Category Archives: Naomi Wood

Mrs. Hemingway – Naomi Wood

I am rather fascinated by authors, I can’t pretend I am not – more dead and classic authors than living ones, though with certain podcasts and events I do you know I am partial to a good chat with a fun living one. I digress. Interestingly I know that not every reader feels like this about authors, they find the books more fascinating, I however am firmly in the ‘let me know all about authors that you can’ camp. This even includes some authors who I haven’t read and one such author I have heard much about and yet not read a word of is Ernest Hemingway (sorry Gran, I know you loved him) so when I discovered lovely living author (who I have had virtual fig roll fights with on this very blog) Naomi Wood’s second novel was going to be about his wives I knew I would have to read it.

Picador Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Mrs. Hemingway is a fascinating fictional account of the lives of all four of Ernest Hemingway’s wives; Hadley, Fife (or Pauline), Martha and Mary told from their perspectives at various points of their marriage to Hemingway. From the poor and humble beginnings to the darker depressive days of his last years Naomi Wood gives us a novel where the wives become as fascinating, if not more so, than the man whom they all married. A man it seems who wanted to feel like he was truly loved, which in some ways as his fame grew, became all too easy as women threw themselves at him, even if they weren’t his wives or wives to be.

What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

At the start of Mrs. Hemingway it is a marriage of almost three which we enter. Hadley and Ernest have been joined on their holiday by Hadley’s friend Pauline, or Fife as we come to know her, who we soon learn (from her sister no less, the shock and horror) has become Ernest’s mistress only it seems that the feelings run far more deeply than a mere infatuation or soon to be over indiscretion. We watch, feeling wholly for Hadley, as Hemingway’s first wife inadvertently draws her husband and his lover together whilst her intention is to do quite the opposite. What is marvellously done is what remains unsaid between all three, but particularity what remains unsaid between the two ‘friends’ as things continue. I was heartbroken with Hadley and thought Fife was an utter piece of work, yet strange how as I read on my opinions would change on each wife, and indeed each mistress.

Hadley eats alone at the round table where their books sit on the shelf above. Ernest’s first book of short stories, In Our Time, sits along Scott’s new novel, The Great Gatsby. She remembers one of Ernest’s stories. The images are still so cool and fresh they resurface as vividly as if they were her own memories – how the fish broke the surface of the lake and the sound of them landing was described as gunpowder hitting the water. Hadley could picture everything in that story: the boat out in the bay, the boyfriend and girlfriend trolling for trout, the old sawmill that was now a ruin. But then it came, the moment when the boyfriend tells the girlfriend how it isn’t fun anymore – none of it is fun he tells her, desperate; none of it is going to work. She wonders how much it was about them. The story is called “The End of Something” after all.

Mrs. Hemingway is fascinating for many reasons. Firstly because as I hinted above it is a book which will have you completely on the side of whichever wife you are reading, thinking you will hate the next one and quite possibly coming away from the book feeling admiration and heartbreak for them all for many different reasons. What is wonderful in Wood’s prose is that each wife is very different and also celebrates what was wonderful and unusual about them that made Ernest fall for them and want to marry them all (marriage being something he was vehement about). Each woman has flaws, each woman has certain feelings about Hemingway’s writing, in short each woman is equally fascinating and when you come to the end of one’s narrative you really hope they crop up in the next one.

It is also a fascinating book, not only because it is about all sorts of woman and all sorts of marriages which seems slightly obvious to highlight but is true, because it is a book that really looks at the different emotions that we all go through in our lives. Love, jealousy, rage, hate, happiness, sadness. It also looks at the different shades of love we feel for someone. You can be infatuated. You can be unsure but wooed. You can fall under someone’s spell. You can fall in so fast and out so fast. You can love to hate someone. All these emotions and feelings we have all been through are laid bare in one of the women at some point, or even a few of them at various points, and gives the book a real heightened emotive edge.

He’d be thinking, no doubt, about his life here in the twenties, when he was poorer and happier, a man only once married. His Paris life is a memory Ernest loves to slide over and over until the place is smooth and cool with his affections. Today he would surely be longing for the sawmill apartment and his lost Saint Hadley: a woman all the more exquisite for her generous retirement of the title Mrs. Hemingway.
A title Martha has come to hate.

