Category Archives: Review

When I Hit You – Meena Kandasamy

One of the joys about a prize longlist, and forgive me because I am sure I have said this before and am pretty certain I will say again, is discovering authors and books that you might not have otherwise. This was the case with the inclusion of Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist earlier this year. Having read it though, I am sure it is a book that I am sure will be very high on my ‘best of list’ at the end of the year as whilst it is an incredibly confronting read (trigger warning here) it is also an exceptionally powerful and important read too.

Sometimes, when she is in a more relaxed mood, and feeling flush with tenderness for her husband of thirty-six years, she will say something along the lines of: ‘He is such a devoted father. You remember the time we had that trouble, and my daughter came back to us, with her feet looking like a prisoner’s, all blackened and cracked and scarred and dirt an inch thick around every toenail? He washed her feet with his own hands, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing them with hot water and salt and soap and an old toothbrush and applying cream and baby oil to clean and soften them. He would cry to me afterward. If this is the state of her feet, what must she have endured inside her? Her broken marriage broke my husband, too.’ But that is the kind of thing that she says only to close relatives, to family friends, and the few remaining people who are cordial to her even though she has a runaway daughter at home. That is about six and a half people in all of Chennai.

As When I Hit You opens, we meet our unnamed narrator as she is recovering from her abusive marriage back at her parents’ house. It is in this place where she is spoken about almost as if she is not that, more a shadowy form within the household, that after hearing her story told by others so many times that she decides that it is time for her to tell her own tale and in doing so find her voice and it’s power once more. She has had her story and voice claimed before and she will not have it happen again.

As the title suggests this is not going to be a comfortable read, nor should it be. We follow our narrator from just before she meets her husband to be, her writing career is going well and she is not long out of a relationship that didn’t work out for many reasons when she meets the also unnamed university professor. The two catch each other’s eye and eventually they marry and that is when everything changes. They move to a new city in a different part of the country where the language is not her own, making shopping difficult let alone any possible friendships or future cries for help. Then, in a slow well planned and systematically manipulative way, her husband starts to police her phone, delete her contacts, her email accounts, alienate her for her loved ones (or watch her when she phones them) and colleagues, slowly she becomes isolated almost without being certain it’s happening, or worse, seeing it as unreasonable.

There are not many things a woman can become when she is a housewife that does not speak any of her mother-tongues. Not when her life revolves around her husband. Not when she has been trapped for two months in the space of three rooms and a veranda.
Primrose Villa, with its little walled garden, its two side entrances, has the quaint air of kept secrets. It is the sort of setting that demands drama. The white and magenta bougainvillea creepers in their lush September bloom. Papaya plants, along the east wall, with their spiralling, umbrella leaves and frail trunks. A coconut tree in its advanced years, its leaves designed to frame the solitary moon at night and play an air-piano in the rain.

One of the things I found so powerful and yet so unsettling is the style in which the narrator delivers When I Hit You. There is a certain way in which Kandasamy puts you so completely in the narrators head that you feel like you are being coerced as you read on. It may seem an odd comparison, I was reminded of the storyline in The Archers, where Helen was coercively controlled by her husband Rob. His voice was in your ears through the aural power of radio which made you feel he was actually in your head, When I Hit You does this in book form which I didn’t think would be possible in text, Kandasamy proves me wrong.

No one knows the peculiar realities of my situation.
How do you land a job when:

  • you end up somewhere in the middle of the teaching semester?
  • you have no contacts in a strange city?
  • your husband has forced you off social media?
  • you have no phone of your own?
  • your husband monitors and replies to all messages addressed to you?
  • you do not speak the local language?
  • you have the wifely responsibility of producing children first?

That’s a long list already. These are not the regrets of an unemployed person. These are the complaints of an imprisoned wife.

The other elements of the power of the text is partly in the slow way it builds up, like it does in a coercive nature, beguiling you. It is also in the way that for the first two thirds there is almost no description of the physical abuse that she starts to endure, the mental abuse being the focus. This shifts in the final third and because you have been left to imagine how awful the abuse, violence and rape are, it becomes all the more horrifying when it starts to be described, more than you could ever imagine. I found this harrowing yet done to illustrate the horror fully, not to make you a voyeur or become graphic in some complicit way. It is shocking but it isn’t just done ‘to shock’.

Advice to young women who are into hero-worship: the world is full of women in love with the men who you are in love with.
Learn to live with that.

Kandasamy brings society, class and politics are all brought into the text too in varying ways. Our narrator doesn’t just blame her husband for what is going on, although it is his physical actions. She in part blames society and the role of wife, which she admits at points she tries to act as stereotypically as possible to be in order to be ‘the perfect wife’ who won’t get hit. How complicit is she, and any women, trying to conform and play that role? This isn’t portioning the blame on other women, to clarify, but looking at gender politics, what is deemed ‘correct behaviour’ for the sexes and why is it not fought against. Politics also becomes a part of the abuse, her husband often punishing her for not conforming to, questioning or worse making him question his communist views. How dare she have an intellect and voice it. That voice must be supressed, that intellect questioned and broken.

