. An example she uses is with her twin nieces who she and all her family see as a wonderful gift, however a while back in certain cultures this would not have been the case. The example she gives is that Igbo people used to kill twins 100 people, now the idea is abhorrent. This can be applied elsewhere in our more freethinking and modern world. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.

My next thought, see I did a lot of thinking about this, was if culture changes surely the term of feminism does too. Is feminism becoming more fluid as gender does? I am thinking in particular in relation to transgender and non-binary feminism, as I said I have been told I can’t be a feminist because I am a man, so what then in those instances. I would love, love, love some essays on this from transgender and non-binary writers please, I think that could create some really interesting debate. If you read this Chimamanda (I can dream, right?) I would love your thoughts on this. That said Chimamanda does look at the roles of each gender and how it is not just down to daughters of the present and future but importantly sons too.

Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we should begin to plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our suns differently.

As the son of a woman who brought me up by herself whilst going to university, passing her degree and becoming a successful teacher, I like to think my mother has brought up such a son. So I found it all the more interesting that considering (if I do say so myself) I am very much open to all views and being a big believer in equality for everyone, this essay made me think all the more about it, question it and myself subsequently giving me a real brain work out. Hence why I think everyone should read it and why, as Chimamanda so eloquently argues, We Should All Be Feminists. We should.

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Filed under Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fourth Estate Books, Harper Collins, Non Fiction, Review

A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

“And then what?” How many times have we been asked that by a small child or indeed remember asking it as a small child ourselves? Yet when we are young and are first read fairy tales you never ask that question when the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’ appear at the end. Michael Cunningham does this in A Wild Swan and Other Tales which somehow manages to combine the magical with reality and has some truly wonderful moments for doing so. From the very start of this collection we are greeted with Dis. Enchant, not quite an introduction rather a statement of intent mixed with a slightly knowing question that makes us ponder the question of when we went from the innocent all believing to the more cynical and, dare we even think it, more wicked selves, this sets the tone for everything to come.

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Fourth Estate, 2015, hardback, short stories, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the weeded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely… would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?
If not, blessings on you.
If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.
These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

I may have let out a small cackle myself having read that. In fact during A Wild Swan and Other Tales I cackled on quite a few occasions as Michael Cunningham looks at what went before once upon a time and what followed on from happy ever after with this collection of ten stories which mainly feature fairytales that many of us will have grown up loving. From favourites Snow White to Beauty and the Beast and from Jack and the Beanstalk to Rapunzel each tale is taken back to its darker routes and then given a slight tweak or twist all encompassed in a rather gothic essence and large sprinkling of as much dry wit as there is magical fairy dust.

It is hard to give much away about the way in which Cunningham does this without ruining the twist, which is of course what makes them all so (prince) charming to read, however I will try. In Beasts we discover that if you fall for a beast you might still be falling for a beast just one that is more apparent and has been changed for good cause. In Steadfast: Tin we look at how we fall in love with the people we really wouldn’t imagine and then how we make that love last and how complicated marriage can be, even if built on true love it can still go awry. In Her Hair we look at if looks matter and if so what happens if they fade.

Throughout each tale Cunningham’s wry wit is what keeps them either endearing, cackle inducing or all the more twisted. In the title story A Wild Swan there are several very funny moments all around the impracticalities of having swans wings instead of arms, on the subway or in a club etc, that actually become bittersweet and all the more thought provoking when you realise that the tale is in fact about imperfections and even disabilities by which people are judged. This black humour is also used just as often to be simply downright funny, sometimes even with a knowing wink, well slight of hand.

Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognise Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit – the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?

I must also mention the illustrations before I move on, which are wonderful. Using only black and white artist Yuko Shimizu creates wonderful gothic images of depth which have you noticing more and more. The book itself is designed to be a work of art. The hardback edition also has a wonderful embossed cover with swans on, which you might not get on the paperback and certainly can’t get on the Kindle edition, coughs. Each story is given its own illustration to accentuate the world of the tale that Cunningham has created. It’s beautiful.

