Tag Archives: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

As this goes out on the blog, tonight will see the winner of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2017 announced. In a break with tradition on the blog, I decided that instead of telling you all about the shortlist (though I think I have reviewed all of them bar one and made video about them here too) I wanted to share my thoughts on my very favourite last. I have loved a lot on the shortlist this year but without a doubt my favourite has to be Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò which has pretty much every element of what I love in a book and held me captivated by it.

9781782119463

Canongate, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the opening of Stay With Me we know that something has gone very wrong with the marriage between Yejide and her husband Akin as she writes of packing up and driving away. Where to, where from and what has happened we do not yet know but soon we are taken back a decade or two before to when the cracks began to show. The time when after much trying Yejide was finding it very difficult to get pregnant and it was becoming the constant focus of her husband and his family’s attention. (I know the below is quite a long excerpt, however I think it gives a real flavour of what comes in the novel as I am going to have to say very little as I don’t want to give too much away, which I will explain.)

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.

It soon transpires that Akin and his family have been plotting a back-up plan which is to introduce a second wife into the home, Funmi, a woman who they believe will bear children and thus save the family line as well as the marriage between Akin and his first wife. Breaking away from what is socially and culturally expected of her Yejide fights back initially in a rather comic way, yet this is the beginning of an unravelling between Yejide and Akin and a downward spiral of Yejide’s already low sense of worth since the death of her own mother in childbirth.

‘What did you feed them?’ Akin shouted.
‘Bridegroom, welcome back,’ I said. I had just finished eating my dinner. I picked up the plates and headed for the kitchen.
‘You know they all have diarrhoea now? I had to park by a bush for them to shit. A bush!’ He said, following me into the kitchen.

That is where I pretty much have to stop telling you the story, and we are only a chapter or two in, because what follows is a fantastically twisting and turning tale of what happens between Yejide and Akin in the aftermath of this with Adébáyò almost turning a marriage into a thriller which I wasn’t expecting but delighted me with the way in which she accomplished it. Of course, there is a danger in me simply saying that there are plenty of twists and turns ahead may mean you will look out for them but I doubt you will spot them. I genuinely couldn’t tell what was might happen next, and there were many a gasp out loud moment and many a heart dropping moments for this reader.

I am slightly worried that comparing Stay With Me to a thriller may diminish it in some people’s eyes, they couldn’t be more wrong and not only because to accomplish the best kinds of thrillers you need to hide a tightly constructed spiders web of plot where one can’t be seen. Adébáyò does this and much, much more. Behind the domestic dramas that are going on is the drama of Nigeria in the 1980’s and all the rioting and crime that was taking over the country and adds an additional tension to the novel as well as some heart breaking and shocking scenes as the novel moves forward.

I could not imagine then that one day in Nigeria thieves would be bold enough to write letters so that victims could prepare for their attacks, that one day they would sit in living rooms after raping women and children and ask people to prepare pounded yam and egusi stew while they watched movies on VCRs that they would soon disconnect and cart away.

One of the other elements that I admired so much about the book, and yet I have seen criticised in some places, is the fact that as the book goes on you realise it isn’t always Yejide that is narrating the story. Sometimes it flits to Akin and it takes you a small while to realise and then reassess the voice you are reading. I loved this because I thought it not only highlighted the two points of view of a marriage and all that befalls it, but more cleverly is that Adébáyò asks you to stop making assumptions about how a woman might feel about marriage and parenthood and how a man might feel about marriage and parenthood. It gives you so much to think about as well as asking you to check your own assumptions of men and women, though kindly.

You might think this implies that Adébáyò creates two leading characters who merge in to one far too easily, again that isn’t that case. Adébáyò’s characters all come fully formed whether it be leading players like Yejide, Akin, Funmi, Dotun or Moomi or lesser characters like Yejide’s competitor hairdresser Iya Bolu or the hermit up the mountain. They all brim with life, laugher and more often than not secrets. I adored them, even the shadier ones. I also loved the elements of fairy tale (you know me, I love a good fairy tale or myth) that intertwine and are told throughout too. Not often yet deftly and adding certain nuances when they do.

My favourite story was the one about Oluronbi and the Iroko tree. Initially, it was difficult for me to believe the versions my stepmothers told. Their Oluronbi was a market woman who promised to give her daughter to the Iroko tree if it could help her to sell more goods than other traders in the market. At the end of the story, she lost her child to the Ikoro. I hated this version because I did not believe that anyone would trade a child for anything else. The story as my stepmothers told it made no sense to me, so I decided to create my own version.

I could frankly go on for hours about how much I loved Stay With Me, can you tell? It brims with life, humour (dark and saucy), heartache and hope. It is one of those books that just enraptures you within its pages and you find yourself thinking about those characters, situations and layers long after as well as thinking ‘what a bloody good story that was’. For me this was a dream of a novel, it will be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt, and I think Adébáyò is going to be an author to watch in wonder. Go read this book.