This links to what I thought gave this tale an additional edge. Our unnamed narrator is middle class, domestic violence is often portrayed as being something that happens predominantly in the working classes. The implication often being that anyone suffering at the abusive hands of their partner isn’t clever enough, or socially mobile enough, to chance – which we all know is utter rubbish. As Kandasamy shows, both in the text and in the fact that this is auto fiction, this can happen to anyone regardless of their class, race or intellect.

As you may have guessed by now I think that When I Hit You is an incredible book. It is (and I don’t really like this term but there is no other word for it) an important book that needs to be read. Kandasamy creates such a vivid claustrophobic world that slowly engulfs you as it does the narrator. Her writing, which I haven’t really talked about in terms of form, can go from poetic darkness to stark pointed poignancy (there are bullet points in some parts, like the narrator is trying to work out the system behind her situation, there are short powerful thought provoking bursts of a sentence or two) in either scenario never a word is wasted. It is the book that, without question, I will giving to everyone I know this year.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2018, Meena Kandasamy, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Isn’t it funny how our minds work? Well, what I really mean is… isn’t it daft how my mind works? Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing had been one of the most talked about books last year, winning the National Book Award and being praised by waves of people, some of whom I trust the opinions very much. In fact I was sent a signed American edition before the buzz from two lovely, lovely bookish friends out there. All this talk though made me somewhat wary, this book was going to have a lot to prove just based around all the buzz, before I even started it. It was also my mother’s favourite to win the Women’s Prize, which I how I ended up getting to it much quicker than I might have otherwise because of my silly wariness.

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the Womens Prize

I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see the black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate  innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today is my birthday.

In a book which starts with a death, ends with a death and has death almost literally floating around it you need some delight. Jojo is that delight, despite his circumstances. As we meet him on his thirteenth birthday, about to help his grandfather with some slaughtering, he is soon to learn that he will be taking the long journey with his mother Leonie, her friend, and his sister Kayla, to pick up his father Michael who is shortly to be released from jail. And so the road trip which becomes most of the novel starts. For me the road trip is not really what the essence of this novel is about. It is about family, history, love and hope. Oh and the aforementioned death, more on that later.

What is family? What is the definition of a parent? The latter being something I am rather fascinated by at the moment. Jojo, nor his sister, have the best of relationships or bonds with their parents, their mother being a distanced and difficult woman and their father having been mainly absent. His grandparents filling the parental role for Jojo, despite his grandmother being sick, and he in turn for his own sister, bonds his mother resents. These bonds being built all the tighter and her exclusion all the bigger because of these resentments, her behaviours and ways of dealing with them. How is it to be excluded from your own family, or just not feel part of it, seems to be where Leonie is coming from.

Jojo is the hope and joy of Sing, Unburied, Sing his mother Leonie is at the polar end of the spectrum of emotions. Under many an author Leonie would almost become a caricature of the evil mother. However, whilst continuously unlikeable, Ward creates a character who will make you question how you judge or understand someone (as I mentioned in my review of Home Fire) and their mindset. She is not maternal, but that is not what makes her so dislikeable, not being maternal is not a crime, it can be misunderstood though, or people can have preconceived ideas around it. What makes her so dislikeable is her addictions, to a man and to a substance. Leonie is a drug addict, she got pregnant by a white boy at the age of 17, a white boy who then went to prison on more than one occasion and leaving her with more than one child and an addiction before she was twenty. When high she tries to play the role of mother, when on a comedown her own understanding of why she isn’t the ‘perfect mother’ become a complex ball of rage only heightened when she sees the love between others that she is no part of.

“I’m tired of this shit,” I say. I don’t know why I say it. Maybe because I’m tired of driving, tired of the road stretching before me endlessly, Michael always at the opposite end of it, no matter how far I go, how far I drive. Maybe because part of me wanted her to leap for me, to smear orange vomit over the front of my shirt as her little tan body sought mine, always sought mine, our hearts separated by the thin cages of our ribs, exhaling and inhaling, our blood in sync. Maybe because I want her to burrow in to me for succor instead of her brother. Maybe because Jojo doesn’t even look at me, all his attention on the body in his arms, the little person he is trying to soothe, and  my attention is everywhere. Even now, my devotion: inconstant.

History is another huge part of Sing, Unburied, Sing, both family history and also some of the darkest parts of America’s history. Pop, despite his positivity and aura, is often lost in memories of a time in the past which he will half tell in stories to Jojo, a tale that comes more to the fore and we piece more and more together upon the arrival of Richie. A ghost.

The boy is River’s. I know it. I smelled him as soon as he entered the fields, as soon as the little red dented car swerved into the parking lot. The grass trilling and moaning all around, when I followed the scent to him, the dark, curly-haired boy in the backseat. Even if he didn’t carry the scent of leaves disintegrating to mud at the bottom of a river, the aroma of the bowl of the bayou, heavy with water and sediment and skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes and shrimp, I would still know he is River’s by the look of him. The sharp nose. The eyes as dark as swamp bottom. The way his bones run straight and true as River’s: indomitable as cypress. He is River’s child.

