Category Archives: Hamish Hamilton

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Joining a new book group is always a little nerve-wracking however your first choice for a book club I think even more so. By then everyone has got to know you but not necessarily what your book taste is. I decided to take an educated gamble with my first choice and choose Mr Loverman, the latest of Bernadine Evaristo’s novels, after having heard her read from it back in February at a Penguin Bloggers Night where she had everyone laughing – a lot. Throw in the fact that several people whose opinions I trust had loved it. Oh and I thought the subject matter would cause some interesting discussion after I read someone somewhere calling it a geriatric Caribbean Brokeback Mountain set in Stoke Newington…

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Mr Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq is a character. He is a smart dressing, rum drinking, well off property developing 74 year old, the father of two daughter, husband to Carmel and owner of a decent house. He has also been in a secret relationship with his best friend Morris, and has been since there teenage years in Antigua. Now as his marriage seems to be bringing him more and more unhappiness, his daughters having fled the nest, he is wondering if it is time to come clean with his wife, who thinks he is out most nights womanising, and tell everyone the truth – can he actually do it though?

My first thoughts, well after initially thinking it was sweet that at 74 he was so in love before then thinking ‘hang on, he is cheating on his wife and lying to everyone around him’, was just how on earth Barry had got into this situation, then why he hadn’t left his wife sooner. The latter is something wondered by Morris who at one point in their past, which we get revealed slowly but surely in flashbacks, after his wife leaves him after discovering their secret before her eyes and he wants Barry and himself to be together, Barry refuses and a major bump ensues. Now it seems things might be different, though Barry has a slight issue with everyone knowing that he is a ‘buggerer of men’ as he puts it. As for how this all started, we soon learn that the Caribbean is not a place where homosexuality is responded to well and it is this background to the story that creates the situation they all find themselves in.

I’d been under such pressure back home. A young man showing no interest in girls, when he could have any one of them? I was twenty-four when I married Carmel, and I’d almost left it too late for some. They was talking, and I was afraid I’d be up before a judge on some trumped-up charge of indecent exposure; or end up lying on an operating table with a bar of wood between my teeth and electric volts destroying parts of my brain forever; or in a crazy house pumped full of drugs that would eventually drive a sane man mad.

What I thought was wonderfully done by Evaristo is how fully realised her characters are, with the exception of Barry’s daughters, one stereotypically spiky, the other so camp you know what will happen there. Barry is a charmer and quite loveable, he is also a man who has big secrets and even with the most carefully constructed life the pressure is mounting, cracks are showing and can’t be covered up no matter how big a smile you put on your face. He is also a bit of a swine, the way he treats Carmel, even if sometimes she asks for it, is often harsh and also incredibly chauvinistic admittedly in part due to his social upbringing. Yet you like him and feel for him, even if you don’t always agree with how he handles his issues.

Carmel is also a very interesting character. Initially I really disliked this woman who came across as a controlling harridan, always demanding to know everything and berating her husband no matter what he did good or bad. However as the book went on I really felt for her. This is a woman who longed for love, way back when she was a girl and one of the most handsome men around took an interest in her. Yet really she is a smoke screen for Barry and all the more saddening as it is unwittingly so, which really hit me and I think Evaristo has done this purposefully, if the society of Barry and Carmel’s upbringing had been more tolerant then these people wouldn’t be in this mess. Of course Carmel doesn’t know all of this or why Barry is so distant, and can only guess – wrongly, the result is the same though, she is unloved and turns, with the addition of post natal depression after baby two, to bitterness.

…on your own again, isn’t it, Carmel?
late this night, praying up against your bed, waiting for him to come home, knowing he might not come home at all, but you can’t help yourself, can you, acting like a right mug as the English people say…
waiting, waiting, always waiting…

If this all sounds thoroughly depressing, trust me it isn’t. Mr Loverman is brimming with humour which makes all the sad parts all the more heartbreaking. I don’t often belly laugh out loud but I did often and (very) loudly thanks to Evaristo’s humour which always comes along just at the right moment. There are several wonderful set pieces based around Morris’ observations or Carmel’s coven of friends who live in fear of the homosicksickals their Pastor George forewarns them of. Small minds can make big laughter, which also leaves poignancy in the air.

