Category Archives: British authors

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

 

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

south-west-coast-path2

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.

 


 

The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson #bookreview

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.

 

 

#Classics club spin lands on Evelina

The latest Classics Club spin has landed on number 19.

EvelinaThat number on my spin list is allocated to one of the oldest books on my original Classics Club list: Evelina by Frances Burney. Strictly speaking the book is called Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. 

It was first published as a three volume novel in 1778 but Burney’s authorship became known.

Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat who lives a secluded life in the countryside until she is seventeen.  She gets her guardian’s consent to visit London for a holiday, an adventure which opens her eyes to the perils and pitfalls of  18th-century society. The novel  is a satire on Georgian society.

I included it on my Classics Club because it’s been described as a significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth and deals with some of the same issues.  It’s the first – and the best known – of Burney’s published novels.

I’ve found an interesting article by Chloe Wigston Smith on the British Library website which casts light on Burney herself and the origin of the novel. Interesting to discover that she was very anxious to keep her identity a secret because she was worried about the public reaction. She didn’t even tell her father until six months after the novel was issued and she’d received positive reviews.

I was rather hoping to have landed a more recent novel from my spin list since my last venture into eighteenth century literature (via The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith) wasn’t a great success. I hope this one proves more enjoyable.

The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner

The Next Big Thing  is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness. This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life. Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.

Has this all come too late? “He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him. Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents. He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.

The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.

He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art. The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.” 

He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.

Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid, and But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”

A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny  –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?

The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace. Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed. It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.

The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Brookner’s “funniest yet.” I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness  experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis.  The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion. On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman  who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.

Not one of her best unfortunately even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.

 

WWWednesday 20 March, 2019

I’m writing my latest WWWednesday post  in a fog generated by the jet lag from my lengthy trip down under. So if it doesn’t make sense, you know why….

 

What are you currently reading? The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola

 

 

I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume  series. April 1 sees the start of  an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money.  Zola describes this period as

… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.

It’s got off to a terrific start with some lengthy descriptive passages showing the excesses of the Second Empire (middle of the nineteenth century).

What did you recently finish reading? Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

 

I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story.  Review to follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

Dignity

I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.

Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming  and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

WWWednesday 27 February, 2019

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words . It’s intended as a weekly meme but I get around to only once a month. This month’s post comes from New Zealand which is part one of  the longest holiday I’ve ever taken in my life. My reading material was chosen weeks ago and as always I wonder if I made the right choices…

What are you currently reading? 

 

 

This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.

What did you recently finish reading? The Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

 

I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way.  Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Given the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland IslandsMy plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK. So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops  I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.

Kingsley Amis in virgin territory

Take a Girl Like YouAccording to the Wikipedia notes on Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis, the author takes great care to describe minutiae in much detail. Such meticulous description, we are told, gives rise to humour and brings ‘the world of the novel as close as possible to the physical world of the reader’.

Well possibly. I see the point – and it may work for some readers – but for me this approach delivers tedious and rather boring passages. I’m afraid I had to jump ship after some 70 pages (my absolute minimum litmus test). 

Amis tends to squeeze the pips out of a scene and then jump up and down on the pulp. The impression is of a writer rather over-pleased with his verbosity.

Of course, allowances have to be made for the passage of time. Amis was one the Angry Young Men on the British literary scene in the 1950s but he was 38 when this book was published in 1960 and times were changing. As Amis’ friend Philip Larkin remarked:

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

The coy and knowing way in which Amis deals with sex in Take a Girl Like You (and it is a novel largely about sex, though without much actual sex) is slightly exasperating to the modern reader.

Like many modern readers, I am not held by ‘will she, won’t she?’ passages (unless, of course, they done well by the likes of Austen). My reaction after a dozen or so pages of attempted seduction is: ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’.

