Category Archives: Book Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng #bookreview

little-firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng explores the nature of motherhood and the secrets that lie bubbling beneath the veneer of an ultra perfect American community.

Shaker Heights in Ohio is a place where everything is planned, organised and controlled. Nothing is left to chance; not the the colour of the doors into each house or where household rubbish must be left for collection.

Across the country, other communities might clash and squabble but Shaker Heights prides itself on being a community that is “unified and beautiful”: where householders regularly weed their gardens and parents engage in wholesome activities like making cookies.

It’s a picture perfect settlement operating on an underlying philosophy that when everything is planned, “the unseemly, the unpleasant and the disastrous” can be avoided.

Elena and Bill Richardson are typical of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights: successful, wealthy and white. She’s a journalist with the local newspaper. He’s a lawyer. They like to do their bit for the less fortunate members of society, regularly attending local fund raising events and donating to UNICEF. They plan that their four children will become equally respectable and successful.

Their complacency is disrupted when Mrs Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’re a nomadic pair, having travelled from state to state with all their possessions stuffed into a VW Rabbit. The lives of the Warrens and the Richardsons begin to coalesce. Friendships are born,  confidences shared and affiliations formed.

Interesting enough but it’s not until Ng introduces a moral dilemma  that the book really take off. The spark is a custody battle over a Chinese baby. Friends of Mrs Richardson want to adopt her but the girl’s birth mother wants her back. Who has the greater right to consider herself the true mother.

It came, over and over, down to this. What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?

As the community takes sides on this question, two other moral quandaries regarding a baby come to light. In one, a surrogate mother is so attached to the unborn child she feels unable to go through with the agreement. The other shows a teenager afraid her university education and her whole future will be jeopardised if she doesn’t have an abortion. In all three cases the desires of biological mothers are counterpoised with the claims of potential parents whose wealth could provide the child with greater opportunities in life. The question is posed: should the child’s or the mother’s interest prevail?

The  story occasionally labours under the weight of this question but the characterisation more than compensates for this weakness. The two matriarchs in particular are vividly drawn. Mia is an interesting character whose  highly imaginative photographs are collectors items but she works as a cleaner to make ends meet.

The real hit of this novel for me however was Mrs Richardson (she is hardly ever referred to by her given name  “Elena”). She comes across as a control freak,  a woman so convinced her friend should win the custody battle that she is willing to act unethically and put another friendship in jeopardy. And yet Ng shows beneath her cold exterior is a woman who suppressed her dreams and aspirations believing a life of controlled domesticity was the way to happiness.

… she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. … Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never —set anything ablaze.

Little Fires Everywhere was both an engrossing and a frustrating read. It begins with a fire that engulfs the Richardson house. The youngest daughter,  Doc Marten-wearing, troubled teen Izzy, is the main suspect, but it soon becomes clear that the inferno has been deliberately caused with, as the firefighters put it, “multiple points of origin”. The novel then tracks back in time to look at the flash points that led up to the conflagration.

At the same time, the pace and structure of the story keep us turning the pages, eager to find out why the fires were set, who will get custody of the baby, what secrets are buried in Mia’s past and whether their uncovering will lead to catastrophe.

I enjoyed watching how Ng wove together the different plot lines, keeping us in suspense about the identity of the arsonist, how the custody battle will pan out and the secret of Mia’s past. But my enjoyment was tempered by a feeling of frustration that Ng didn’t push further with her exploration of motherhood. Instead I felt the ending was rather too neat and complete.

 

 

 

 

Recent reads in brief

Best selling authors Lisa Jewell and Peter James both had new books out this year. Since I’m running way behind with my reviews and I don’t have a lot to say about either of these books, I’m just going for a short

Then She Was GoneThen She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

I’d never read anything by Lisa Jewell until this year. I know she has a large fan club but she never appealed to me. I read this only after significant badgering from a friend who is a devotee….

Then She Was Gone is set ten years after a teenage girl goes missing one day when she was on her way to the local library. Ellie’s disappearance led to a divorce and the break up of her family. Her mum Laurel is living a half life, never feeling she can move on while the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance is unresolved.

Then she meets a charming man who makes her feel there is hope. He has a nine year old girl who has a remarkable resemblance to her missing daughter. It proves to be the first in a sequence of coincidences. Questions come flooding back to Laurel. She has to know the truth no matter how painful this may be.