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To show I don’t have completely rose tinted glasses on this collection just because I love a good fairytale and a good reworking of one, I have to admit there were a couple of stories that didn’t quite do it for me like the others. Both Little Man and A Monkey’s Paw were two which I felt didn’t quite work either in there more modern reincarnations or in sync with the rest of the collection despite their best efforts. Little Man, a reworking of Rumplestiltskin, is a clever account of the rarity of a single man who would like a child of his own and can’t really go about that by normal means, it just felt slightly long and the ending (which you will all know) didn’t quite work in its modern confines – it felt a bit wedged in. A Monkey’s Paw was good but as it isn’t based on a fairytale it felt a bit out of place in the collection though it has a wonderful take on both grief and what it is to be very different from what people call the norm. Eight out of ten isn’t bad though which is, funnily enough what I would give this collection should I still give ratings on here.

Overall A Wild Swan and Other Tales excels and I think the best examples of those moments are with my two personal favourites Crazy Old Lady and Poisoned. Crazy Old Lady looks at what it is that would make a women go slightly crazy and leave New York to go and build a house made of candy in the woods before two children (who you might have heard of) come calling and do the unthinkable. Poisoned looks at what happens between Snow White and her handsome prince after the wedding, when it soon turns out that he might have a slightly disturbing kink. These two tales have the whole essence of what the originals did, the brutal, the gothic, the sinister and the sexual and who can argue with those traits.

I really, really enjoyed A Wild Swan and Other Stories, I was thrilled and comforted by both its sense of the new and sense of nostalgia all the way through. It was the perfect collection to end my reading year on in 2015 and was the perfect introduction (I know, I know it is shocking to admit this) to Michael Cunningham’s writing. I need to get cracking and read much more of his work… And get back to reading more and more collections of new, twisted or simply retold fairytales too.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Fairy Tales, Fourth Estate Books, Michael Cunningham, Review, Short Stories, Yuko Shimizu

The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

After the sad news that Doris Lessing passed away earlier in the year, and seeing everyone’s incredibly positive thoughts on her works I started thinking about all the authors, including Doris, who I hadn’t read but really felt I should have. Along with Nathan Dunbar, a lovely bookseller across the ocean, we decided that we would read The Grass is Singing, her first novel from the 1950’s, and have a read-a-long of sorts in the form of #DorisInDecember. I have to admit though I was rather daunted about the task ahead.

4th Estate Books, 1950 (2013 edition), paperback, 206 pages, fiction, bought by my good self

The Grass is Singing starts with the announcement in a local paper of the shocking news that on one of the farms in Ngesi, Southern Rhodesia, there has been a murder. Mary Turner has been murdered by her and Richard Turner’s houseboy, one of the natives. The mystery at the heart of the article, and indeed The Grass is Singing, is why this has happened. What adds to the interest from the start is that it isn’t the police that have taken over the investigation but the neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter and, as we learn in the first chapter, Tony Marston, the new English farm hand, thinks there may have been more to the incident than meets the eye. Even if Moses, the houseboy, has admitted to the murder what led him to committing it, and what was the relationship between himself and Mrs Turner?

The newspaper did not say much. People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.
And then they turned the page to something else.
But the people in ‘the district’ who knew the Turners, either by sight, or from gossiping about them for so many years, did not turn the page so quickly.

Considering that The Grass is Singing is relatively slight at 206 pages, there is so much going on within it that I left the book feeling that Doris Lessing (who was only 25 when she wrote this) was an utter genius. The big story at its core initially seems to be the one about race and the racist attitudes of society in what is now known as Zimbabwe. The way that ‘natives’, as they were called, are treated is horrendous and we get to see this as we follow Mary once she marries Dick and joins him on his ramshackle farm. Which leads to another subject of white poverty, but I am ahead of myself already.

Really is it Mary, who we initially see as the victim of the piece, whose story we follow. As a young girl she grew up on the farms in Southern Rhodesia and hated it. She hated the way her father drank and behaved, she hated her mother’s shrill voice and low tolerance of the staff and after the bliss of boarding school gets away to a town as fast as she can. Once alone she blossoms through her late teens and early twenties yet by thirty she is still not married. Mary sees nothing wrong with this until she overhears so called friends laughing and gossiping about her. Deflated she looks for a husband to escape the life she loved but now believes is tainted; only her escape route is a completely miserable one.