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Filed under Ayobami Adebayo, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Canongate Publishing, Review

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The finale of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction seems to have crept up on me all of a sudden. There is that space between the shortlist being announced in April and the winner being announced in June that feels like ages but whizzes by, or maybe I am just getting old? Anyway, I still have two of the shortlisted titles to review and the penultimate is The Power by Naomi Alderman who is one of those authors I have always meant to read yet for some reason or other haven’t. Now, having read her latest, I certainly will be.

9780670919987

Penguin Viking, hardback, 2016, fiction, 342 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Imagine a world where ‘power’ is literally within women’s hands. Sounds a damn site better than the world is at the moment with old President Tango and his chums over the water on one side and Captain Crazy and his nuclear testing on the other, oh yeah and that other one who hates gays but spends weekends riding around on horses topless with several other men. Sorry I seem to have digressed already, where was I? Oh yes, the book…

Young women around the world are waking up with something different ignited in them, literally, they have an electrical power of some kind which has lain dorment for decades is now running through their veins. Initially just one or two younger girls have it, yet soon it is many, many, many of them and what is more they can ignite the power within older women be it their mothers, aunts, teachers, co-workers. This is the world in which we are thrown into by Naomi Alderman, well technically Neil Adam Armon (more on him later) and a world we see through four sets of eyes.

There’s a crackling flash and a sound like a paper snapper. She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm and a bit like burning hair. The taste welling under her tongue is of bitter oranges. The short man is on the floor now. He’s making a crooning, wordless cry. His hand is clenching and unclenching. There is a long, red scar running up his arm from his wrist. She can see it even under the blond hairs, patterned like a fern, leaves and tendrils, budlets and branches. Her mum’s mouth is open, she’s staring, her tears are still forming.

First there is Roxy, who discovers she has the power in her hands when she and her mother find herself threatened at the hands of some gangsters, the outcome of the encounter leading her to look for revenge. Tunde, a young man from Nigeria, who works as a journalist and starts reporting/blogging/vlogging (Alderman embraces the digital world in this novel which I really, really liked and not many authors could pull off as well) as this new electric epidemic begins. We then have Margot, a middle-aged woman working in Government surrounded by men she could do the job a million times better than but due to the patriarchal society, ever the more concentrated in politics, has not risen as high as she could. Finally, we have Allie who after years of abuse uses her power to free herself in a murderous way, and once discovering how strong her power is starts a new kind of gang/cult/religion through the power of the internet, though which becomes ever the more a reality bringing girls with ‘the power’ together.

There’s one girl, Victoria, who showed her mother how to do the thing. Her mother, who, Victoria says as simply as if she were talking about the weather, had been beaten so hard and so often by Victoria’s stepdad that she hasn’t a tooth left in her head. Victoria woke the power up in her with a touch of her hand and showed her how to use it, and her mother threw her out into the street, calling her a witch.

There is a lot that I admire in The Power and the not too distant future world that Aldermen creates. There is the message of empowerment and equality which she looks at in the forefront and start of the book but what I admired more is that she takes it to another level. Many authors would create a world where all women use their power for good and the world becomes a harmonious place where ‘the power’ is used to right the wrongs and punish the bad. Which could be a possibility and, in many cases, is how young girls and women interact with this new-found ability at the start of the novel. However, power is a tricky beast regardless of gender, to use that famous phrase ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ yet also power can become an addictive trip and once people have power it can change them in many ways, women or men, girls or boys.

No one knows why; no one’s done enough research on the thing to venture a suggestion. She’s getting fluctuations. Some days she’s got so much power in her that she trips the house fuse box just turning on a light. Some days she has nothing, not even enough to defend herself if some girl picks a fight with her in the street. There are nasty names now for a girl who can’t or won’t defend herself. Blanket, they call them, and flat battery. Those are the least offensive ones.     

As The Power continues the sense of dread and horror mounts, partially as we get titles of parts of the book like ‘Can’t be more than seven months left’ but also as women start to use the power for their own gains, for revenge, to create terror and fear. We see with Roxy and Allie particularly what can happen when people get a power trip. We also see through Tunde’s eyes just how some women, almost in packs, take this power and use it for revenge. There was one particular scene which I found genuinely horrifying and still gives me the chills every time I think about it. As a reader you start the novel thinking ‘this is so cool’ and ‘those men deserve exactly what is coming to them’ and by the end you are left shocked by what some of the characters do, and not just to the men to other women too. Which hits you all the more when you remind yourself this is a fictional world and in the real world real men are doing these things all the time.

My only slight criticism of the book was that I wanted more narrators, not something I usually say and not something that is meant as a slight. I just wanted to see the world through even more eyes, particularly through the eyes of one of the women living in the woods, admittedly it would be a pretty twisted narration (you can’t say I am someone who doesn’t like an unlikeable character) and also more from Jo’s perspective. This is a minor issue but one I did think on more than one occasion. I think what I am really saying is I wanted more, which is always a good sign.