Yes, a ghost, and he isn’t the only one. Two relatives of this dysfunctional, or disfunctioning, family also form part of the story. And before I lose any of you who might be groaning at a ghostly twist, it really works. Richie not only is part of their families history, he is a manifestation of the family history and indeed the ugly history of the South and one whose legacy is often felt but never seen almost buried under the carpet yet who Jojo can see but can’t work out. Given however, another family member, only appears to Leonie when she is high, is he a manifestation or simply a hallucination of guilt and what she isn’t dealing with and what she might hide. It is hard to say more without giving any spoilers away.

These ghosts also become a literal symbol of death floating around the family, it’s history and also our one and only certainty in a world that often seems so uncertain. It looks at those dabbling with death through their actions, those who died innocently from the actions of others and those facing death because it comes to us all. Yet what Ward is clear to point out is that even in the hardest and darkest of times, love lives on and through that, no matter what we might face, we can always have and build on hope.

I couldn’t bear her being a ghost. Couldn’t take her sitting in the kitchen, invisible. Couldn’t take seeing Pop walk around her without touching her cheek, without bending to kiss her on the neck. Couldn’t bear to see Leonie sit on her without seeing, light up a cigarette, blow smoke rings in the warm, still air. Michael stealing her whisks and spatulas to cook in one of the sheds.
“It’s like walking through a door, Jojo.”

So, to round off, I am going to add to the buzz around Sing, Unburied, Sing as I thought it was a wonderful and moving tale. I can struggle on occasion with magical realism, I think I always try and analyse it too much rather than just let it take me away which Jojo and Richie did. It is a book that in some ways turns a road trip story on its head but really turns a family drama on its head and asks what it means to be a family and how family histories, told or hidden, can shape us in ways we least expect and that some of our darkest moments can become some of our most defining; sometimes for the bad but with hope mainly for the good.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2018, Jesmyn Ward, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

As I am sure you will know by now Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. For the second (or is it third) year in a row I have enjoyed reading the whole longlist, which I plan on doing again with my mother next year as something a bit different. I think will be lots of fun and also quite eye opening as when we agree, we really agree, and when we don’t we really don’t as we discovered in a pub in Conwy talking about some of this year’s books last week. One of the books that we both agreed was wonderful was this novel, which my mother had actually read way ahead of me when it was up for the Costa’s.

Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback, 2018, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by Womens Prize

It is almost too easy to start talking about this book and mentioning the, well documented, fact that Home Fire is the retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone, which I guess I have kind of done. I would like to park that for the rest of my thoughts as I think to do that may alienate anyone who doesn’t know the story. Which you don’t need to if you haven’t and also gives too much away. I had and teh ripples of my previous knowledge were sometimes felt though in many ways they added to the incredible tension building and sense of unease which Shamsie uses to create such a compelling read that you won’t forget it in a hurry. The ending will literally… well, suffice to say it will haunt you for quite some time.

However, Home Fire in its essence is a tale of three siblings, Isma and her twin sister and brother Aneeka and Parvais whose relationships, after the death of their mother, start to literally and emotionally fracture. Isma feeling, admittedly with a small pang of guilt, free from her family for the first time goes off to America to study. Parvais seeking to find out more about their mysterious father, who we the reader know became a Jihadist, and Anneka seemingly trying to keep the family together and safe as much as she ca whilst falling in love with the Home Secretary’s son, not the perfect match especially as the complexities of the novel move on. It is also in many ways what is it like to be London born of Pakistani descent in the UK right now, whether you have taken your families religion or not.

A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.
‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

The crux of the novel centres around Parvaiz. Whether he is at the forefront of the novel or not, the foreshadowing of his situation the reverberations afterwards are interwoven throughout every page whether it is his voice we are hearing or one of the other narrators be it Isma, Aneeka, Eamonn, Lone or himself. It is his search to find out more about his father, after the death of his mother and what he perceives as abandonment by his elder sister, which eventually leads him to the world of radicalisation himself.

It is this section of the novel that I found to be the most difficult to read and yet the most thought provoking. As we follow Parvaiz and his sense of loss, questions and feeling lost, we understand how someone could then harness that for their own horrific means. Here I felt Shamsie does two things that I have found incredibly trusting and powerful in two of the other Women’s Prize shortlisted books. As with Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, we become groomed as the characters are, not literally but yet as you read you can fully see and almost experience how this could happen. As with Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing we are taken into mindset of a deeply troubled character and asked to try and understand the thoughts in their head that are so alien to us. It is incredibly potent reading; cloying and claustrophobic whilst making you question what you would do if that were you, could you genuinely not end up in the same situation?

He’d grown up knowing that his father was a shameful secret, one that must be kept from the world outside or else posters would appear on the Preston Road with the line DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR NEIGHBOURS ARE? and rocks would be thrown through windows and he and his sisters wouldn’t receive invitations to the homes of their classmates and no girl would ever say yes to him. The secrecy had lived inside the house, too. His mother and Isma both carried around an anger towards Adil Pasha too immense for words, and as for Aneeka – her complete lack of feeling or curiosity about their father had been the first definite sign that he and his twin were two, not one. His grandmother alone had wanted to talk about the absence in their lives; part of their closeness came from how sometimes she would call him into her room and whisper stories about the high-spirited, good-looking, laughing-eyed boy she’d raised. But the stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became.