Five years earlier she would have drugged herself by the reading of romantic novels. In towns women like her live vicariously through the lives of film stars. Or they take up religion, preferably one of the more sensuous Eastern religions. Better educated, living in the town with access to books, she would have found Tagore perhaps, and gone into a sweet dream of words.
Instead, she thought, vaguely that she must get herself something to do. Should she increase the number of chickens? Should she take in sewing?

Mary is bored. While she likes her husband, Dick, she also thinks he is rather ineffectual, there is a wonderful yet rather sad sequence of Dick’s attempts to make them money with bee’s, then pigs, then turkeys, then bicycles. They are living in extreme poverty, which even his neighbours – the vile Slatters – can’t bear to see as apparently there is nothing worse than seeing poor white people almost living in the squalor black people do, which depresses her and she longs for town or just escape. Instead she becomes angry and embittered, hating the landscape (which Lessing gives a wonderful sense of menace) and the weather (Lessing making the descriptions of heat utterly oppressive) and going slowly mad. Of course anger needs a focus point to be unleashed on and soon Mary does this with her husband but then more and more so with her servants.

The next day at lunch, the servant dropped a plate through nervousness, and she dismissed him at once. Again she had to do her own work, and this time she felt aggrieved, hating it, and blaming it on the offending native whom she had sacked without payment. She cleaned and polished tables and chairs and plates, as if she were scrubbing skin off a black face. She was consumed with hatred. At the same time, she was making a secret resolution not to be quite so pernickety with the next servant she found.

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’ They are saying, in effect, ‘Learn our ideas, or otherwise get out: we don’t want you.’ Most of these young men were brought up on vague ideas about equality. They were shocked for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated. They were revolted hundred times a day by the casual way they were spoken of, as if they were so many cattle; or by a blow or a look. They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take long for them to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad as oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as ‘bad’. And anyway, what had one’s ideas amounted to?

The Grass is Singing is not the easiest of reads. The characters are often far from likeable (I haven’t gone into the vileness of the Slatter’s but they are quite a creation) yet they all have a truth to them no matter how awful, it is the fact you know this was happening that makes them all the more scary, along with the situation of course. There is also the dense atmosphere of the book which rightly so is menacing and cloying but sometimes can feel like slowly wading through mud, yet again this is apt. Then there is Mary, a character on the edge of madness which is hard to watch both emotionally knowing the ending as you do and also because she reflects all the varying sides of society, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet it is for all these reasons that The Grass is Singing is a book which needs to, and must be, read. It is a small but perfectly formed melancholic masterpiece that will leave you with a huge amount to think about – a true reading experience.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Doris Lessing, Fourth Estate Books, Review

Idiopathy – Sam Byers

It was author Nikesh Shukla who I heard raving about Sam Byers ‘Idiopathy’ so much that when I saw it in the lovely new sparkly Liverpool Central Library I simply had to pick it up. I admit it had been on my radar with its Waterstones 11 inclusion but it was Nikesh who sealed the deal. He didn’t really talk about the plot, just said that the writing was pretty much genius stuff. So when I read the cover description, as I don’t read blurbs on the whole, as ‘A novel about love, narcissism and ailing cattle’ it sounded both intriguing and rather quirky.

4th Estate, hardback, 2013, 300 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Idiopathy’ is, as defined at the start of the book, “a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”. Bearing this in mind, initially a reader may assume this applies simply to the strand of the book where cows are randomly becoming very ill and being culled, some thinking this means the end is nigh others just that the price of beef is about to soar. However I wondered (if I am trying to be deep and clever) whether in fact it is a condition that each of the three main characters, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, have. Each has a feeling of unhappiness, loneliness or just in some way, possibly rather self indulgently, being a bit out of the loop with the world.

Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple not so long ago. A couple in one of the most possibly toxic relationships ever; she liked to annihilate him, twisting every sentence he gave her and playing mind games galore, while his insecurities made him snappy, unhappy and always in the wrong with every barbed sentence she threw him. They only really had one friend in common at the time, Nathan, a man who they decided to befriend as they thought he might know where to get some drugs and a crazy night out – they weren’t wrong. Yet Nathan disappeared one night, a night they both seemingly forgot along with Nathan himself, yet Nathan hasn’t and so when he comes back from a psychiatric ward a reunion looks imminent, if slightly doomed.

What Byers does with is characters, which I found both clever and fascinating as a reader, is make his three main protagonists all hideously dislikeable yet also incredibly readable. Prime example, and probably my favourite, was Katherine. I don’t think I have met anyone so barbed, cynical and downright miserable in fiction for some time, yet I have met so many Katherine’s in my life. If I am really honest I may even have (in some very dark times) had a bit of a Katherine phase in my time, without the half-arsed suicide attempt though thankfully. She sleeps around with the men she doesn’t paralyse with fear in the office because she has no self worth, then feels worthless but quite likes it and so spends nights eating in her dressing gown in front of the telly. She hates her job, in fact really her life, in Norwich, a place she doesn’t even want to be in yet fled to. She is the perfect anti-heroine.

“She met with Keith only on selected evenings. They fucked and drank and rarely spoke, which suited Katherine. He bought her a vibrator as a present; gift wrapped. With a heart-shaped tag that read ‘Think of me’. She donated it, tag and all, to her local charity shop on her way to work, buried at the bottom of a carrier bag filled with musty paperbacks and a selection of Daniel’s shirts she’d found amidst her archived clothes. She never saw it for sale, and wondered often what had become of it. She liked to think one of the elderly volunteers had taken it home and subjected herself to an experience so revelatory as to border on the mystical.”

Because she was such a big and brash and brilliantly vile character, she sort of stole the show. I liked Nathan, and actually wanted more of his back story and why he self harmed so much, and enjoyed watching him move back in with his parents, his mother now being a twitter and blog superstar turned author ‘Mother Courage’ a fame reached at the expense of her own son and his issues. Daniel I struggled with. I just found him a bit pathetic, a man who stuck with an utter bitch, Katherine, for five years and has now ended up with Angelica who is really a bit of nothingness he quite fancied when things were bad and whose friends and cat he hates. As someone who hates ineffectual people I found my teeth grating when ever Daniel’s narration took over even when it was very funny, though I think that is what Byers wanted.

‘Love you darling. Could you pass the milk?’
‘Course I can baby. Here you go. Love you.’
‘Love you too.’
They had, Daniel thought, crossed all acceptable boundaries of decency.

The book is hilarious by the way. You wouldn’t think it could be with such a bunch of miserable self serving so and so’s at the helm (even though you will love Katherine, honestly she is genius) yet I found myself laughing out loud a lot along the way. Interestingly as I read on I found I needed breaks from it, the humour made me want to gulp the book down yet the characters and their conversations become cloying after a time. A gamble by Byers as it is very realistic yet because they are so vile it can get quite heady, particularly the rows between Katherine and Daniel, or rather her turning every utterance back at him in which I soon found I had to stop reading as I was getting so cross at Katherine for being such a bitch and Daniel for being such a bloody doormat. Shows how real they were though. This could alienate some though because it almost gets too much on occasions.

Without sounding like a bit of a swanky twat (hopefully) I would describe this book as being ‘a very modern novel’ which simply typing makes me want to vomit in my own mouth somewhat. Yet it is true. There does seem to be something of a ‘turning thirty crisis’ nowadays; at thirty you should be like previous generations, have a house, marriage, kids and a pension yet it just isn’t like that and I don’t think that is something that is written about often. These people are also the ‘me’ generation who think everyone gives a toss what they think on twitter, their blogs, etc. (Oh dear, that me isn’t it? See I made it all about me, I must be one of them too – help!) Byers also has a pop at environmentalists, corporations… in fact everyone gets a swipe, and then the bovine issue after ‘swine flu’ and the recent horse meat scandal is another gem – though it was a tangent that trailed I thought until the almost too farcical ending.