The Power is like the book equivalent of a rollercoaster, it gives you thrills and then terrifies you leaving you a bit winded and numb at the end – only just sat on your sofa. That is Alderman’s design, she creates a book that will hook you in, take you along at speed and won’t let go until you’re good and done and then leaves you to have a think about it all. This added to by the prologue and epilogue (the latter I won’t spoil but I thought it was a genius stroke) remember I told you about Neil Adam Armon? I will say no more other than I would highly recommend you go and read The Power, I will certainly be going to read more of Alderman’s books that’s for sure.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Naomi Alderman, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

Those of you who have visited this blog for some time (it will be ten years old this year which seems madness) will know that I have a slight aversion to horses both in real life and in fiction. So when I spotted both Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings I was somewhat vexed. Internally and then I cursed myself as I had popped both of these books proof copies in the recycling last year, because of the horses. However in the name of reading the whole of the Baileys Prize longlist for the second year running, I momentarily cursed the Bailey’s judges for their choices and then picked up the most daunting of the two, The Sport of Kings. Within an hour I was completely and utterly gripped, who could have seen that one coming from the cover or synopsis, yet this is not really a book about horses and horse racing, it is about so much more than that.

4th Estate Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 545 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and then re-bought by me for me (that’ll learn me!)

As The Sport of Kings opens we join a young boy Henry Forge as he runs to escape his father< john Henry, from something awful that has happened in one of the barns and which he is being blamed for. Two lines in and Henry is asking himself ‘How far away from your father can you run?’, in many ways is actually the constant theme in the book as it moves forward. We soon discover that Henry is the master’s son of a vast plot of land and one of the wealthiest and longest running family dynasties in Kentucky. We also soon learn when he gets home and the belt is brought out, that his father is also a monstrous, bigoted, misogynistic tyrant as he proves time and time again throughout the first hundred pages.

His voice loud against the clattering, John Henry said, “What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as boys, perhaps even more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving toward loftier pursuits.”

I know, awful isn’t he? And this is just the John Henry that Henry (I know a lot of Henry’s and we have a Henrietta to come, but that is what the Forges are about) sees. One of the brilliant things which C.E. Morgan does is let us see John Henry from other characters eyes, both his wife and his staff, and we see many of the things we shouldn’t – but I don’t want to spoil anything (I did an admittedly thrilled ‘oh my goodness, well I never’ about 50 pages in). Honestly, this book has lots of lovely sensational moments throughout, which also made it so readable and epic.

Anyway, I digress… The more Henry’s father rages and orders the more Henry wants to go against him, infuriating his father by announcing when he inherits the land it will be used to breed the finest race horses, the ultimate revenge in his eyes and also the ultimate escape as he goes on to learn everything he can about them filling his mind with anything but his father. But as they say the apple never falls to far from the tree and, as we all probably know too well, in spite of ourselves elements of our parents run into us despite our best intentions and we soon see Henry has far more of his father in him than he would care to admit or acknowledge.

Ginnie said, “Henry, are you going to get married?”
Henry made a face. “Someday, maybe, I don’t know.”
“Let’s you and me get married!”
“You? No way, you’re ugly.”
“I am not!”
Henry sighed. “When I get married, I’m going to marry a beautiful woman. My father says not to waste energy on ugly girls.”
Great dollop tears formed in Ginnie’s eyes. “A pretty girl won’t be half as fun as me!” She whined, but Henry was distracted by the blooms of his breath in the suddenly icy barn air.

Ginnie is right, I won’t say why but she is and this leads us onto the middle section of the book which not only sees Henry’s daughter Henrietta start to take a real prominence in the families thoroughbred business, her tale also brings with it a darkness to the whole breeding theme throughout the book as well as hiring a young man, Allmon Shaughnessy, whose life in the darkest, poorest parts of Cincinnati couldn’t be more different than the colour of his and Henrietta’s skin and here is where the heart of the story, for it is a ripping yarn, starts to reveal itself.

In the first scene of Allmon’s tenth year, a girl dies in the cement garden. Her name was Gladys Gibbons, just a tiny little thing on the third floor opposite with skin the colour of chalky churned-up river water, a soft cheek and a pert ski-slope nose like a white girl’s, maybe the kind with money. That nose made her a beloved pariah, as despised as she was envied by girls who didn’t yet know what envy was. She had the stamp of difference on her face, and that stamp was a pass. The girls in her building put their hands to the skinny vale between her shoulder blades and shoved. Knocked her against barriers, into doors, down onto cracked sidewalks and onto her knees. She thought: I’m ugly. And there was no grown person to tell her otherwise. So the wind of natural confidence died.

How beautifully and vividly written whilst utterly heartbreaking is that? You see The Sport of Kings is not really a book about horses and racing, it is a book about race, class, bigotry, power and privilege and how those who have it and those who don’t fare over several decades in American History and it saddens me that people, myself included, might avoid it because they think it is about horseracing when it is so, so, so much more. And it is an incredibly powerful example of an epic book that contains all of those themes whilst also being an incredibly addictive family saga to with affairs, murder, incest, poverty and riches, secrets and ok, horses. As one character sums it up so brilliantly “Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.” They are.