I’ve seen this book described as gripping and heart-breaking. I didn’t experience either of those emotions myself. I’m afraid I guessed the secret at the heart of the book a long way before its ending though it was interesting to observe how Lisa Jewell manipulated the plot to send her readers down several blind alleys. Then She Was Gone was a perfectly acceptable story and told cleverly through different narrators (the identity of one only becomes apparent a long way into the novel). It just wasn’t that special.

 

Dead if you don'tDead If You Don’t by Peter James 

This is the latest in a long running series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, based in the seaside town of  Brighton. I’ve not read all of them so I rely on my dad to fill in the blanks about Roy Grace’s personal life (his wife disappeared on the day of their wedding anniversary).

What always impresses me with these novels is the insight into police procedure that James provides. He does extensive research to ensure his story lines are feasible and the actions of Grace and his team are accurate.  Roy Grace himself is based on a real life former Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, David Gaylor, who works closely with James on his books. But James also does the rounds with police officers, attends conferences and has lunch with ex convicts.

In Dead if You Don’t I was fascinated to learn how emergency calls from the public are handled when they come into the operations centre. But the biggest eye opener was that patrol car teams on night shift duty like to play jokes on other drivers by deliberately driving below the speed limit and and seeing who is afraid to overtake.

As is always the case with Peter James, this book has a multi-stranded plot. There’s a suspect device planted at the local football ground during the home team’s biggest match of the season. Then the teenage son of a local big shot financial advisor is kidnapped; a drugs mule dies at Gatwick airport from an overdose and body parts are discovered at another location in Brighton.  Somehow they are all connected to a fight for control between the members of a large and powerful criminal network.

If you like high octane drama filled novels, this will definitely fit the bill.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny #bookreview

Kingdom of the BlindHow long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?

Louise Penny’s crime series set in Quebec has long been one of my favourite crime writers. Her central character, Armand Gamache, chief of police, is a superbly conceived character; he’s surrounded by some equally well-executed personalities among his friends and family and he lives in the delightful (fictional) village of Three Pines. Penny’s

When we reached book ten of this series however I did wonder how much further Penny could go with this set up. She settled all my doubts with book eleven A Great Reckoning (my review is here). 

But she’s just published book number 14  and it saddens me to say that my earlier  doubts have resurfaced. I so wish that wasn’t the case because the fact that Kingdom of the Blind was written at all is a testament to Penny’s resilience and courage.

Penny’s husband Michael, who was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, died in September 2016. In the introduction to Kingdom of the Blind, Louise  Penny says she didn’t feel she could write again after his death.  “How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed,” she said.

But one day she found herself at the dining table where she always did her writing. The first day she wrote just two words  — the name of her protagonist. The next day the word count trebled and kept on increasing day by day.

Kingdom of the Blind was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to but with joy. … Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this.

The darkness she mentions relates to one of the two major plots in the novel.

A new ultra powerful, ultra dangerous, opioid drug is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The finger of blame is pointed at Gamache who allowed a large cache of the drug to escape seizure during a major drugs raid. As a result he’s been suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an internal investigation. Then one of his proteges at the police academy, the rebellious cadet Amelia Choquet, is discovered with drugs in her possession.

Against this background Gamache receives a letter summoning him to a dilapidated house in a small rural village. There he discovers he is one of three people named as executors in the will of a woman who called herself The Baroness. Gamache has never met her, has no idea why she should have entrusted her last wishes to him,  a retired psychologist (his friend Myrna Landers from Three Pines) and a young accident-prone  builder from Montreal.  It’s not long before a body is found and Gamache’s suspicions are aroused.

Penny hasn’t lost her gift for evoking the spirit of the Quebec countryside and its fierce winters. Early in the novel a winter storm descends upon Gamache and the village of Three Pines; a metaphor for the turmoil that threatens to engulf the police chief. But these villagers take the weather in their stride; it’s just an excuse to indulge in their favourite foods (a word of warning – reading this book will get you salivating for tarte tatin and cafe au lait) or to head to the village bistro for a gossip. All the usual people are in evidence in Kingdom of the Blind:  Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, his son-in-law and assistant Jean-Guy Beaulieu, the artist Clara Morrow, bistro owners Gabri Dubeau and the poet Ruth Zardo.

Gamache is more introspective in this novel than in all the previous titles. He’s always been conscious of his failings, following a code of conduct based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He advises his junior officers to take on board four statements: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.

In Kingdom of the Blind he seems more vulnerable, more weighed down by ghosts from the past.