What I found very admirable, and in its way deeply affecting, about Mrs. Hemingway was that Naomi Wood never seems to favour one wife over another. Nothing they do is judged unless by the wife who happens to be narrating her part of the tale. For example, when we first meet Fife we think ‘what a nasty bitch’, yet when we get to hear her side of the story we start to soften towards her and I could occasionally feel myself starting to bristle against the next wife who was waiting in the wings seemingly to usurp the prior, only for Wood’s account of their actions and motives somehow wins you over again.

Then of course there is the man himself, and in this case as clichéd as it sounds he is the ‘man of mystery’, and indeed the mystery and enigma, at the centre of this book. To each wife he is a different person. A man who seemingly felt he had so much he had to prove that even his successes were never quite good enough. A man who seemed to feel addicted to being loved and needed and admired. A man who didn’t seem to really know himself, or was trying to work himself and the world out through his writing. A fascinating, flawed and incredibly charismatic, dark and talented man.

I say that like I know the man, as I mentioned earlier I haven’t even read any of his fictional writing, I didn’t even know about his ‘infamous death’ (which isn’t really a spoiler as we all know he is dead) before I read Mrs. Hemingway so I came to it, to him and his wives from a very uninformed angle. Well, thanks to Naomi’s wonderful writing (which never shows the amount of research she must have done, my favourite kind of writing) I feel that I have lived through it with them now and I am also desperate to read some of his work.

Mrs. Hemingway is a beautiful novel which initially seems to be about a man of many wives and many times, yet that would sell it short. It is actually about four fascinating women and a man who happened to be lucky enough to have them in his life, no matter how little or how long it was. I highly recommend it whether you be a fan of Hemingway or not, it’s marvellous.

If you would like to hear Naomi talking more about the book, strangely with little old me, then have a listen to the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Who else has read the book and what did you think? If you are a Hemingway fan, where should I head? Which fictional accounts of an author or their lives have you read and would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Naomi Wood, Picador Books, Review

Reading With Authors #2: Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman; With Naomi Wood

Today we are off via the magic of the internet (and a little bit of imagination) to an author’s house in London, not a million miles from the very streets where today’s book for discussion ‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman is set. We’ve rung the doorbell, had a nosey around and join the lovely Naomi Wood (and take over her house) for the second in the series of ‘Reading With Authors’.

  

So Naomi, even though I am actually in your house for today’s virtual meeting do make yourself comfortable… tea or coffee? Any biscuits you would like? I brought a box but fear Belinda and I might have eaten all the digestives last week

I am sitting very comfortably, thank you, in my expansive countryside cottage looking over rolling hills. Not really. We are sitting in my ex-council flat in London with the dehumidifier on (making lots of noise; problem with damp.) Please can I have a large double mocha skinny frappe latte? No? Okay. Cup of tea and a fig roll please. That would be ‘hutious’.

‘Advise yourself’ Naomi. I can’t quite remember why it was that we chose this book can you? I know it was one that I had been meaning to read for a while, what was it that had made it a book on your hit list? (And we can be quite smug in saying we chose to discuss this before the Man Booker Longlist was announced…)

I think it’s been a very talked-about book and I already knew a lot about it before I did the Brighton Book Festival with Stephen. I was very intrigued as I’d seen him on the Waterstones’ Eleven list (I always think that sounds like a police roll call) and lots of people were talking about that. Also, what with the riots, it seems timely to be talking about a book that looks at youth violence, poverty, gang culture…

The first thing to ask really is if you enjoyed it?

I did enjoy it: the voice of Harrison was flawless, I thought. You never really broke with that voice, and I was surprised at how funny it was. I thought Harrison was a loveable, good character, full of optimism. His relationship with Poppy, his girlfriend, was just lovely. That said, I was surprised that I wasn’t much emotionally moved. Bad things happen in the novel and, perhaps because of the alacrity with which you read it, and how quickly they’re narrated, I can’t say that I shed a tear or felt much conflicting emotion.  But then maybe I’m an uncaring bastard. Did you?