In many ways what I think made me enjoy it so much was it had all the elements of a Victorian sensation novel, which I adore, with all the twists and turns, melodramas and characters of incredible depth. You have the main characters Henry, Henrietta and Allmon who come with whole family descendent stories behind them and who effect the Forges dynasty in huge ways, but you also get every characters back story too (a trope I really love in a big sprawling book) even the smallest of characters. And you never know when one of those smaller characters might come back to a big dramatic effect when you least expect it… oh, I might say too much.

This could of course make it sound like The Sport of Kings is a never ending, far too filled and possibly flabby book. Not at all. If anything I would have quite liked for it to have been another hundred or more pages as I felt the final section was somewhat suddenly rushed and a bit manic, one of my only two qualms in the book. The other being that I can’t decide if I feel like Morgan does something incredibly brave, making a huge point with one of her characters story arcs or if in fact she really, really lets them down (a bit like J. K. Rowling did with A Casual Vacancy, though in this case it didn’t ruin the book for me) which had me slightly riled for a while after putting it down and I am still debating.

The Sport of Kings thrilled me and surprised me. It also reminded me why sometimes picking up a dense family saga can be such a wonderful reading experience. You find characters you live and breathe with, even the ones you love to hate; you have big chunks of history to digest with all their politics and social questions around to think about and the ripples that affect everyone afterwards. I was lost in a ripping good epic yarn, for that is really what this book is and I would highly recommend you get lost in it too. You’ll race through it – sorry, I couldn’t not.

Has anyone else read The Sport of Kings and if so what did you make of it? If you had been put off somewhat by how it was sold have you changed your mind? If you’re thinking about giving it a whirl now you can get it here. I know I certainly want to give C.E. Morgan’s All The Living a read now.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, C.E. Morgan, Review

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

One of the joys for me with reading the Baileys Women’s Prize is the books that it makes you discover. There are some on the list, mainly the horsey ones and Barkskins, which I am slightly nervous about, there are also all the books and authors I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Linda Grant is one such author. I actually own almost all her books because she is an author I have always felt I would really like and every time I go into Waterstones in Liverpool and see her writing by the escalators, reading as I ascend or descend, I think ‘ooh, I really must finally pick up one of her books’. Well now I have…

Virago Press, hardback, 2016, fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.

I have mentioned the infamous ‘book tingle’ on the blog before. That feeling you get very early on in a book where you know that you are just going to love the journey ahead of you, wherever the author decides to take you. You just know, simple as that. That is what happened to me within about two or three pages of The Dark Circle, well in fact probably from the first paragraph and the tingle lasted throughout and has since because I simply will not forget this book or the wonderful cast of characters that inhabit it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Four years after the Second World War has ended, Lenny and his sister Miriam are being driven to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside. Ironically, after their uncle paid for the powers that be to say Lenny was unfit to be a soldier, it turns out that Lenny has TB and has passed it on to his sister or vice versa, so the pair are packed off to recuperate. To Lenny and Miriam, who we discover very early on like to live life to the full and often rebel against it, this is going to be torturously dull. However once they arrive and start to get to know the other characters there, and in their minds see it as a grand free hotel thanks to the newly created National Health Service, they begin to see this as a holiday from the cares of the world. Yet as we follow them both, and those around them, we discover behind these facades darkness and fear reside.

This place, Gwendo, was all about plate glass, calm light blue paint, the stillness, the paths through the woods, the bells that rang to punctuate your day, the reading of books, the playing of cards, and above all the ceaseless measuring of temperature, saliva in the spittoons and the mysterious darkness inside your chest which the machine could see and you couldn’t. Your skeleton which held you up and would be what was left of you when the worms had finished chomping at your insides.

What I loved about Linda Grant’s writing in The Dark Circle most initially was its warmth and humour, from the off it brims with life and all the quirky wonders of it. This somewhat lead me in to a false sense of security though as the more I read on the more bittersweet the humour becomes, after all the power with dark comedy is that it verges so close to the edge of tragedy the two can become entwined and the effect of that can be incredibly emotionally potent. If I am sounding a little cloak and dagger here it is because I don’t want to spoil an iota of this book for any of you who go onto read it, which I want every single one of you to do. Suffice to say each of the characters knows they are dicing with death, though the longer they stay and life at The Gwendo becomes routine, the more they are inclined to forget.

Weeks pass. The reading group on the veranda is making its way through the sanatorium’s library and attempting to expand the dimensions of incarceration. Lenny has been enjoying exotic foreign voyages in the company of Joseph Conrad. There has been an unsuccessful foray into Jane Austen. Miriam throws Pride and Prejudice off the veranda where it lands on a rhododendron bush. ‘Them girls should just get bleeding jobs instead of hanging around fluttering their eyelashes at rich fellers.’ Valerie agrees to give up on Middlemarch when she sees it is sending them to sleep.
And reading is not enough, Valerie admits to herself. I used to think it was everything, it isn’t. I’m so bloody bored. The hands of the clocks seem to have stopped altogether. What day is it, what month? Stupor.
To Lenny, too, the days seem mouse-coloured. The officers still in their old battledress jackets have become mouse-like creatures, timid and grey.
No one is discharged well, they leave secretly without goodbyes. New arrivals disappear onto the verandas. Stuck.
Lenny wonders if he died under the pneumothorax needle.

