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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

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Back at the start of the year, I was delighted to be asked by the wonderful women who organised the brilliant DiverseAThon (an initiative to make people read more widely and diversely over a week and then hopefully for even longer) and I leapt at the chance. Part of the week of reading involved a group read of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. This was a book I’d had on my shelf a while and been meaning to get to because the premise sounded so interesting, taking the figurative ‘underground railroad’ which was a network of safe houses that many slaves escaped their confines from (by 1850 it was estimated over 100,000 slaves had used it to escape) and turning it a real physical railroad, underground. I was both intrigued and slightly nervous about how someone would give slavery this speculative twist and how it would work. Yet we need to try things that make us a little nervous, don’t we? Plus, I was hosting the twitter discussion around the book and so on I read.

Fleet Books, paperback, 2016, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I am always encouraged when a novel takes me straight into the heart of its own story. No preamble, no waffle, let’s just get on with it. (Somewhat ironic because preamble and waffle could be two of my middle names.) Carlson Whitehead does this with The Underground Railroad as we are taken directly into the life of Cora, a young woman living on plantation in Georgia. To use the word ‘hard’ for Cora’s situation would be a huge understatement. As we follow her daily life we are taken back to the witness both the escape of her mother which left Cora abandoned and to fend for heslef as well as the abuse she receives from some of those enslaved with her as well as the treatment. Cora’s life is a difficult one to read, Whitehead rightly writing about it in its full spectrum of horror, yet we can barely even grasp how horrendous that life must have been to live.

A feeling settled over Cora. She had not been under its spell in years, since she brought the hatchet down on Blake’s doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o-nine-tails. Bodies alive roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft. She had seen boys and girs younger than this beaten and had done nothing. This night the feeling had settled on her heart again. It grabbed hold of her and before the slave apart of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy’s body as a shield. She held the cane in her left hand like a swamp man handling a snake and saw the ornament at its tip. The silver wolf bared its silver teeth. Then the cane was out of her hand. It came down on her head. It crashed down again and this time the silver teeth ripped across her eyes and her blood splattered the dirt.

Yet after an act of rebellion a fire that seems to have been building in Cora’s soul, no matter how many awful things are done to supress it, an unlikey friendship with a fellow slave, Caesar, soon leads to a plan to escape on The Underground Railroad, a train that will lead them to another city and hopefully freedom. Here the novel goes from a tale of horrors to a tale of glimmer of hope and adventure as they plot and figure out just how to make their great escape.

They met at the schoolhouse, by the milk house after the work there was done, wherever they could. Now that she had cast her lot with him and his scheme, she bristled with ideas. Cora suggested they wait for the full moon. Caeser countered that after Big Anthony’s escape the overseers and bosses had increased their scrutiny and would be extra vigilant on the full moon, the white beacon that so often agitated the with a mind to run. No, he said. He wanted to go as soon as possible. The following night. The waxing moon would have to suffice. Agents of the underground railroad would be waiting.

It is at this point that Whitehead brings us The Underground Railroad itself. Interestingly as you are reading up to this point you feel a strange kind of anticipation, delight and marvel at its arrival from beneath a desolate building under a dusty trapdoor where nothing but a barren station seems to be waiting. Here, Whitehead does something really interesting both in terms of the device of the railroad and the plot. You see the railroad is at once somehow magical and impossible yet very much real. The only way to describe it, which seems such a cop out in some ways, is as a speculative being. Not because we know that it didn’t ‘literally’ exist but because the railroad never really knows where it is going to take you. It could whisk you to Mexico or Canada and safety (I found this particulatly poignant considering America’s current president and his immigration and refugee rhetoric) or it could find you in somewhere much less hospitable. It is a magical lottery or a dangerous game of chance.

As Cora heads north, you might think that the story is going to become a tale of her arriving at the next destination and setting up a comfortable new life. Whitehead has far more in store for her than that taking us from one destination to another and in doing so depicting a much broader and also all the more unnerving vision of America at the time. From one stop in a small town she would have been better not to have ended up in, to a city which seems so pristine and hopeful and yet has some very dark secrets hiding behind its seemingly forward thinking and accepting façade.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I will only add one small thing here in terms of plot as I really feel to best experience Cora’s story is to simply go on this journey (sorry, I hate that expression) with her. However, I do have to add that what I found wonderful about this book is the characters, be they at the forefront or in the background no matter how long they are in the novel for. Whitehead manages to capture the essence of the slaves, those who sympathised with them and wanted to help them and those who hated them and wanted to capture, own and punish them. From a couple who risk everything to help Cora, to Ridgeway an utterly contemptible man – one of those villains you really, really, really love to hate and adds a Victorian-like cat and mouse element to the book. From a character who appears for the briefest of times (I won’t give their name away but I will say I wept at their exit from the tale) to Cora herself who is one of those lead characters who just has your heart from the start.