I think the best way to describe ‘Idiopathy’ is that it is a timely novel, it is also occasionally a rather testing novel yet a novel that overall, for me, announces an author that I am really looking forward to watching in the future and seeing what he comes up with next. If it is a book about cantankerous pensioners living in a seaside town where people go to basically die then I think it could win every prize going, if not maybe I should right that book myself. Oh there I go again, making it all about me. Oops. Back to Sam and ‘Idiopathy’ then, I would strongly recommend giving them both a whirl; it could cause some corking debates at a book club.

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Filed under Fourth Estate Books, Review, Sam Byers

Notes from an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale has been an author I have meant to read a lot more of for some time. I first read him back in my late teens/early twenties in a rare moment, during those years when I barely picked up a book, when one of my flatmates told me I ‘simply had to read’ his novel ‘Rough Music’. I remember liking it enough to think I should read him again but then as I didn’t really pick up a book that was no good even with the best of intentions. A few years ago I picked up his short story collection ‘Gentlemen’s Relish’ which I liked  however it has been recently reading his latest novel (which I can’t talk more about at the moment) and ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ that now have me wanting to rush out and read his other books, and indeed re-read the two I have read. Here is why…

****, 4th Estate, paperback, 2007, fiction, 374 pages, from my personal TBR

When artist Rachel Kelly dies her eldest son Garfield is shocked when his wife, Lizzy, tells him that ‘she ended up having a heart attack like a normal person.’ Rachel Kelly is/was (and I use both the past and present tense because whilst she dies very early on in the book she remains the strongest character and drive of the novel throughout) an alluring, if confusing, woman to her husband Anthony and also sometimes the most perfect and most horrendous mother to her children, the aforementioned Garfield, Hedley, Morwenna and Petroc.  As ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ moves forward we learn all about Rachel, during both her highs and her lows creatively and personally, in a really interesting way as with each chapter, interestingly headed by a note which appears next to several pieces of her work in a posthumous exhibition,  is told by one of them or through Rachel’s own memories.

As the book went on I was a little bit worried that I would find this a little bit annoying however Patrick Gale really makes it work. Seeing in her family members heads, though Morwenna has disappeared and Petroc is dead (both these strands adding a mysterious nature to the book too as we don’t know why initially), it is like Patrick Gale uses each one as a colour, or tone might be a better word, to create a fuller picture all over of one woman’s life. As the book goes on and more stories are shared the full picture appears, initially a little impressionistic before fully forming. I liked this effect. You often forget Rachel is dead as she describes moments such as a birthday of Petroc’s on a beach one summer giving the dynamic of their relationship even though both of them are dead. Very clever indeed as it all just works.

Something that I also really loved about this book was the way that there isn’t a plot as such, Rachel is dead we know this, there are actually more plots than you could believe. With a family everyone is different and so in meeting the characters and where they are in life, Garfield and his wife being sort of happily married yet in fear of having children, Hedley being gay, Morwenna being rather like her mother plus the death of Petroc etc really means you have multiple little complexity plots simply based on characters who seem as real as anyone you could meet on the street.

There was a little downside with this; I never really felt I quite got to know Anthony. Rachel and her children, and their relationships, come to the fore so much that sometimes you forget about Anthony which seemed a shame as he was the stoic point in Rachel’s and the family’s life, but maybe that is a point Patrick Gale is trying to make (I shall ask him) with Anthony? The other teeny issue I had was with the names of all the children, I could imagine Rachel giving them to her children but they sometimes broke the spell, especially as every time I read Garfield a huge comic ginger cat would appear in my mind. That might sound petty, and it didn’t ruin the book for me at all as I enjoyed it immensely, but I want to be honest and that was a small snag now and again.

There are many books that use the death of someone, as they open, to show the dynamics of a family under a time of great emotional pressure. This causes any cracks that may have gone unnoticed previously to once and for all crumble, as secrets are revealed and tensions mount. ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ is such a book at a first glance, however I think Patrick Gale manages to write one which is quite different as while having the drama of death and family secrets at its heart it never falls into melodrama. I also think it’s one of the most realistic novels about families, their love for one another and their differences, that I have read in quite some time. I hugely admired this book.