Whilst the subject of radicalisation is at the heart of Home Fire, there is also much more going on around that. Through Isma we see how difference is perceived by the US, which is of ever growing concern. Aneeka’s love affair takes us right into the heart of British politics and it’s confused and conflicting current state. There is also an interesting, and often subtle, look at religion and how everyone can take their holy words and perceive them in a way which works for them but would be read completely differently by someone else. In many ways it is this very thing which is at the epicentre of most of the conflict of today.

 ‘You know the Quran tells us to enjoy sex as one of God’s blessings?’ Hira said.
‘Within marriage!’
‘We all have our versions of selective reading when it comes to the Holy Book.’

Home Fire is one of the most haunting and thought provoking books that I have read in a long while. It is also a book that will subtly unsettle you in all the right ways and not just because of THAT ending. Kamila Shamsie does something incredible with this novel and her characters, you are not asked to judge them, you are asked to comprehend them and how each one of them might end up in the situation that they do. It is confronting, compelling and makes you want to delve deeper into the intricacies of one of the most controversial and troubling topics of our world today. Highly, highly recommended.

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

Into The Water – Paula Hawkins

For those of you who were following the blog before it’s hiatus, you may remember that I was a real fan of The Girl on the Train, the novel that went on to sell and sell and sell, and have a movie made and then sell more and sell more and sell more. I was a fan of it from the off (I think I read it a month or so after it came out, my thoughts are here) finding the thrills and the slightly side eye wry way it looked at how society pigeon holes women and how they ought to behave. So I was instantly looking forward to the follow up, Into The Water, which I wanted to go into forgetting all those sales I mentioned but must have been a pressure for Paula herself in some way. A shame that success like that can bring the freedom to write but also brings out the pressure and reviewers knives freshly sharpened at the ready. This reviewer has no sharpened knife. This reviewer thought it was bloody good.

Transworld Publishers, hardback, 2017, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When they came to tell me, I was angry. Relieved first, because when two police officers turn up on your doorstep just as you’re looking for your train ticket, about to run out the door for work, you fear the worst. I feared for the people I care about – my friends, my ex, the people I work with. But it wasn’t about them, they said, it was about you. So I was relieved, just for a moment, and then they told me what had happened, what you’d done, they told me you’d been in the water and then I was furious. Furious and afraid.

The main story that runs through Into The Water is that of Jules who finds out that her somewhat estranged sister has died, seemingly having thrown herself into the infamous ‘drowning pool’ back in their home town of Beckford. (I say the main story because there are layers of stories throughout the drowning pools history, the first narrative in the book being of Libby in the 17th century, this will all make sense soon I promise.) Despite herself Jules returns to her hometown to look after her niece, Lena whose best friend died in the drowning pool not long before her mother, who clearly would really rather Jules hadn’t come into their lives and harbours some ill will against her aunt for her seeming desertion of her family until now.

As Jules starts to sort out Nel’s house, she discovers that her sister had a rather grim fascination of the drowning pool and its history. For many, many years it has had a dark history, particularly for women, as it was the place of the drowning of accused witches (see, told you Libby’s narrative would make sense soon) as well as the spot of suicides of women for generations since. Yet what if some of the deaths weren’t suicide, what if someone used those legends and tragedies for their own gain. Would Nel really be the sort of woman to kill herself and leave her sister behind? These are the things Jules starts to contemplate, whilst also bit by bit her history with her sister and their estrangement start to come back to Jules and also make her question how well liked her sister might have been.

 I returned my gaze to you, to your slender wrist, to the place where the onyx clasp would have rested on blue veins. I wanted to touch you again, to feel your skin. I felt sure I could wake you up. I whispered your name and waited for you to quiver, for your eyes to flick open and follow me around the room. I thought perhaps that I should kiss you, if like Sleeping Beauty that might do the trick, and that made me smile because you’d hate that idea. You were never the princess, you were something else. You sided with darkness, with the wicked stepmother, the bad fairy, the witch.

This is all gripping stuff. I mean you have historical drownings of suspected witches, a period in history I find fascinating and I do love a good witchy tale. (I have to admit when I thought Paula had written a thriller about 17th century witches I was almost beside myself. That isn’t this book, though there is a slight supernatural moment or two which I really liked and thought really worked.) Then you have the deaths throughout the years since, one of which really genuinely shocked me – in an ‘I am slightly disgusted with myself for enjoying being so shocked’ way. Then you have the modern day family drama, another thing I love, and the secrets from the past that come back to haunt you. Then Hawkins adds another level, perfect for nosey people like me, as you start to get to know (and nosy about in) the lives of other people in Beckford and go behind those twitching curtains.

It’s a fucking weird place, Beckford. It’s beautiful, quite breath taking in parts, but it’s strange. It feels like a place apart, disconnected from everything that surrounds it. Of course, it is miles from anywhere – you have to drive hours to get anywhere civilised. That’s if you call Newcastle civilized, which I am not sure I do. Beckford is a strange place, full of odd people, with a downright bizarre history. And all through the middle of it there’s this river, and that’s the weirdest thing of all – it seems like whichever way you turn, in whatever direction you go, somehow you always end up back at that river.