Valerie, who shares a veranda with Miriam, puts into words the other element that I loved about The Dark Circle and Linda Grant’s writing and the world she created when she says ‘When you approach a story, it’s not necessarily just about one thing.’ I know this is the case with every story, however I don’t think I have read a book that says so much about the world then and the world now so compactly, succinctly and (enjoyably isn’t the right word but I want to say it) with so much spirit and heart.

She looks at tolerance of all kinds. There is race and heritage; at the start we learn that Miriam has to change her name at work because it is “a little too Hebrew for our clientele”, we also have Hannah who is a German resident and left ignored by most of the other patients. We later, without spoilers, have themes around disability and also deformity. Then there is class. When they arrive at the sanatorium Lenny and Miriam are not only the first Jews but also some of the earliest of the ‘common folk’ getting their health care for free, up until then it has been the privileged or those who have served for our country. In doing so she also looks at the NHS and, through another link I don’t want to give away, the political state of the country and how Labour strived to do good and yet failed at the election. Remind you of the present at all? This is of course, I think, all meant to highlight that too us, we haven’t come as far as we think but where we have, acceptance and some of the medicines now etc, we should be thankful but never complaisant. Bad things happen when we do, though we are also shown that bad things happen to good people with the best intentions. Again I don’t want to say more. Ooh this is a tricky book to try and encapsulate and talk about.

Suffice to say, as I think I have made it pretty clear, I thought that The Dark Circle  was an utterly wonderful book. It has a real vibrancy, in all of its shades from bright to dark and back again – believe me it takes us through them. I was utterly bereft when it finished, I felt like I had lived with these wonderful characters, through good times and bad, and the stories they share with each other and the ones they don’t yet we get to discover. Go and read it, now.

If you have read The Dark Circle I would love to know your thoughts on it. If you haven’t read it then please do, you can get it here. Have you read any of Linda Grant’s other novels and if so what did you make of them, which of her other works should I be heading to? I now want to read them all.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Linda Grant, Review, Virago Books

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

There are sometimes books that come into your life and strike such a chord with you that they leave you somewhat stunned. Those books are wonderful. Then there are books that strike a place in your psyche which resonate with such force within you that they can leave you breathless like someone has just punched you hard in the heart. Midwinter, Fiona Melrose’s debut novel, was a book that did the latter for me and completely shocked me with how much it affected me.

Corsair Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 262 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

As Midwinter opens young lad Vale is out in the middle of the water trying to save his friend, Tom’s, life when they take a boat out after one too many drinks finding themselves in danger. We are thrown straight in and initially think that this could be the heart of this novel. Wrong. We soon discover, and this isn’t really much of a spoiler, that Vale had gone out to get drunk after an altercation with his father (Landyn Midwinter) about his mother, who has been dead for some years. Melrose pretty much throws us right into the centre of a fractured family just as they start to spiral out of control all the more. I liked this, no messing about. I think we have all endured those novels which spend at least two hundred pages slowly but safely taking us from the smallest chip to the tiniest hairline fracture and beyond. Yawn. No the case here.

What Melrose does though is far more powerful and also more cunning. Cunning in a good way. We think we know the issues, we then learn that actually much more is going on which is slowly revealed. Why did Cecelia die? Why were they in South Africa when it happened? Why did they then head back to this desolate part of Suffolk after? And why does Landyn believe that Cecelia has come back as a wild animal watching over them?

‘I saw my fox this evening, Son. You remember the year I had to leave food out for her poor thing? I know she knows me. Came out of the night and looked right at me. Come to check we were all doing ok. Beautiful.’
I knew I was babbling. The lad said nothing, only fiddled with the bed sheet. His colour wasn’t right yet and we’d be needing to see the doctors again even after he was released. And he carried the mark of my anger, his eye still swollen. He carried on rolling the hem of his sheet into a little peak between his thumb and forefinger.
He made to clear his throat a little. Didn’t look up though. ‘It’s not her you know?’
‘What’s that?’ I had to lean forward to hear him.
‘It’s not her. It’s just a fox.’

Whilst there are these questions going on, really where the story lies is in the void that grief can build between two people. The lonely desolate space where shock leads to silence, where things can become misunderstood, messy and where a chasm needs to be covered up and potentially avoided. This is where this book really hit home for me. Without going into too much detail, when I was ten and my mother twenty six my stepfather accidentally killed himself, I found him after a shopping trip with my mum. We didn’t properly talk about it for almost fifteen years in which time we both created our own version of events and the story of the others filling in the blanks often wrongly, mine leading to rebellion.  Very, very, very like Vale’s, though not with a boat as we all know I hate boats – sorry had to lighten it a bit. What blew my mind somewhat was seeing my feelings and that chasm of silence between two people written so like my own experience but from someone else, someone who I have never met but will definitely give a hug if I do.