I sort of did and sort of didn’t all in one. That isn’t to say I thought it was a bad book by any means, it’s just one I couldn’t always get a handle on. It seemed Stephen Kelman had almost too much he wanted to include. The youth led crime of London’s city streets; the past of Harrison’s life in Ghana, the struggle for money and opportunities, there was a lot there and yet…

People always say that’s the problem with first novels, right? That there are always about three books crammed in rather than one clear story. But I actually disagree with you on this one. I actually wanted more rather than less. Specifically, I wanted the detective story much more in the foreground. I loved the idea of a ‘council estate whodunit’. I thought it was going to be much more like A Curious Incident…, in the sense that the main story is propelled by the desire to find the killer, but somehow that always seemed rather secondary to the comic colourful scenes on the periphery: painting Adidas stripes on his trainers, Mr Frampon singing too loudly at church, his fear of Miquita ‘sucking him off’ (Harrison thinks this is a term for ‘deep kissing’). I did enjoy all of this – it gave such colour and immediacy to Harrison’s life as a new immigrant in England – but I wanted more of the detective story, and fewer tangents. Hold on, have I just agreed with you?

I think you might have. I think the book needed to be longer or ‘deeper’ really, so maybe I am agreeing with you? The book opens with a really shocking scene; it’s no spoiler to say a young boy has been knifed to death seemingly for his ‘Chicken Joe’s’ meal deal. I was thinking to myself that this was going to be a hard book to read, and yet it’s very readable, sometimes almost too easy to read and digest. You may of course think I am bonkers saying that…

Yes, I think I agree with that. You get into such an enjoyable gallop with the voice that you forget to see that the countryside is burning, so to speak. And I think that’s a great achievement on the part of Kelman to make us so comfortable with the main narrator’s voice. Your thoughts, please, Mr Savidge, while you pour me another cup of tea?

Oh sorry, I was so into the chat I forgot about tea. Did you just mutter ‘rubbish host’ under your breath… Moving on. I actually wondered if the narrators voice, which I did really enjoy in a lot of respects, being one of a young boy made all the horrific things simpler and yet strangely diluted it all. Did you find this? Did you think the repetition of ‘asweh’, ‘donkey time’, ‘advise yourself’ etc added to the narrative voice or did it detract from it?

The voice, for me, was definitely the best thing about the novel. The whole novel hinges, completely, on the believability of Harrison’s voice. It also hangs on his hawkish (or pigeony?) eye: he sees things with such humour, that, yes, I suppose, sometimes you forget how depressing the council estate is, how rotten it is that his dad and baby sister are still stuck in Ghana and that the family are torn apart. Did the voice dilute the shocking nature of the events? No, I don’t think so. The fact that the boy’s murder was cribbed into everyday life just underlined how common incidents like this are in some communities. That’s sad. Some of the little verbal tics got irritating at times but nothing you can’t ignore (as with the pigeon… more on that later.) I actually liked ‘Advise yourself’. Perhaps I’ll start using it.

Ha, ha, ha. I can see you going around doing that Naomi. I did think the voice diluted it though, it was almost trying to over simplify it all. Maybe I just struggle with children’s narrators? I liked Harrison a lot, as I did the child in Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, yet I do sometimes wonder if it’s used as a tool to emotionally manipulate people. Harrison’s voice rang true and I enjoyed spending time with him. I just felt it distanced me, rather than made me closer, to the events he was embroiled in. What do you think?

But I can’t see how the narrative could have been told in any other way than how it was presented. That’s the thing: this is a crazy child’s world where all the kids are acting like adults, and where serious adult things happen to children. With the adults strangely absent (or impotent, like the police) it’s the children left to sort it all out. It had to be told from the perspective of someone within the dead boy’s circle. But I know what you mean about child narrators. I find the irony we’re meant to experience, of knowing much more about the child than the child knows, a little frustrating sometimes. It’s always nice after reading books like this to read one from the point of view of a very old person who has an expansive and mutable voice rather than a child narrator who is necessarily curtailed by the limit of their young understanding.

Let’s turn to the ‘whodunit’ aspect of the book. By the way, I think if you liked this one for the detective angle then you would love ‘What Was Lost’ by Catherine O’Flynn. Back to ‘Pigeon English’ though… I did love the idea of Harrison and his friend Dean becoming detectives, that to me was a brilliant aspect of the book, we got inside a few addition characters worlds. That said it never quite fully formed itself as a device or sub-plot for me and I was never very sure I got to know any of the other characters, which I wondered if was the purpose behind it in some way, rather than just playing with the genre.

Yes, I really wanted more of the detective story! More attempts to get their school friends’ DNA, more lists like ‘Signs that people are definitely guilty’ (includes ‘farting too much’ and ‘religious hysteria’)… I felt like it was pretty obvious, really from the beginning, who had killed the boy…

Really? I didn’t. I missed it completely and got sidetracked by the red herring with a member of Harrison’s family…

…and I would have liked more derring-do, intrigue and a ‘whodunit feel to the story. I’d have liked to have found out more about the female characters, such as the sister and the mum, as their voices were quite sidelined in favour of the boys and the gangs. That said, I don’t think there was much space for that.