Admittedly this might not be for everyone, there are about eleven or twelve narrators in this book. Yet for me, the way Nel and her life intersected (and in some cases didn’t, who doesn’t love a red herring) with the rest of the people of Beckford and any naughty/dark shenanigans they had going on in their own lives and homes creates a wider jigsaw puzzle for you to put together. I really liked that. I particularly liked Erin Morgan one of the detectives on the case, who I really hope comes back in another Hawkins novel in the future.

One thing I find crime fiction and thrillers can do really well is look at human nature and how some people react in that kind of pressure, in Into The Water with such a big cast you have plenty of that. The area that they excel at, when done well, is looking at a subject or theme in society of our times, or the times if they are historic. As I mentioned in The Girl on the Train it looked at alcoholism and the expectations/stereotypes society created for women, and did it brilliantly I thought. With Into The Water Hawkins takes a look and discusses – and I am have not named many characters so as you can see how this happens yourself with no spoilers – the subject of consent and again, I think, handles it brilliantly whilst really making you think. I shall say no more.

I really, really admire Paula Hawkins for doing something really quite different from what people might have expected after the success of The Girl on the Train. How easy it would have been to create another thriller with a smaller cast and just one big juicy, twisty plot. Instead she has created multiple narrators, multiple plots and multiple mini drama’s around the central story and created a whole town and a whole host of characters and their secrets. I think it really worked, it certainly had me turning the pages until the early hours. I look forward to the next.

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Filed under Paula Hawkins, Review, Transworld Publishing

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Hopefully in the future realms of time, if my plans work out which they are often unlikely to do, this won’t be noticeable as the blog post that ‘brought Savidge Reads back’ after some time away. Yet when I was thinking about which book I should ‘come back’ with it seemed Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was the most apt as it is the book I have talked about the most in a literal sense in the last year or so. The reason for that being that is was the winner of the category (debuts) I judged for last year’s Costa Awards. It is the book that I have had some of the most heated conversations about, not with my fellow judges (Sandy and Sophie who were both a joy) though we talked about it at length, with people in my day to day life who felt very strongly one way or the other and were surprised when it won. I wasn’t surprised. No, not because I knew in advance, ha, but because I think it is a book that can appeal to anyone and does a huge variety of things, with so many layers, and remains wonderfully readable – a word which can open a huge can of worms but I am not literary snob and embrace the joys of readability. Anyway, the book…

Harper Collins, paperback, 2018, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the Costa Awards

 When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, hairdressers – I tell them I work in an office. In almost eight years, no one’s ever asked me what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether it’s just that people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves – lady doing photocopying, man tapping at keyboard. I’m not complaining. I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them.

And so we are thrown into the life of Eleanor Oliphant a woman whom to many would seem in the centre of society, with a decent job her own home etc, but who actually has become someone much more on the periphery of society that the facade of a ‘steady life’ would let on. She does her nine to five, Monday to Friday, and at the end of the latter she buys herself a few margarita pizzas and a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks the weekend away. It is here that the novel then takes two paths, though with many layers. Firstly we wonder why it is that Eleanor has found herself in this position and secondly we wonder how this cycle might be broken.

It is the latter that unfolds itself first. Walking home with a colleague Ray, who seems to want to befriend Eleanor much to her confusion, they witness an elderly man collapse and in helping him become embroiled further with each other and Sammy. A turning point in Eleanor’s life has come, even if she doesn’t really see it as an opportunity she particularly wants, the question is how she will deal with it? Especially when she has recently become besotted with a local pop star who she thinks she is destined to marry.

As to why Eleanor has ended up so isolated and alone, Honeyman does something which I really admired – if admittedly it does go a little twist-tatsic (I might trademark that) towards the end. We get a slow reveal which is at once heartbreaking but also eye opening. It is hard to say anything for fear of spoilers but there is some serious trauma in her past which we are slowly alluded to. For me the most heartbreaking moments were much more subtle, and this is what I hope to see lots more of in Honeyman’s writing in the future, where a single paragraph says so much within its subtext and the reader can start to fill in the blanks to much emotional effect.

 She came with me from my childhood bedroom, survived the rough treatment in foster placements and children’s homes and, like me, she’s still here. I’ve looked after her, tended to her, picked her up and repotted her when she was dropped or thrown. She likes the light, and she’s thirsty. Apart from that, she requires minimal care and attention, and largely looks after herself. I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud, if only for proof of life.

That makes this novel sound like it is a misery feast and that is not the case at all, often I found myself chuckling along as I read. (I have said many a time on this blog in the past that a good dose of comedy can make the darker parts of a book all the more so.) As Eleanor reluctantly forces herself out into the world more and more the deadpan comedy comes in many high street spaces such as her first visit for a wax. ‘Hollywood’, I said, finally. ‘Holly would, and so would Eleanor’. Yet, again, here Honeyman does something which I think is very clever, she occasionally blurs the lines between when we are laughing with and laughing at Eleanor. A short sharp shock every now and again that we are doing exactly what those horrid co-workers are doing we dislike so much at the start. This isn’t intended as judgement, it is simply a reminder to check ourselves once in a while, to be kinder.