Fiona Melrose is an incredible writer, not just because she writes about that empty space between two people who don’t know how to communicate or simply can’t, this space which she throws her readers into. She also writes incredibly about atmosphere, Suffolk broods as the Midwinter house hold does, nature can be friend or foe as we see through the novel when she equates natural elements or moments with what is going on in the book, and not just in the Suffolk countryside but the South African too.

The trees out there always felt nervous, I felt that from the day we arrived. Later realised they were always anticipating rain, bristling for it even, and after one of those lovely downpours you could just about feel the roots ease out as they relaxed under your feet. For a week or so and then they’d be back tilted on the edge of their seat, an eye on the sky and another on the furthest horizon.

She also writes incredibly about grief. Not just how people cope with it, or don’t, at the time or how they deal with it as a long term mental battle, like seeing foxes. But also how grief can be a thing which you cling to, in the case of Vale, and use all the emotions around it (anger mainly) to push yourself further. Or how it can be something which will nag at you one moment, leave you completely alone then next and then come at you full throttle when you least expect it.

Don’t I still think how things might have been different for his mother? Some nights I dream things turned out well for us. Then I wake full round and as I fall back into my old sad skin, I remember myself again and know it not to be true. This is a cruel trick the mind plays. Like a sly old ferret those hopeful thoughts burrow in there. And then, when you’re getting all cosy, they turn on you and rip you right open with their sweaty little teeth until you feel your guts are spilling out all over again.

And she doesn’t always need a paragraph or two to do it in, often in this novel a single sentence can contain all that needs to be said. Sometimes a blessing is just shy of a curse.

If I am making it sound all doom and gloom, albeit it powerful doom and gloom, there are often some real heart warming moments that never verge on clichéd. There is the way in which Landyn bonds with his sons’ best friend, and in turn how Tom bonds with his nurse. There is the relationship between Vale and a barmaid. There are also wonderful moments between grown men in the village, such as when Landyn is at his wits end with Vale and his friend Dobbler says ‘Ah, I knew a boar like him once.’ When pushed on how he might make things better he replies ‘Parsnips.’

After the effect that Midwinter had on me personally, and rather unexpectedly, it is hard for me not to just go on and on and on about how wonderful. But then part of the reason why I hope you read this blog and these thoughts is the personal interaction I have with this book, the joys of bloggers and vloggers eh? I will say I had a slight quibble as Vale’s storyline develops and at one point became a little melodramatic for me, but we all need a melodrama or two in our fiction really don’t we?

I think what astounds me most is that Midwinter is Fiona Melrose’s debut because this to me felt like a novel which is three or four down an author’s career. Don’t get me wrong I bloody love a debut, always have, and like all the best debuts Midwinter is brimming and jam packed with themes, ideas, fantastic set pieces and characters. Yet there is a control and a restraint, which makes the book all the more sharp and affecting to the reader. I cannot recommend you read this novel enough.

I am thrilled the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction made me head to Midwinter, though I have been meaning to read it for a while. If you haven’t read Midwinter you can get it here. If you have read it then I would love your thoughts and experiences of it. I would also love to know about books that have shocked and surprised you as they made you see moments of your life on the page.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Corsair Books, Fiona Melrose, Review

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

One of the things that always excites me about any books prize longlist is the books that I know nothing or very little about. The latter was the case with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love which, bar the copy lovely Lamorna over at Granta – who publish the book – sent me, I knew next to nothing about other than she thought it was amazing and the author was originally from the Wirral where I live now. (For some reason I assumed it was a debut novel about love, neither of these things are correct.) Yet sometimes I find the idea of starting a book I know hardly anything about as exciting, if not sometimes more so, than starting something I have been meaning to read. So in I went, knowing not what to expect…

Granta Books, hardback, 2017, fiction, 168 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I used to look at houses like this one from the train: behind the ivy-covered embankment, their London brick, sash windows. That was on the Euston approach. The back of this flat – that is, the bedroom, the bathroom and Edwyn’s study – looks out on the overground line, just past West Brompton.

The opening of First Love is quite an ingenious initial insight into the world of Neve whose life story we are thrown into. She is not only looking out on others wondering what they might see if they looked at her, she is also looking at the patterns of her life and how they are reflected from a girl looking in to being a woman looking out. Sorry if we got a little deep here but we get deep into Neve’s life just as quickly as we soon discover that she is married to Edwyn, of the study, an older man who seems to be suffering from some form of sickness. We also discover that the married life she has might not be the one which she was expecting and the cracks behind the veneer which within four pages are shrugged off.

Lately it’s the round of coughing in the hallway that lets me know he’s home. I go out and meet him, we have a cuddle, and then I look at the Standard while he gets changed. We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises – at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage’. Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.
There have been other names of course.
‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I’ve no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had… green acid shoved up it.’