There is a lot of discussion that this isn’t a literary novel and I must add that I do think this book is in many ways. It combines page turning with the literary in fact. I don’t understand all the hoo-ha being made about it being on the Man Booker Longlist do you?

Pass me a fig roll before I politely disagree with you. I’m not crazily concerned with it being on the Booker list, but I do think the Booker is the only place for really, really literary work, and I don’t think this is, and I can’t even say why. It’s not the subject matter, or the way it’s related, or the child’s point of view… it’s not the fact there aren’t long ‘literary’ words in it: I know none of this is tantamount to making something ‘literary’. Perhaps it’s just because I didn’t come away with the feeling that I’d been changed, in a small but important way, by reading the book. I’ve just finished Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy, and after reading that I had to go away and have a good think. I didn’t feel like that in this case, which I’m not particularly concerned with, because I enjoyed reading it and I read it really quickly, and I laughed quite a lot.

I think you might have hit the nail on the head and succinctly described my issue with the book. I enjoyed it a lot, but it didn’t have the impact I was expecting, it didn’t change my views on the world. Without reviewing the book, which I will do separately at some point, I think we can say that with everything that has been going on in the UK with riots and the disillusionment/anarchy with young gangs that this is a most timely book. I thought in that sense actually this book would be great for a young adult readership as well as an adult readership. 

Yes, me too. I recommended Pigeon English to a school-teacher friend and he absolutely got it in a way that I think is because of his proximity to children of that age. I think it could definitely work as a YA novel too: teens could easily read this, probably understand all the slang quicker than us, and really get on with Harrison’s voice. I think a lot of teens would love it. That’s another thing I liked about it: it was so, so current, and it’s not often you get to read a book set very much now, in voices that are familiar to us.

Now, I have to bring it up… that ruddy talking pigeon. What was all that about? I think this is what maybe spoiled the book a little for me. I didn’t see the need. Am I just a miserable old cross patch?

Eh. Can I have another fig roll? I might talk with my mouthful to make this sound less shouty: I COULDN’T SEE WHY YOU NEEDED A TALKING PIGEON! I didn’t think it added anything, and, more than that, I thought it was pretty irritating: you switch from running around the streets looking for criminals to this high-minded, day-dreamy, bookish voice where the choice of language completely changes. However. It’s only a paragraph here and there, and is very easily ignored. It didn’t spoil it for me. Perhaps you are a miserable old cross patch…

I am tempted to launch some fig roll missiles at you for that comment Naomi, be warned. Ha! So would you recommend this book to a friend or to a book group? I actually think this would make a great book for discussion, I think it’s quite possibly a bookish equivalent of marmite…

Very marmitey. If they’re someone who loves funny books with a strong voice, and a page-turner too, then yes. And I would recommend this, definitely, to any teenager living in any British city. But if they’re more sort of bookish and, yes, probably more conservative in their tastes, then maybe not. I’m really glad I read it because my taste is shamefully narrow (all the authors I like are all white guys above the age of 50 with an eye on sort of existential melancholia, and I realise the limits of reading only about one type of experience about one type of person) and this book took me totally out of that zone. Would you?

I would, and I think in particular I would recommend that this is a book that adults who love to read should read with any teenage children they have. I will be recommending it to my mother in particular who works in a school where children come from these sorts of backgrounds and I think it would be a great novel for them to talk about. I do think that the publishers have missed a trick with that one. I also think, despite my own slight issues with it, people need to stop crouching about this book so much, for Harrison’s narration alone. I will also be very interested to see what Kelman comes up with next. Right, we best open the discussion up to everyone else hadn’t we…?

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Filed under Naomi Wood, Reading With Authors 2011, Stephen Kelman

The Godless Boys – Naomi Wood

Books about religion don’t tend to be ones I rush out and read, and I tell myself I don’t like dystopian fiction (when actually I think I do, which is both odd and silly) so under normal circumstances I don’t know if Naomi Wood’s debut novel ‘The Godless Boys’ would have been on my radar. However she was one of the authors that myself and Novel Insights saw speak at the publisher Picador’s where they were showcasing some of their novelists and two things stood out for me about this book. Firstly the excerpt that Naomi read (which I have now discovered was the opening, see it stuck in my head all those months that I remembered it) was vividly written and secondly, and this may seem like a strange reason, the book was set off the coast of Newcastle. The city I lived in as a young child, indeed me and Novel Insights became friends their aged 3, and a city that never gets written about. So when the opportunity for a copy came up early in the year I snatched it, and I am really glad I did as ‘The Godless Boys’ is really rather good.