Merty’s getting into her stride now; plays her trump card.
‘And another thing, I hear from very good authority on the grapevine that Melissa is one of those women who lies down with women.’
Yes, you go-wan Merty. All roads in  your dutty mind lead back to sex.
‘Yes , I think I heard that too… er…’ Drusilla says unconvincingly, glancing nervously at Merty but determined to continue her id for power. ‘What I always say is, if woman was meant to lie with woman, God would have given woman penis.’

As you may have guessed I really, really loved Mr Loverman (what’s more so did my book group, I think it is one of the highest scoring books in a while) and found it a funny, touching and thoughtful book on a subject which I don’t think many authors would write about, there is still a huge stereotyping and homophobia towards black gay men which makes this book all the more important. One of my books of the year, and an end of year surprise rather like My Policeman at the end of last year, and one which has also introduced me to an author I have been meaning to read since Blonde Roots and now will definitely read much, much more of. Highly, highly recommended reading!

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Filed under Bernadine Evaristo, Books of 2013, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review

There But For The – Ali Smith

I have had an interesting relationship with Ali Smith before leading up to reading ‘There But For The’. I really liked her last novel ‘The Accidental’ (pre-blogging days) though was also delightfully puzzled by it, I loved ‘Girl Meets Boy’ and thought The First Person and Other Stories’ was a lovely collection. However I really didn’t get on with ‘Hotel World’, to the point where I didn’t finish it and one of her other short story collection I simply didn’t get. So I was intrigued to see which way my experience with ‘There But For The’ would go, I admit I was rather worried that the title might mean it was going to be a little experimental.

Penguin Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The premise of ‘There But For The’ is a rather simple one. Imagine throwing a dinner party and having one of your guests vanishing after the starter to lock themselves in your spare room for months. This is the very position that Jen and Eric (can you see what Smith has done there?) find themselves in after they invite Mark, a ‘homosexual’ they hardly know, who brings Mike along with him as his plus one even though he isn’t and he barely knows him. It is Mike that disappears and starts the lock in, with no seeming cause as to why.

What I really liked about how Smith wrote this was that she tells the story through people who know Miles and not through him himself. Most of them hardly know him that well at all, or have for certain small parts of his life up to the dinner party. I won’t say anything about them as it might give some of the joy of the ‘discovery’ aspect of the book away. This provides little insights and a certain distance which rather than alienate the reader actually creates intrigue and a little bit of mystery. I wanted to read on. It was a risk but its one that I thought Ali Smith pulled off successfully and it certainly kept me reaching for the book at any opportunity. I think I ended up reading this in about five sittings.

The other master stroke, which I know other people have questioned a little (and you can see in the comments of John Self’s post on ‘There But For The’ we have had a discussion about it), was the characters of Jen and Eric ‘The Hosts’. I don’t know if it was intentional, I can’t speak for Smith on this one, but it was like she poured everything that’s horrible about those smug middle class people  who have dinner parties and invite diverse people (sexuality and religion wise) they don’t know simply to almost see what happens, like they are an addition to the nights entertainment. I found this really comic and it added to the book’s fun feel.

As soon as you mention the word ‘fun’ in a novel people will mark it as not having enough literary merit. Not that I am saying that’s what I search for in books. I would heartily disagree with this, and in fact use ‘There But For The’ as a prime example of a book that is fun and is full of literary merit. Smith plays with words and the formation of language (typesetting etc), you can’t get more ‘literary’ than that, and has fun with it, the reader is made to engage with different forms of prose  you might be reading a newspaper cutting about Mike and then when Mark’s dead mother speaks in his head, brilliant character quirk, it is always in a rhyme.

Her characters are also very quirky and fully formed. One of the highlights of the book is where over about 40+ pages we are at the dinner party with all the guests on the evening everything happened.. This could have been really dull because it’s full of random conversation pieces, bits of politics, buts of ‘world issues’, drunken embarrassing over sharing and accidental stereotyping. It’s entertaining, its maddening, its funny, its sad, most of all its insightful – especially in how much is said by what’s unsaid. I had a feeling of ‘uh-oh’ when it started but I utterly loved it. I don’t think I have read anything quite like it. It’s a piece of writing that some authors would have given their writing arm to, well, write. It’s intricate.