The story concerns a comely (is one still allowed to say ‘comely’?) Northern lass of 20 and her determination to hang on to her virginity until her wedding night. Jenny Bunn has moved to lodgings in a London suburb to begin teaching at a local school. Her comeliness does not go unnoticed and soon the wolves – one in particular – are circling.

Patrick Standish is the sort of stock Leslie Phillips-type character familiar to anyone who has watched those formulaic British comedy films of the 1950s and 60s (‘Ding dong! I say!’ whenever a pretty girl hoves into view; lots of drooling, eye-rolling and pitiful chat-up lines – that kind of thing.)

Kingsley Amis

Pursuit of a desirable female by such a character was regarded as a kind of hunting game; one in which the ‘prey’ really wanted be caught but insisted on a bit of chasing around the Mulberry bush  before melting in the arms of a macho charmer.

If the depictions were cringe-worthy in those days they are positively laughable now, as well as being insulting to both sexes.

I’m not getting into revisionist territory here. I appreciate that this novel was of its time and perhaps even then offered up stereotypes for comic effect. 

Comedies of manners from previous eras, satirising contemporary social mores, ridiculing conventions and so on, can still be entertaining to the modern reader (Austen, Dickens, Spark for example). But tales of the tedious sexless sex games of the 1950s have not travelled well, as this novel demonstrates.

My previous experience of Amis’ work is limited and mixed. Lucky Jim, his best-seller of the early 1950s, I found irritating, unfunny and dull while his 1980s Booker prize-winning The Old Devils is a masterwork which improves on re-reading.

Amis is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century and comes highly recommended by many writers whose opinion I respect. So I’m not giving up on old Kingsley just yet. I have several more of his novels lined up as well as a hefty biography.

But in the case of Take a Girl Like You, I’ll leave it thanks.

The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosely #book review

What happens in our bodies when we eat a meal or swallow a drink?

clever gutsMany people would rather not know the answer and yet the last few years have seen more and more evidence about the importance of our digestive system to overall health and well-being. Three separate specialists from different branches of medicine  and health have all told me in the last year that the gut is now considered as a second brain: a highly integrated system that manages a set of processes as complex as all those neural pathways. When a surgeon, a physiotherapist and a mindfullness teacher all sang the same song  I began to sit up and pay attention.

Which is how I came to be reading Michael Mosely’s book: The Clever Guts Diet: How to Revolutionise Your Body From The Inside Out.

I’ve seen Michael Mosely multiple times on British television through his Trust Me I’m A Doctor series and he always struck me as the kind of man who isn’t swayed by fads or pseudo science of the kind  trotted by many a clean eating celebrity.  He has a deeply inquiring mind  that often leads him to take extreme actions in a search for answers. In this case, his desire to know how the digestive system really works, what foods might trigger problems like allergies or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and cancer, led him to an experiment with a live audience at the British Museum.

After a meal of steak, chips and kale washed down with apple juice he then swallowed a microscopic camera called a “pillcam”, which captured digital images of  his gastrointestinal tract . The idea was to watch in real-time what happened to his meal.

Your gut is astonishingly clever. It contains millions of neurons – as many as you would find in the head of a cat. It is also home to the microbiome, trillions of microbes that influence our mood, weight and immune system.

Mosely loves those microbes.  He can name the different species of the 50 million microbes (mainly bacteria)  that live in the gut and make up the microbiome.

The bad news? A diet limited in variety and heavy in processed food – along with antibiotic overuse – has ravaged the modern microbiome. This helps explain dramatic increases in health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, allergies, food intolerances, asthma and eczema.

But there is good news in the book too. It’s possible, says Mosely, to halt the damage and reboot the system back to health with a gut-friendly eating regime. Avoiding fruit juice is an early piece of advice. It moves through the body so quickly there’s little time for its nutrients to be absorbed. Worse still: it creates a spike in blood sugar levels.  Sugar encourages the growth of the microbes that love sugar,. They crave even more of it – telling your brain (and you) to eat more … and more….  In the meantime, the good microbes get destroyed.