That said Eleanor is not always particularly kind herself. But her flaws and quirks are what make her such an interesting character. Her directness often made me ponder if we are meant to assume that she is on the autistic scale, though sometimes she is just simply rude to people. This is a woman though who has been so much on the sidelines of the world that everything seems as at odds with her as she as with it. It also reminds us that not everyone is instantly loveable but they are always relatable and there is almost always, if we make the effort to look and don’t expect everyone to come to us, an ‘in’ to their world.

 When Raymond returned, I paid for lunch, since he had paid last time; I was really starting to get the hang of the concept of a payment schedule. He insisted on leaving the tip, however. Five pounds! All the man had done was carry our food from the kitchen to the table, a job for which he was already being recompensed by the cafe owner. Raymond was reckless and profligate – no wonder he couldn’t afford proper shoes or an iron.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is very much like its central character; quirky, funny, frank and honest. Once you look past that facade it is also brimming with layers about being different but not being obviously or any stereotype of different. It is a blunt, yet digestible which is not always easy, look at the awful nature of loneliness and how easy it can be to become a loner. It is also about hope and a reminder that we should never judge anyone by any assumptions we might make of them. I applaud it for all of these things.

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Filed under Costa Book Awards, Gail Honeyman, Harper Collins, Review

Sugar Money – Jane Harris

One of the books that I have been most looking forward to, for quite some time, is Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. I was a huge fan of Harris’ debut The Observations pre-blog, in fact I believe it was one of the books that got me back into reading after Rebecca and Miss Marple, I remember my Gran buying it for me in Scarthin books. Anyway, I digress, long suffering standing readers of this blog will know that back in 2011 I then fell head over heels with Harris’s second novel Gillespie & I; a book which I genuinely felt like had been written for me and me alone. I know that sounds like I have an ego the size of a small continent but we all have those books don’t we, ones which seem like the author rooted through the ‘favourite things’ sections of the bookish corner in our brains? To cut a lot of waffle from me short, after two such reading hits with me how would I get on with her third novel…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instructions; you might say they go directly through the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cleophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his step to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and – whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus – you oblige to go with him, wondering what abominable toil or trouble might be in store for you whenever he finally came around and stated his requirement. With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cleophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true. My brother and I had encountered all manner of individual among the friars; a spectrum of humanity, from gentle coves who scarce could bear to swat a mosquito to the most heartless bully. Whiles Cleophas might not be the worst kind of tyrant, for true, he was surely as slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel.

I was so tempted to simply leave the paragraph above with the words ‘how could you not read a book after you have read that’ and left that as my review, as really what more do you need to know? Yet a wonderful book like Sugar Money It is a paragraph brimming with everything I love, fantastic vivid prose, you both know the character of the narrator and Father Cleophas in mere sentences and it also brims with the past, the present and a potentially concerning future. It is funny and yet there are horrors hidden in the spaces between the charming tone. It is actually a paragraph that surmises everything that is so brilliant in Harris’ writing, atmosphere and characterisation as well as what you can expect from the rest of the book. But hang about, I have started waxing lyrical already and not even told you what Sugar Money is about so let’s rewind.

The year is 1765 and Lucien and his older brother Emile have been instructed to perform a mission for Father Cleophas who wants them to smuggle 42 slaves from the island of Grenada, where the brothers themselves once lived, back to him in Martinique where he feels they belong as he believes that these slaves have been stolen from the French by the British, or at least that is what he says. Anyway, this is not a mission that either of the brothers can say no to for they are slaves themselves and so a boat is sorted and soon they set sale. Lucien, our narrator, sees this both as a huge adventure and also as a way of seeing some of the people he just about remembers from Martinique. Emile however can only see the hard realities of what lies ahead and what seems and impossible task. Through his interactions with Lucien we get the sense there is much the younger brother doesn’t know and the first prickles of dread appear in our minds, we as readers catching Lucien’s sense of excitement whilst picking up Emile’s forewarnings that this will be anything but a tale of daring do.

I don’t want to give too much more of the story away because an adventure, which I do think this novel is albeit a rather harrowing one which had me in physical tears at the end, when you know what is coming isn’t going to have the effect that Harris clearly intends this book too. I will say that when we get to Grenada the brooding atmosphere that has been lingering at the edges builds and builds as you read on. There are some utterly gut wrenching scenes of how the slaves were treated, which Harris doesn’t flinch away from and show us how horrendously these people were treated and then she also cleverly reminds us that Emile and Lucien are slaves themselves and not two free young men on a rescue mission, they just undergo slightly less horrific lives as slaves themselves, which is a complete mind f**k in itself again. Yet this also calls out to the here and now, how often have we heard people say ‘well, we have made steps forward so that is ok, there is still hope?’ You are reading a ripping yarn but follow the threads and the undercurrents and there is much for us to ponder within the prose.