Naomi Wood’s England in 1986 is one of some turmoil. The church has taken over the country and atheists have been sent to live on The Island somewhere off the coast of Newcastle. Here a group of boys known as the Malades, and run by Nathaniel, who spy on any possible Gots (those who once believed and might be trying to again) and control them, generally with fear and menace. One such woman under observation, which basically is malicious spying, is Eliza Michalka. One night those on The Island are joined by Sarah Wickes, who smuggles (I assumed she did, she may have just hopped on) herself onto a boat in search of her mother who she has been told ran off with another man and abandoned her. However once Sarah arrives on The Island she begins to learn that what she has been told about her mother is not the truth. She must also get used to the island and its inhabitants who may not be so welcoming to someone from the mainland.

I think to label this book ‘a dystopian novel about religion’ is really rather lazy. Yes the driving force behind the novel, it is after all why Sarah’s mother is on The Island along with all the atheists, is religion and it bubbles away behind every chapter and indeed motivation of the main characters. This is also a book about people and I think the three characters, even if I didn’t like Nathaniel really, were all very well drawn and really gave the book a life and breath on top of the stormy island atmosphere. Its interesting though that while I think we are meant to follow Sarah and her story, which was very good and Sarah is a marvellous gutsy character, I was captivated far more by Eliza and her tale.

In fact I would go as far as to say she could be one of my favourite characters that I have come across recently. I even wondered if maybe Wood had a special place in her heart as she seemed the most vivid and also the most quirky. She is a woman who finds herself combined her days as part time prostitute at The Grand and also as the local undertaker. She is also madly in love with Arthur, who of course she will never tell. All this and her quirks, like writing words on her forehead under her fringe to boost her confidence or say what she really felt, I absolutely loved. In fact I could have read an entire book devoted just to Eliza.

“On her brow that evening, Eliza penned the word Courage, close to her hairline, underneath her fringe, to encourage her to talk to him. She had made a habit of this since starting at the Grand (that June, and so unwillingly!), pulling up her fringe and penning little messages of hope – or self pity – on her brow. One word, or two, like Courage, or maybe Resilience, or maybe Take Heart!, and she’d go round the Island with her blonde lock of hair covering the words, murmuring the message in her head, hoping for inspiration.
But tonight! What a coward she was. Courage! Pathetic. She had no courage. She felt like that fish Arthur had shorn of all its scales; dull, and missing its brilliance.”

I have heard comparisons to Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ being bandied about by people in context with Naomi Wood’s debut. I have to say that the only similarity I can see with them is that they portray a different ‘dystopian’ view of England in the 1980’s. There was something of Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ about this weirdly, great writing of conflict by the stormy seas maybe? I have also heard comparison to ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but I haven’t read that so I can’t say. Yet I think these comparisons might do a disservice to what is a very good debut novel, as one is the authors sixth or seventh book and the other is a cult classic. It seems unfair then to compare, unless it’s to say that Naomi Woods has written a debut that shows she is going to be an author to watch in the future, that I would fully concur with.

‘The Godless Boys’ is a very good novel, regardless of it being a debut or not, it’s a book with people’s stories at its heart and how the environment they are in affects them. It is a book based on a long literary heritage of which there are shades, without ever being a copy or retelling of these tales. It’s a book that impresses overall as a debut and one which regardless of the ‘religion’ subject surrounding it, which makes for an interesting read, should be read for its characters and its story. Those are the sort of books which say so much and make you want to read one. I look forward to the next novel from Naomi Woods (which is apparently about Ernest Hemingway and his wives) with great interest. To coin that cliché, she is certainly one to watch. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent from the publishers.

Has anyone else read ‘The Godless Boys’? If not do so, its recommended reading. It’s made me go off and want to read ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess and also ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding (the Malades made me think of that book, again one I haven’t read but have heard lots about),  can you recommend any of those?

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Filed under Naomi Wood, Pan MacMillan, Picador Books, Review