… he remembered  … all the raids, the assaults, the arrests. The investigations over the yers. The victims. All the sightless, staring eyes. Of men, women, children whose murder he’d investigated. Over the years. Whose murderers he’d hunted down. All the agents he’d sent, often led, into the gun smoke.

There’s a sense in Gamache’s mood — which is reflected in some scenes at the end of the book — that he is facing significant changes in his life and his career. Without giving the game away for people who have yet to read this book, the nature of those changes make me wonder how it’s going to be feasible for Penny to continue this series. The inheritance plot of Kingdom of the Blind wasn’t one of her best, another indication for me that the series is reaching a natural conclusion.  Even so it is still superior to many of the crime novels currently in circulation. 

I could be wrong. Louise Penny surprised me once before. She could do it again.

 

 

 

 

Non Fiction November: Should non fiction read like fiction?

Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?

It’s week 4 of Non Fiction November 2018 and  Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction has set that thought-provoking question.

My first —  instinctive — answer was no.  If I want fiction, then I’ll read a novel; if I want something factual, I’ll pick up a non fiction book. But ne’er the twain shall meet.

But when I began thinking about it more I realised that there are some principles that apply regardless of whether its fiction or non fiction. Some aspects of novel writing I do in fact like to see in my non fiction reading.

First and foremost I expect any non fiction book to exhibit writing to a high quality standard. Non fiction authors, just as their fictional counterparts do, need to appreciate the value of the full stop. Too many academic writers stuff their text with so many multi clause sentences that the only way to discover the meaning is to pick each one apart. I don’t expect, or want, any book to be in text that is so simple a five year old would have no trouble reading it, but neither do I want to have to work super hard to understand what is in front of my eyes.

Even more critical: I don’t want to be bombarded with facts. No matter how knowledgeable the author, being confronted with paragraph after paragraph stuffed with dates, names and facts makes for very dry and tedious reading. I want my facts mixed with interpretation, analysis and perspective.

Fortunately, recent years have provided evidence that there are non fiction writers who have understood those requirements. Understood them so well in fact that their books have become best sellers rather than being confined to dusty academic libraries.

Here are some of my favourite examples.

Why We Sleep by  Matthew Walker

Why we sleep

I’m reading this at the moment. It’s an astonishing piece of work that explains clearly to a lay person the effects of insufficient sleep. I thought a bad night’s sleep just meant I felt washed out and unable to think clearly. It turns out that regular sleep deprivation makes me more susceptible to dementia, cancer and diabetes, more likely to have a car accident and less successful at keeping my weight under control. I’m hoping that it’s not too late for me to undo some of that damage.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald 

H is for Hawk

I rarely read anything about nature but this was a fascinating book about the author’s relationship with the goshawk she bought following her father’s death. The process of training Mabel, helps Helen Macdonald through the process of grieving for her father. This book became a best seller and won several awards including Costa Book of the Year in 2014

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Long walk

I had never read a political autobiography until Mandela’s book was published in 1994. It was astonishing. I knew I would learn about his political ideas and the cause for which he spent decades in prison. But I also learned that the man viewed as a saviour of his country,  had many faults. Mandela doesn’t shy away from showing how he was  naive and headstrong in his youth and how he neglected his wife and children. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — by then President of his country — looked to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson 

Walk in the woods.jpg

Bryson’s books about the idiosyncrasies of Britain and the British are a delight. In A Walk in the Woods he returns to his homeland of America and describes his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. He and his walking companion  however  are decidedly
ill-prepared for such an endeavour; they’re carrying far too much equipment and food so the first leg of the journey is an ordeal. In between humorous episodes and some rather dangerous moments, Bryson reflects on the history of the trail, the ecology of the areas through which the trail passes – and on life in general.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples besides these of well written and compelling non fiction books. Do let me know what books you would put on your list.

 

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby #bookreview

South RidingIf I had relied entirely upon the back cover synopsis, I doubt I would have read Winifred Holby’s final novel.

The blurb gave me the impression the focus was on Sarah Burton, the idealistic new head of a girls’ school in a fictional Yorkshire seaside town and her clashes with conservative locals. It sounded rather tame.

Fortunately there are plenty of bloggers around whose opinions I have learned to trust more than a publisher’s synopsis.

South Riding is a novel that evokes the lives of people in a Yorkshire community that is trying to recover from the tumult of the First World War. Former soldiers, local politicians, religious leaders and the working men who struggle to make a living: all are conscious that their world is changing. They just have different ideas about what should change and how.