In case I am making this sound like too dark and harrowing tale, Harris interweaves the story of Sugar Money with humour which invariably comes from its cast of utterly fantastic characters. There are many things that I have loved in both Jane’s previous novels The Observations and Gillespie and I; unforgettable characters is one of them (atmosphere and sense of place another which are also in abundance in this novel) be they characters who appear for a page or two or the main narrators themselves. In the latter case Lucien is a welcome addition to Harris’ wonderful leads, the bawdy Bessie Buckley and the beguiling Harriet Baxter. He is cheeky, he breaks the rules and heads off on his own when he shouldn’t and his internal dialogue and perceptions have us hooked, and often horrified, by his side.

Unlike Bessie and Harriet, who were lone narrators if that makes sense, here we have the brotherly bond and banter of Emile, who frankly I fell head over heels in love with. He might seem an older bossy brother to Lucien but through the moments Lucien describes, without picking up on himself, we find a man who cares deeply for his brother, his former lover (a wonderful and moving additional strand in the book I won’t spoil) and yet one who knows the darkness of the world and just wants to do what is right or failing that what is best. If you do not fall for him then there is no hope for you and we simply can’t be friends.

‘But who is this with you, Emile?’
Chevallier forced a laugh.
‘You must recognise him?’
The old woman cast her eye over me, her mouth downturn. Then she took a step back.
‘Ha! Just like his mother – big ugly lips and skinny face.’
Well, that was nonsense for my mother was known for her beauty and I would have said as much except Emile shot me a warning glance.
Anqelique sat down and took up her pipe. The firelight threw flickering shadows across her face. Sharp creases ran from the corners of her nose to the ends of her lips. The skin below her eyes look puffy. She was old and lame. Nevertheless, she was still tough as old turtle, for true.

Yet what makes Sugar Money all the more powerful is also the cast of characters around these two. Be they the duplicitous Father Cleophas, the delightful Celeste, the villainous Dr Bryant or the matriarchal Angelique, to name just a few, these characters come to us brimming with life, with their own spectrum of perspectives stories to tell. It is with this collection of characters that we see how people can keep on going in times of adversity or simply times of utter horror and also how people keep hope in their hearts which adds to the emotional impact of a book such as this.

As you can see I could probably carry on singing the praises of Sugar Money for quite some time so, I shall simply round off by saying that if you want a tale of adventure and daring do, filled with wonderful characters, that makes you think and explores a period of history you may not know of (oh and I should say this book is based on a true story) that will leave you heartbroken yet with a sense of hope then this is a book you should be rushing out to get right now or what the tumpty-tum are you playing at?

You can get Sugar Money here if you would like, you can also see Jane and myself in conversation about this wonderful novel and both her others at Chester Literature Festival on November 19th tickets here. End of shameless self promotion in italics. 

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Filed under Books of 2017, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

A Line Made By Walking – Sara Baume

This week I have had a small break in my Costa submissions reading due to some logistics and so could read what I fancied for five days. I can’t really talk too much about Costa and how it works and the like I don’t think, though I am hoping to talk about some of the wonderful books which may not make our shortlist later in the year somehow, we will see. Anyway, I had the freedom to pick up anything I liked and so I went for A Line Made By Walking which has been calling me for a while partly because it has a fox on the cover and partly because it was on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize which celebrates daring writing and ‘fiction at its most novel’. Or as I see it quirky books that push the boundaries of writing and prose in some way, I was just in the mood for quirky and so in I went.

William Heinemann, hardback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Walt Disney lied to me. The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience. Most days I make it too dark without anybody seeing me at all. Or at least anybody human.
I’ve been here in my grandmother’s bungalow a full three weeks now. All on my own. Except for the creatures.

Frankie, a young woman in her mid-twenties has left the big city for the safety of her familial homeland. However rather than live with her parents she has ended up temporarily staying in her recently deceased grandmothers house where in a mixture of depression and general lethargy towards life she spends slightly less time lying on the carpet pondering anything and everything than she did in the bright lights. Her mind wanders from items on the news (the Malaysian plane that disappeared), the paintings and sculptures she learnt about as she studied art and also nature, from deranged penguins who send themselves on suicide missions to the animals bouncing around at the end of the garden… or even some of the dead ones all whilst she tries to work out what everything means and where she fits in with it.

You might be thinking that this is really depressing and bleak, a pretentious novel about someone’s quarter life crisis or simply that this sounds really wanky; especially when I add that each of the dead animals becomes a chapter title in the book as well as being included as a slightly macabre image for you to ponder between a pair of paragraphs. If I told you Frankie tests herself on subjects dealt with by art, possibly to test her own feelings around those themes herself, from goldfish (Works about Goldfish, I test myself; I think and think. I can’t come up with a single one.) to death, then you might think this was even more pretentious twaddle. Yet she does. In many other authors hands this book would have annoyed the hell out of me by page twenty but under the creativity and instruction of Sara Baume I absolutely bloody loved this book.

I think one of the initial things that warmed me to the book so much was how relatable Frankie is as a character. Okay sometimes you do want to tell her to get a grip but there were so many times reading this book where I thought ‘ooh I have felt that’. Yes, once or twice in my life I have simply laid on a carpet for a few hours when I could have been doing something spectacular, or even just proactive, and thought about nothing much. Yes, there have been times when going to the supermarket simply feels like a hurdle and frankly you don’t want to make a meal for one you just want to curl up in bed with a chocolate bar (in fact those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I still occasionally fall asleep with a chocolate bar on special drunken occasions, but I am a grown-up I am allowed, don’t judge me). Frankie does all these things as she goes through those first awkward stages of being fully independent, sometimes the first try or two don’t work out. You have to start again. Oh, and something they forget to tell you at school is that sometimes being an adult is shit.