I am not at all surprised that Saint Richard and Saint Judy of books have chosen him twice as an author. Who else has read ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ and what did you think? Which other books of his have you read? Where should I go next, as I have decided I want to read much, much more of his work?

Oh and if you have anything you would like to ask Patrick then let me know as I will be in conversation with him and Catherine Hall tomorrow night as part of Manchester Literature Festival, and I promise to ask as many of your questions as I can during, before or after the event.

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Filed under Fourth Estate Books, Patrick Gale, Review

Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love – Dan Rhodes

I like collections of stories that feel like fairy tales for adults. I like books that are darkly funny. I like Dan Rhodes, he is one of my favourite authors. We then have I left reading his collection ‘Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love’ for such a long time when I knew it would combine all three of these things? Well, if I am being truly honest, I forgot I had it. It wasn’t until I spotted it when looking for another book that I saw it and knew it must be read pronto. It also was one of the books that inspired the recent cull, too many gems I really wanted to read surrounded by those I kinda, maybe one day might read.

Fourth Estate, paperback, 2002, short stories, 198 pages, from my personal TBR

‘Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love’ rather unsurprisingly given its title is a collection of love stories with a twist, brilliant, just my thing. If you are thinking these will be stories with a happy ending, you would be wrong. Like the proper versions of the fairytales we know and love from childhood, which are indeed much more sinister in their original form than Ladybird or Disney would have you believe, these are all wonderfully dark with some vicious and also hilarious twists as the tales develop. In fact the blurb of the book (I only tend to read these after I have finished a book, random fact, like I do other reviews and thoughts) does say this is ‘a homage to the brothers Grimm’.

There are seven stories in the collection all with one main theme, they all have a wonderful sense of magic, be they set in forests like ‘Glass Eyes’ or in the modern world as ‘The Violoncello’. We have tales of unrequited love between old men and young beauties, old hags who magically entice young lovers, men willing to literally become instruments for women to play with, women so obsessed their lovers don’t love them they will see how far they can test that love. As you can probably tell, love appears in many forms, always quite darkly and generally with a twist.

I will admit the first story ‘The Carolingian Period’ worried me that I might be a little disappointed, it didn’t do quite enough as a tale or effect me like I wanted it to, I also predicted the ending a little. That said it was still a great story, just having read Dan’s other works I wanted more. ‘The Violoncello’ changed all that. I admit I was thinking ‘if these are fairy stories why are we in modern Asia not the wooded lands’ but the magical element kicked in and, if there is such a thing, it became an epic short story. I loved it and reminded myself that stories should never be predictable and fairy tales can happen anywhere, ‘Landfill’ another marvellous example of that as it plays out in, well, a landfill. With ‘The Violoncello’ really I felt like I got a full novel in 44 pages, the story, the characters, the atmosphere, the emotion were all wonderfully drawn.

‘Coquettita was naked except for a string of pearls. He was naked too but with no one there to see it didn’t seem to matter. And they were in love. People in love like looking at each other with no clothes on. But as he saw in her contorted face the unvanquishable desire to pluck out his left eye he began, tentatively, to question the unconditionality of his love for her. For the first time in the six days since they had met, he felt the urge to hide his nakedness behind a tree or some ferns. He was frightened.’
Taken from ‘Glass Eyes’

It was those stories which had glimmers of the ones I loved as a child that I will admit I loved the most. ‘Glass Eyes’ was a wonderfully dark tale of a wizened witch disguising herself and wanting her beautiful lover to be as ugly as her. In fact beauty is a theme in my three favourite of the story’s as ‘Beautiful Consuela’ where a woman pushes the lines of love vs. beauty to extremes and my very favourite, and probably the darkest of the tales ‘The Painting’ shows the darkest effects beauty can have and what it can cause.

As I said at the start I like collections of stories that feel like fairy tales for adults. I like books that are darkly funny. I like Dan Rhodes. If you like anyone of these then you must get ‘Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love’. It’s a veritable treat.

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Filed under Dan Rhodes, Fourth Estate Books, Review, Short Stories