The Underground Railroad is a fantastic book. Brimming with both the horrors and hopes of life. My slight quibble, and it is slight yet something I felt, might be that I would have liked another stop or two on the underground railroad but then how much can any character or reader endure in one book? See, very slight quibble. It is not often I say a book should be a staple read in everyone’s literary diet but as Obama has already done so with this book I feel I can. Whilst creating a brilliantly written gripping tale of adventure Whitehead reminds us unflinchingly of the horrors of slavery and the past which provides a dark mirror to what is going on in America now. The Underground Railroad feels at once like a contemporary new voice and take on this subject whilst also being part of the rich existing canon of fiction around the subject.

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Filed under Colson Whitehead, Fleet Publishing, Review

Solar – Ian McEwan

I think I am one of the few people I know (in the flesh) to have read quite a few of Ian McEwan’s books and not to have yet felt I have been let down by any. I know plenty of people who have loved one or two and then really disliked one or two. So far I have enjoyed all of his works that I have read and yet there is always a small worry when you open the next one, just in case. His latest novel ‘Solar’ is one of the books I have been most excited about this year and so when it arrived last week the book I was currently reading was relegated for some other time. I knew nothing then of what the book might be about as it has been rather shrouded in mystery until the last week or so. I was worried though… I knew it was a book about science, and if you had been at my secondary school where I almost burnt down the science lab you would know me and science don’t really mix (in fact as my teacher at the time became my step dad it’s become a family fable). Anyway, back to the book.

Thinking logically from the title and from one of the most talked about topics in the world at the moment you could probably guess that ‘Solar’ could be a book about global warming and you would be right. I have to admit I was slightly concerned that this might not make for an interesting read there’s always the possibility of it coming across as preaching or you have to set the world far in the future to scare the hell out of everyone. In this case McEwan does neither, he sets the book over three period’s in the last ten years and creates a lead character who is a reluctant saver of the planet until he see’s the cash signs it could bring.

Michael Beard is the protagonist of McEwan’s latest work. He’s a Nobel Prize winning physicist (for the ‘Beard-Einstein Conflation’) who as we meet him in 2000 has seen the best days of his career behind him along with the best days of his 5th marriage. In fact Beard isn’t a particularly likeable character he is a philanderer of the highest order, lazy and only works now as head of the Government’s new National Centre for Renewable Energy for the cash. McEwan does write these sort of leading characters rather well and cleverly the more odious, dislikable and dark Beard becomes the more you want to read him.

So where is the global warming story? Well it intertwines with the tale of a man who is a failure at marriage, even the fifth time. As an escape from his wife, who after finding out about all his affairs has decided rather than to get gone to merely get even with their builder which of course makes Beard want her even more, Beard goes to the Arctic as part of his work to see what’s happening there and the need for his company to find clean energy. However once there Beard does wonder ‘how can people who can’t sort out a boot room ever save the planet’. Yet back in the UK someone may have found an answer, someone who Beard comes back to find is the latest in a string of men to shack up with his wife which ends in tragedy and with Beard the holder of the planets salvation… even if he didn’t really come up with it. From then on through several plot twists and some dark detours the book takes us on to the future where Beard becomes the possible hero of the planet and where the books menace really takes shape.

There is a lot of science in this book, in fact the book came to McEwan from his own trip to the Arctic in 2005, yet its digestible you know McEwan has done his research throughout and yet he doesn’t show off and leave you lots after a sentence. The book is also incredibly funny. I laughed and winced at a tale involving a call of nature and the affects of sub zero temperatures on the male appendage, Beards meeting with a Polar Bear is comical too, there is also a darkly comical accidental death looming somewhere, involving a polar bear skin rug, which will make you snigger even though it shouldn’t. If people were worried that this book and its mix of science, some politics (Bush and Blair) and would be preachy or weirdly futuristic you needn’t. This is a tale that makes even more of a point in its sudden conclusion because you have been laughing along the way.

I think this might be one of my very favourite books of the year so far, and that’s from someone who isn’t the least scientific, a clever mix of science, humour and human nature make it a book not to be missed in my opinion. Don’t worry this could be his next ‘Saturday’ (which I should admit I started once and wasn’t sure about so left for a day when the mood was right and now oddly I want another whirl at) because it isn’t but in the same vein don’t go expecting another ‘Atonement’ this is another original novel from McEwan which, like most of his works, is not like anything he has done before. I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t get Booker long listed – though that prediction could be a kiss of death. If I had a rating system I would give this book a good 5/5!