There was a Lidl a few streets away but I hated Lidl; it reminded me of the dole queue, only with vegetables. I’d pick up a basket from the doorway of the posh one and drift the aisles. I’d stand perfectly still and stare at an item for an uncomfortable length of time. Several other customers would come and go in the minutes it took me to remember whether I had any honey left, whether I prefer my tuna in oil or brine, whether or not I am able to tolerate wheat. Eventually I’d make it to the checkouts with a few random products sliding from side to side in my basket, and then at home again I’d lie on my floor for a couple of hours before going to bed with a bar of chocolate – something slightly revolting like a Double Decker or a Toffee Crisp – because only the slightly revolting chocolate bars were evocative of childhood.

Yet adulthood and that phase between being mildly independent to fully independent is actually just the first layer of Frankie’s situation, not to make her sound like an onion. It becomes clear as we read on that Frankie is suffering from some kind of depression. This isn’t just someone being a bit lazy and over dramatic as we initially think, though often these moments add a dark bittersweet comedy often without feeling at the expense of anyone who is going through this themselves. This is someone who is lost, lonely, overly worried at life and not quite able to communicate with those around her in the way that she would like, in fact often she can’t even see when other people are trying to reach out to her, particularly her parents.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘How are you, then? Your mother’s woeful fucking worried.’
My father doesn’t really want to talk about my feelings. That would be excruciating for both of us. He only wants me to tell him that I am okay, so he can return to my mother and tell her there is no need to worry.
‘I’m okay,’ I say. ‘There’s no need to worry.’

Somewhat unintentionally though, once away from the city and indeed her family and taking her loneliness to an extreme two things start to help her start sorting all the things going on in her mind. The first is nature, as I mentioned alive and dead which on the one hand sends her often to look at moments in her childhood which seem minimal but have actually had a more profound (or rippling) effect than would first seem and make so much sense in the context of the relationships she has in her adult life. Oh how we are formed by those, well, informative years. Cliched but so true.

When I was little I had a friend called Georgina who lived a quarter mile up the road. For her sixth birthday, she got a white rabbit and named it Snowball. For roughly a fortnight, Snowball lived in a pretty timer hutch on the back lawn, fortressed by a wire mess run. Then one morning, Georgina went out to find a jagged hole in the mesh and the rabbit gone. Her mother told her this wasn’t the horrific tragedy it appeared; Snowball had simply made the decision to go and live in the fields with her wild friends instead. Georgina passed this story on to me in the playground, and I passed it on to my sister, and she laughed and declared it a load of crap.
Now it seems she was wrong to be so cynical so young.

As she discovers several deceased animals she starts her own project to photograph those she finds dead, no animals are allowed to be killed by herself (though there is one heart breaking section of the book where she does have to and is a hugely emotional moment for her – and the reader – but is written utterly beautifully and is also a kind of catalyst for her) and start her own kind of artistic project. It also helps her deal with grief and see things at more of a distance/in clearer focus through a lense. Art is also something which she uses to ‘test herself’ as she tries to look at art when it depicts an item, feeling or situation that helps her to analyse herself. Two in particular I think relate to and reflect upon varying states of her feelings…

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1980… An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking. A murder of crows between the stalks and the sky as though they are departing or have just been disturbed.

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass.

Again, this should have put me off as books about art do as much for me about books about music. Bar a few exceptions (Jessie Burton’s The Muse is one which I really must review) I find it very difficult to conjure a painting just like I can’t conjure music for the written word, yet here with Baume’s prose and Frankie’s outlook and the way she analyses these works I oddly could. It shouldn’t have worked but it did and it has – though this could also be partly due to becoming a Tate member as well a recent trip to the Guggenheim in Bilbao wandering galleries on my own– made me think about art in a way that I don’t often and one which is summed up beautifully in the book. Even still, art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.

I could go on about some smaller but equally brilliant parts of the book; how well it deals with loneliness and feeling lost, the mother and daughter relationship and its complexities and unspoken moments, the way Baume looks at the news and how much fear and worry it can add to our lives, the sense of worry and slight dread you feel for Frankie and the completely unexpected and yet so right ending, the random facts Frankie learns that mean so much without you realising and I will also be using in conversations in the future, etc., etc. I should really wrap this up though…

So, I shall just end this by saying that I urge you to read A Line Made By Walking. It was a risky pick when my brain was somewhat frazzled and it is quite out of my comfort zone in terms of topics but I loved it, possibly all the more for executing it so well and making me think so much. I will certainly be heading to Baume’s debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither in the future, as well as some of the other Goldsmiths Prize 2017 shortlist. It has also reminded me how I need to try more quirky/novel books, so do get recommending me some.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sarah Baume, The Goldsmiths Prize, William Heinemann Books