One of the chief advocates for change is the outsider Sarah Burton. She’s a spirited woman whose idealism is matched with an eminently practical nature.  Faced with a tumble down building and a school that doesn’t have the greatest of academic reputations, she decides her first battle ground will be the toilet arrangements.

I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.

Sanitary provisions are but a step towards her greater goal of a world from which disease, poverty and ignorance have been eradicated. In her opinion that will take government  intervention.

Opposing her is the book’s representative of the gentility; local squire Robert Carne. He’s conservative by nature, opposed in principle to the idea that local government should expand its sphere of influence. Carne is very much a man of the past not the future. He sticks to traditional methods of farming but despite his best efforts he cannot make his estate pay its way and his manor home is crumbling about his ears.

His conservatism also puts him at odds with  other members of the local county council, Alderman Snaith and Councillor Joe Astell, who connive to push ahead with their own plan for change. But their desire to replace a slum area with a new town, complete with new job opportunities, is not motivated entirely by altruistic principles.

The clash between the forces of tradition and progress is played out in the chamber of the county council. This is where decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone in South Riding:  whether roads will be built, slums cleared, a new maternity hospital established. But anyone expecting to hear lively debates about critical issues, quickly gets their ideas squashed. When young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses his first meeting of the county council, he discovers it is far from an exciting spectacle.

Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.

It’s a testament to Holtby’s skills that she makes us care about what happens in this mundane world of local politics.

Politics aside, South Riding is a very human novel. Holtby isn’t afraid to show life as it really was in the 1930s and that there are no easy answers.  Sarah declares she wants her pupils “to know they can do anything,” but the case of one girl, Lydia Holly, shows the gulf between her desire and what is possible. Lydia is a bright and intelligent girl who lives in “the Shacks” – a set of disused railway carriages. She dreams of a scholarship and learning but her ambitions have to be set aside  when she is required to become a substitute mother for her many younger brothers and sisters.

All of human life is depicted in South Riding. Almost every character in this novel (there are some 160 of them) has a problem. Cancer for one, poverty for another, a loveless marriage for a third. We feel for all of them but Winifred Holtby shows that a happy ending is possible for only a few. Rather than the plot it’s the way Holtby brings these characters to life and shows them as distinctly human with their shortcomings as well as seams of goodness, that makes South Riding such an enjoyable read.

 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller [book review]

Now we shall be freeNow We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.

It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.

He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.

Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.

He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war.  It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.

When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .

Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.

Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:

You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.

But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.

While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers.  Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight.  Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.

The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability.  Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.”   Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.

If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.

Why I read this book

I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review

 

The Secret River by Kate Grenville [Book Review]

The Secret RiverBy coincidence I started reading Kate Grenville’s story of a fictional family who were early settlers in Australia, around the same time that I was researching a real life family who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia.

Both families were forced into travelling the thousands of miles to the new world. Grenville’s patriarch was a convict, transported for life for stealing wood; mine was a farmer fleeing from the Irish potato famine.

Though I suspect both the fictional and the real-life families suffered similar difficulties with an unfamiliar climate and terrain, I don’t know whether ‘my’ family experienced the same conflicts with the indigenous population as the convict William Thornhill does when he tries to colonise some land.

Thornhill was born in London into a life of poverty.  He’s not an inherently wicked man  but turns to petty crime because it offers an opportunity to keep body and soul alive. Unfortunately he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Transportation is his escape from the gallows.

With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in New South Wales. Through hard work he is able to earn his freedom and to start afresh. He discovers a plot of land in an inlet of the Hawkesbury River, that he is determined to own and cultivate.

In The Secret River, Grenville shows the effect of a burning desire for ownership and how it changes an otherwise decent, hard working and sensitive man.

Cultivation of the new land is a hard task but what keeps Sal going is the belief that one day they will have enough money to return to her beloved London. But the land and the river have taken grip of William. It’s the one time in his life that he has something that is his. Being a landowner represents dignity and status, and he wants to keep it even if that means conflict with the woman he loves.

… nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own. For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.

But he has not reckoned that there is another group who equally believe the land they are the rightful owners of this plot of land.

The mysterious, dark-skinned people who appear and disappear from the forests, seem seem to him no more than naked savages.  Other ex- convicts up river have found a way to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines but not William. He is angered when they steal his crops and incensed to find his son playing with their children. This to him feels like a betrayal.

When violence between Aborigines and the white settlers erupts further along the river, William is shown a way to protect his own family and everything he has worked for in Australia.  But it requires him to accept bloodshed and violence.  It’s hard to read this part of the novel without a sense of dread about the decision William has to make because it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome.