Oh and should you wish to you can win a signed first edition copy of this on this very blog, all you need to do is go here before midday (GMT) tomorrow when the sun is at its highest point here in the UK. I will be off to get mine signed on Thursday when I go to see him speak at the Southbank.

Is anyone else a McEwan fan? Which books would you rave that aren’t his more well known ones? Have you read any other global warming fiction that hasn’t been set in the distant future?

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Filed under Books of 2010, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Random House Publishing, Review

The Blasphemer – Nigel Farndale

Remember I talked a while back about bookish grumps? Well one book that I had three quarters finished and then put down was the one I am going to talk about today as finally a week or so ago I finished it. I originally started it at the beginning of January so its been quite a process and I have needed another week or so to mull it all over, look at the book notes made in my book note notebook and finally come up with something that I think I can share with you all. I thought I would explain all this to start so you can see that for my posts a lot of thinking and mulling and behind the scenes work goes on.

‘The Blasphemer’ is the first book I have read by Nigel Farndale and it has been quite a reading journey with some stops and starts along the way. Essentially it is two alternating stories one is set in the present and is a tale of Daniel Kennedy and his wife Nancy who whilst holidaying in the Galapagos Islands endure a horrifying time when their plane ditches into the sea and the events after that as Daniel saves himself before remembering to save Nancy and all that follows from his actions. The other tale is of Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew and starts in 1917 as he prepares to go over the top to fight for his country and his life.

Now reading the above synopsis back I am thinking how on earth could I have had a hard time with that? Both stories sound quite thrilling and gripping and indeed they were but despite the writing of the modern tale (the scenes of the plane crash are incredibly tense and terrifying and not for those of you who like me who don’t like flying anyway) it read more like a good thrilling summer read as opposed to the other war torn harrowing and horrific storyline which to me read like an award winning book. Together the juxtaposition just didn’t gel for me initially and I was having a hard time with the transition from one to the other but by the end it’s worth the effort.

The second challenge for me was sadly Nancy and Daniel. I didn’t really understand why they were married as they didn’t seem to like each other before Daniel almost forgot to save her life. Yes ok they had been through a traumatic event and must have been in shock but you’d think they would celebrate surviving and they didn’t they just moped and griped. Yet in the other storyline you had an amazing love story between Andrew and Madame Camier which makes your heart bleed. I think, well I hope, that Farndale was trying to contrast the couples as well as Daniel and Andrew and the fault probably lies with me for not trying hard enough to involve myself in the modern storyline.

The final challenge for me (and I am saying challenge and not hurdle as challenges can be positive) was how much Farndale was putting into the book for example Daniel had only been in the UK a few weeks after the plan crash when he witnesses a terrorist bomb when a van five cars ahead of him blows up so terrorism becomes a topic. We also have another character Daniel works with who is a professor that sleeps with and beats his students which then opens up huge questions about education and then a can of worms about religion (I can’t explain it would take a while) and though I am good at suspending belief with a book I felt I was stretched at points and I haven’t even mentioned the angels – yes there is an angel subject in the book too. It’s quite a lot to take in, but all written really, really well.

With so many idea’s, topics etc in the book I did start to notice I was becoming a cynical reader when I was thinking ‘oh and now we have a gay male character that’s another subject and box ticked’ when actually the relationship between Daniel and his best friend is a wonderful insight into men who care for each other in a purely platonic way. When I got to cynical I stopped reading again but that war time tale of Andrew running along side kept drawing me back to the book again. An interesting read for me in many ways.  I wouldn’t be shocked (or horrified) to see this in the Booker Longlist actually.

All in all and taking lots of stops and starts into account I enjoyed it. I just felt, and this is a compliment, that Farndale had so much to say maybe there should have been two books but then the end result wouldn’t have worked. Ok maybe it should have been a longer book, but then would I have read on if things had been explained slowly with more time to flourish in the long term? Oh it’s a difficult book to sum up even after I have mulled it over and given it space yet its one I am definitely glad I have read. I think its one to get and read slowly and yet pay quite a lot of attention to. Maybe its one to go back to and read again in a few years when I am on holiday on the beach and can give it much more time. As long as I don’t read the beginning on the plane that is!

Have any of you read a book that’s really taken you on reading journey like this, from loving, indifference everything in-between and back again? Has anyone else read ‘The Blasphemer’ and what did you think? I would like to try another Nigel Farndale book, any recommendations?

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Filed under Nigel Farndale, Review, Transworld Publishing