“Out of nowhere Caroline starts crying and laughing at the same time. She says she wants to make a confession. Her confession is that she’s frightened of flying in aeroplanes. Hannah reaches across the table, knocks over an empty water glass and pats her hand. Jen starts shouting about CBT. Six sessions of CBT will sort you out, she says, only she shouts it, like a mad person, and she shouts it over and over, she has said it about six times, Mark thinks, either that or he is very drunk himself, which can’t be possible since he’s only had one glass and it was only half full. Hannah is shouting too, about how she has rights, and that one of her fundamental rights is the right to be able to take cheap flights, because her parents didn’t have that right, and that flying doesn’t harm the environment nearly as much as they claim. At this point, Hugo and Richard start free-associating a fantasy – Mark watches them slip into cahoots as if they’d not been being the least bit acrid with each other all night, as if cahoots is exactly the same as loggerhead”

I think ‘There But For The’ is a great novel and so far it’s my favourite of Ali Smith’s works to date that I have read. She has taken bits of her earlier work; great characters, observations, comedy, unusual narratives, prose and pacing and put them all together. It’s a tour-de-force as opposed to a hotch-potch. I don’t want to say this is her most accessible book, even though in many ways it is, because that makes it sound like its not experimental and it is. It’s just honed down, controlled and done without ego. I am very excited to see what she will come up with next. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

It’s interesting looking at ratings of her other books that she gets a full variation of opinion from great to not so. Who else is a fan of Ali Smith’s novels? Who isn’t? Why?

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Filed under Ali Smith, Books of 2011, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review

Light Boxes – Shane Jones

I was alerted today’s book of choice thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book a while back. I then promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago a little parcel from Penguin arrived and there inside was a compact novel. By compact I mean it’s about half the size of an average paperback both in depth and height. I then whizzed back to Frances post to see what had made me want to read it so much initially

In an unnamed town, where you soon learn things are not what they seem, February has taken over and flight has been banned. For over 300 days the town has been in perpetual winter, children are going missing or killing owls and villagers who rebel are being found in the woods dead their broken jaws filled with snow (one of the images that haunts me still), leaving the people of the town with no other option than to start a war with February. Our would be hero of the hour and in many ways catalystfor all that follows, is  a balloonist Thaddeus. After his daughter goes missing one night leaving only a bed filled with snow and teeth swears to get revenge and finish February once and for all, though he is tricked along the way, whatever shape it may take. It is also the voice of Thaddeus that despite the varing narratives the story is told fromguides you from start to finish.

In some ways it’s a thriller, you want to know who, why and what February actually is with many twists along the way.  In some ways it has elements of science fiction. In the main with its ghosts, secret underground worlds, moss that can eat anything slowly from the feet up, and endless impossible possibilities it’s an adult fairytale (I don’t think I would let young children read it) where anything can and often does happen though it tends to be the things you least expect. In others ways it’s a fable, and a tale of hope.

The film rights for this book have already been sold and, for once, it’s actually a book I am looking forward to seeing on the big screen because it’s written so visually. I found that, though I might be the only one, the book with its short chapters was in some ways like a series of wonderful slightly abstract watercolours that left imprints on your mind for some time after you had read each snap shot. It is of course all down to Jones wonderful writing that this is the case I did also wonder if the fact it is also written in first, second and third person adds to it.

You can’t help thinking that whoever designed this book added to the magic of it all. After all it has six different fonts in several sizes and is written with a sentence on one page, maybe a list on another, maybe just a paragraph or a full three page chapter (for that’s as long as they get), though this could be the authors doing of course. Either way it’s a magical book that’s very visual without being illustrated which for a debut novel I find quite incredible.

I could sum up Shane Jones debut novel ‘Light Boxes’ in one sentence. An adult fairytale filled with surreal magical feel that pulls the reader into another reality. Really it’s just a marvellous escapist read that’s darkly beautiful and will leave you thinking of it for days. 9/10 (Oh and its out later in the week here in the UK, I think elsewhere it’s already published.)

I can’t think of any suggestions to go with this one because I honestly haven’t read anything quite like it before. Has anyone else given it a whirl? What are your thoughts on the ‘magical realism’ genre?

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Filed under Books of 2010, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review, Shane Jones