This is a novel about two attitudes to the land (the settlers and the Aborigines) but also about two rivers.

Grenville shows the Thames as a harsh and unforgiving, environment against which William contends when he plies his trade as a boatman. Yet he loves the river:

After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object.

Even when he’s soaked through and his face is reddened and swollen by the cold and rain, he accepts his condition because “it was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born … in a dank, stuffy room rather than … with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.”

The Hawkesbury River  fires William’s imagination even more than the Thames. Until he saw the sparkle and dance of light on the water, the way the cliffs tumble into the river through snaking mangroves and the sound of wind rustling through skinny, grey-green trees, he had never realised that a man could fall in love with the land. Or that he could become a different man entirely.

This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was; not just in body but in soul as well.

A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.

The is a well-paced novel in the way Grenville shows an escalation of the conflict between Aborigines and some of the white settlers and the conflict within William as he faces his moral dilemma.

Some reviewers have commented that they would have preferred The Secret River to more morally ambiguous. Grenville, they thought, over simplified the portrayal of the  attitudes of the settlers to the Aborigines. Actually I thought her exploration of how people are brought to act against their principles and values,  was far more nuanced than they gave her credit for.

It seems this novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, and was a Booker prize nominee, is the first in a trilogy. I wonder whether the next two titles will have the same level of tension.

 

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani [book review]

Lullaby-by-Leila-SlimaniIt takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending. The strategy could have gone horribly wrong for Leïla Slimani in Lullaby; her tale of a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster.

But this is a novel so deftly written that it doesn’t matter that we we know from the first few pages that the nanny ends up killing the two children in her care. What really keeps us reading is the desire to discover her motive and to learn what brought her to commit such an appalling deed.

Slimani takes her time in providing the answers; dropping clues and leaving hints while slowly ratcheting up the tension. Though we know the outcome there is still a strong sense of dread as details are revealed.  As one reviewer commented on the back of my copy: “I defy you to read the disturbing opening sentences and not be compelled to read on.”

Compelling this novel undoubtedly is but it would be unfair to think of it purely in terms of its thrill factor.  For Slimani  has given us a novel that rests on an experience shared by many working parents in the twentieth century: the struggle between their desire for a rewarding, successful career and their desire to be with their children.

Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, is a highly intelligent  woman and ambitious. She loves her children but after a morning of tantrums and tedious domestic chores she longs for her own space. “They’re eating me alive,” she think. An unexpected meeting brings an opportunity  to return to the legal world she loved before her marriage.  Just one problem: what to do about the children? Her husband’s career as a music producer is about to take off so it’s not feasible for him to replace her as chief carer. They decide the only solution is to bring in a nanny, being careful to filter out unsuitable candidates. “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers,” they agree.

With her smartly polished shoes, prim Peter Pan collar and neatly polished nails, Louise appears the answer to their prayers. She becomes indispensable, bringing order to the couple’s cramped Paris apartment; enchanting the children with her games and stories and creating delicious meals. They treat her like a family member at times, taking her on their holiday to Greece.

“My nanny is a miracle-worker'” Myriam tells her friends and colleagues.

But the magic wears off.  After one incident involving his daughter, Paul decides he can’t stand their nanny any longer. Myriam begins to fret that she is losing the connection with her children. They relate more to their nanny than they do to her. A chilling episode involving a chicken carcass causes Myriam to think that Louise might be dangerous, or mad.

But the parental concerns come too late.

Are the murders some kind of punishment for parents who put personal ambitions ahead of their children’s wellbeing? That’s one interpretation. Equally feasible is that Slimani is making a point  about parents who entrust their precious possessions to a stranger with only the flimsiest of background checks. So wrapped up are Myriam and Paul in their own lives that they never consider their nanny has a life  — and problems — of her own.

Slimani deftly makes her readers more conscious of Louise as an individual than her employers ever do, showing this woman as a lonely figure, a woman who has never once had anyone to care for her or to make her a meal. In Myriam and Paul’s home and family she finds what she never had.  When it becomes evident that her future in this “warm hiding place” is under threat, she becomes unhinged.

Lullaby is a deeply powerful novel that asks questions but doesn’t provide any easy answers. Though I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I can’t get it out of my head. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.

Endnotes

Leila Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Faber will publish her new novel Adèle in February 2019

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst [Booker prize]

LineOfBeautyWhat a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.

It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics  via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university.   He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of  a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

So why do I say the novel is boring?

Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

 

 

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