It soon transpires that Edwyn is not just physically sick but possibly mentally too he doesn’t just have outbursts of verbal anger but also physical abuse, though it is the verbal to which he is most prone and is actually the more controlling. We quickly switch back to Neve’s younger years back in Liverpool where her father used to abuse her mother, something Edwyn knows and belittles – I know, he’s utterly vile. Yet where her mother also used to send her to once they had split up to ‘keep the peace’ even after her father assaulted her brother, where she gets to hear her father and his friends berate and demean women. Leading the reader to wonder if this is why Neve is so passive in her relationship with Edwyn, is it because it is what she was expecting and what she was taught about the value of her own worth?

If this sounds somewhat all over the place and slightly confusing it is because that is how Riley wants you to feel. These are snippets of memory, sometimes coming in a jumble or linking up in strange ways in a woman’s life. They continue in the second part of the novel, of which there are three, when we are taken to two periods between those years after her parents splitting up and before Edwyn. The first, living with a friend in Manchester where an ex-lover gets back in touch when he is back in the area; the second, which could be earlier or later, in Scotland when her mother comes to visit after the separation of her relationship after the one with Neve’s father. Still with me?

‘Oh, he just went mad. Absolutely mad. But – I was prepared, so… You know I have been making this list, well, you don’t know, but I have, of things he does that I don’t like, or, you know, not very nice things, and it ran into three pages in the end! So I did show him that.’
‘You showed him?’
‘Yes. And oh, he went mad. He just said – Out. Get out. So I went straight upstairs then and started looking at flats on Rightmove. But he has lifted that sentence now, so… I can go in my own time. But yes, I am going now.’
‘That’s good.’
‘Yes. Well. I think it’s just… I’d had enough really.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘Well, I don’t know. All my activities are in Liverpool, but then he says that’s over now. None of his friends would want to stay my friend, apparently, so I am to be ostracized, you see, he says, my name’s going to be mud, apparently, so… Persona non grata.’
‘That’s nice.’

 It is through this section that we begin to see how the situations of Neve’s past, using exes and abused yet demanding mothers, have led to her being in this relationship with Edwyn. Yet I spotted a few things that made me start to consider Neve in a slightly different light. Firstly, there was the abandonment of a friend who had let her live with her pretty much rent free for a long as she liked, without thanks or even any notice. Without a care in fact, quite coldly. This then made me reread some of the sections with her mother where I started to reread it less as the mother as the monstrous matriarch and more as the abandoned daughter who really just wanted, well needed as she comes across so needy at times, her daughters love, approval and opinion. I mean look at the end of the response to her mother being persona non grata, ‘That’s nice.’ Hmmm. Then I did the same with the relationship with her ex. And then her relationship with Edwyn.

What I did find was that it made the book all the more unsettling because I started to question what if Neve isn’t the victim in this situation, what if she isn’t as passive or as innocent as she first looks? We are told Edwyn is sick, but what if she is making him sick, after all this is Neve’s version of events but how reliable a narrator is she? It throws the whole book in the air and flips it on itself. I could of course just be me misreading two moments completely.  I would love to know what anyone else who has read this thinks. Anyway…

At first I have to admit I was really quite bemused by First Love and didn’t know what I should make of it. I then had some cracking chats with my lovely booktube pals Lauren and Lauren about it who both also read it in very different ways. Since those chats and having some time away from it, the more and more interesting and clever and twisty I think it might be. How amazing that a book can be read in such different ways due to some subtler moments here or there. Gwendoline Riley shows with First Love that with subtlety and brevity you can still create the most complex and claustrophobic of characters and atmospheres. I shall have to read more of her work, and possibly this novel a few more times to find out which story is true.

Have you read First Love and what did you think of it? Which version of the two potential ways I have read it did you read it? Am I mad thinking it can be read in such different way? Have you read any of Gwendoline Riley’s other novels and if so where should I head to next? If you haven’t read it I do urge you to get a copy as I want more people to talk about it with. You can get a copy here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Granta Books, Gwendoline Riley, Review

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

I am probably quite the stuck record when it comes to this, but hey ho my blog my rules and foibles, but when an author I love has a new book out I get excited and I get nervous. The latter tends to win in the reading part of my brain and so I put off reading the book because I am scared it might not be as amazing as I want it to be. Pessimism, another foible of mine. In the case of Rose Tremain’s latest novel The Gustav Sonata I couldn’t have been more wrong as I think this might be my favourite novel of hers yet.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland , at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects – or even people – she had not prepared herself to encounter.

As The Gustav Sonata opens we are instantly thrown into the slightly claustrophobic and cloying world of Gustav Perle. Living alone with his mother, after the death of his father which no one ever talks about, he lives a sheltered life where his mother struggles to make ends meet. Whilst his father his absent his presence is anything but, yet it must not be discussed or questioned. Without realising it Gustav is living quite an unhappy life until he befriends a boy new to the neighbourhood, Anton. As Anton and his mysterious background come into Gustav’s life so do the questions that he has never asked or even contemplated.

One or two of the apartment residents arrived in the courtyard and stopped to smile at the two boys dancing around the old cherry tree. Later, when Anton had gone home, Emilie said, ‘I suppose there may not be any cherry trees in Bern. It’s unlikely, but one can’t say for sure. Perhaps he had never seen one before?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Gustav.
‘I think he’s a nice boy,’ said Emilie, ‘but of course he is a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’ asked Gustav,
‘Ah,’ said Emilie. ‘The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’

Anton therefore in many ways brings as much lightness as he does darkness into Gustav’s life, something Tremain keeps bringing up and we see repeating throughout. On the one hand he has the kind of friendship he has always dreamed of, certainly the opposite to one with one of his neighbours sons. He also, through Anton’s parents and situation gets introduced to a world unlike any he has known, here the conflicts come in. He lives on the breadline while Anton lives a life of spoils, Anton is set to be a prodigal pianist whilst Gustav has never been given any drive or belief, Anton’s family are loving and caring to him while Emilie is somewhat cold and unstable. These contrasts naturally cause Gustav some internal turmoil.

Here is one of the main strengths of Tremain’s writing and the novel. Facades, which is really what lies at the heart of The Gustav Sonata, the facades we create for ourselves and for others. Gustav sees Anton’s life as perfect, yet Tremain shows us as readers that this is not always the case. This is always something that I love in fiction, where we get to know more than the characters and what lies around them, yet Tremain makes it anything but predictable, again something I have always loved in her writing since I started reading her work a few years ago. I am fanboying aren’t I? I don’t even care, it’s all true.

‘Won’t your parents think this is odd? They might not want us to play here.’
‘We won’t tell them,’ said Anton.
‘Where will they think we are?’
‘Just “exploring”. On holidays, when she doesn’t want me around, my mother’s always saying “Why don’t you go exploring, Anton?” We’ll tell them we’re building a camp in the forest. And anyway, they’ll be fucking.’
‘What’s fucking?’
‘It’s what they like to do on holiday. They go to bed and take their clothes off and kiss and scream things out, It’s called fucking.’

Moments like this in the novel are ones where Rose Tremain does so much with so little. Reading this part of the book as adults we see that actually Anton’s parents are not living the perfect life that he or Gustav believe, they are actually there to try to save their marriage. We also see, without spoilers, that Tremain cleverly creates several analogies as the boys’ adventure in the atmosphere of the Alps foreign climbs. When you have read the book you will know what I mean. From a character level, we also get to see how much Gustav looks up to Anton and how truly shielded from the world he is and how soon the two embrace freedom to the full. It is here that something happens which has effects that ripple throughout the book and of which I will say no more or you will not be weeping at the end of the book like I was, with a mix of sadness and utter joy.

Yet The Gustav Sonata is not just about Gustav. There is a second story with the pages of this book which reveals itself within the second part, of three, in the novel. This is the story of Gustav’s father Erich and how he meets Emilie and what happens in the lead up to his absence in the house. That said though, this being Rose Tremain it isn’t that simple and the full reveal doesn’t come until a point you least expect it. Moving on, for fear of spoilers as this is a twisty wonderful book, there is once again layers to this second story which take us in directions we least expect and see characters again doing this we may personally fathom but boy are they interesting to read. It also highlights again how the history of our families and what has gone before us can shape both our personalities and upbringing even when we don’t ourselves see it as children. Something I personally find really fascinating.

Tremain remains like Switzerland throughout, neutral. Don’t mistake that for a lack of passion for her characters or the situations which they find themselves in, good or bad. It is this neutrality – which I think is always in her work and is one of the things that I like so much about it – that leaves the reader to place their emotions and their own moral compass, you have to ask ‘well what would I do?’ and ‘how would I feel in those circumstances in that time in that society?’ All of this only makes the novel all the more powerful and the readers emotional investment all the greater. And like I said this book had me an emotional mess by the end, as all the best books do.

If you hadn’t guessed, I loved The Gustav Sonata. I read it at the very end of last year and it was just what I needed, a novel that reminded me why I read and the power of a great book. I also think it is my favourite of all the Rose Tremain novels and short stories I have read since I have started reading her work, which my Gran told me to do when she was terminally ill as she was sure Tremain is an author I ‘would get’ or vice versa. I find it very odd that she won’t read this book, anyway before I get all emotional about that and the book… Suffice to say I think that if you haven’t read it yet then I strongly urge you to. It is one of the best novels I have read in some time.

If you haven’t got yourself a copy then you can here. I have no idea how the Bailey’s judges are going to choose a winner between this and The Essex Serpent which were both two of my books of last year. That said I am now reading the whole longlist and having read a few of the first chapters of some of them it is looking like a really strong longlist. Have any of you read The Gustav Sonata and if so what did you think? What about Rose Tremain’s other novels and collections?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2016, Review, Rose Tremain, Vintage Books