So message number one: cut down (or even better, out) uncessary sugar.

Message number two:  encourage the growth and variety of “good” gut microbes, by eating probiotics (fermented foods that contain live bacteria and yeast) and prebiotics (certain vegetables and pulses containing indigestible plant fibre).

The Clever Guts Diet is based on research Mosely conducted for more than a year during which he interviewed multiple experts and read scores of research papers. The result is a  treasure house of insights and factual information.   It’s often amusing. Often provokes a reaction of Yuck when you read it. But it’s also thought provoking. This is not a book for anyone who feels in the slightest bit queasy when confronted by information about bodily functions but it is definitely a book for anyone who wants to take back control of their health.

 

About the author

Michael Mosely  was an investment banker who retrained as a doctor. After studying medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London and qualifying as a doctor…he decided that he was better suited to the world of television. He has made numerous science and history documentaries for the BBC, first behind the camera and more recently as a presenter.

He has won numerous awards, including being named Medical Journalist of the Year by the British Medical Association in 1995. 

WWWednesday 30 January, 2019

Many weeks have past since the last time I did a post for WWWednesday which is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words . I thought this year I would try to do at least one a month – and now here we are at the end of January and I’m scrabbling to do this. Ah well, good intentions do have a habit of disappearing….

What are you currently reading? 

 

I picked up an advance copy of To Catch A Killer at the Orion On Tour event in Cardiff last November. This is part of my project to read more authors from Wales.

Emma Kavanagh comes from South Wales – the one in the UK, not the upstart “New” South Wales which is on the other side of the world.  She is a former police and military psychologist who provides training to police and branches of the armed forces across the UK and Europe. Given her background it’s not surprising that To Catch A Killer is a psychological crime thriller. It features a woman police sergeant newly back in post after a fire at her home from which she was lucky to emerge alive, although with facial disfiguration. Now she is on the trail of the killer of an attractive, well-dressed woman found with her throat slashed in a London park.

This is a very fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns and a central figure who is struggling to deal with the trauma of the fire. I hadn’t come across Emma Kavanagh’s work previously but on the evidence of just this novel, she is a name to watch for the future.

 

I’m also dipping into  The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosely (fascinating once you get over the yucky bits) and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by J Mark G Williams. I’ve tried about half a dozen books on mindfulness in recent months and this one is the best so far. Very clear, very practical, with a commendable absence of hippy drippy stuff.

What did you recently finish reading? Trick by Domenico Starnone

Trick was one of the books I received through my subscription last year to the Asympote Book Club, most of which I never got around to reading.

This is a short but very compelling story of an elderly illustrator asked to look after his rather precocious four-year-old grandson for a few days.

Don’t imagine however this is a warm, family bonding kind of story. The relationship between these two people is one based on a battle for control. Grand-dad needs physical and mental space in which to work and complete his latest commission with a publisher is breathing down his neck. The boy just wants to play. In their tussle, the old man begins to question his abilities as an artist.

 

 

 

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

Always a tough question. This month it’s even more challenging because I’m preparing for an extended holiday which involves multiple long flights. I’m not keen to use up my luggage allowance with hefty books so am planning to take a maximum of 4 paperbacks that I’ll be happy to discard mid trip. I should add that I’ve also been making sure I have plenty of e-books available….

I need variety. Maybe one crime novel, maybe one ‘classic’ although some of those on my owned-but-unread shelves are rather bulky. I have six days to make up my mind. Based on previous experience the selections are going to change multiple times before the case is zipped for the last time.

How do you decide what books to take with you on a trip? Any recommendations for a strategy to help me make decisions.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

i am i amI Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an astonishing memoir, a celebration of the tenacity for which we cling to life while on the edge of death.

It chronicles 17 occasions when Maggie O’Farrell came close to death and how those experiences have shaped her outlook on life and her attitude towards her children.

Her close encounters with death began with the sudden onset of viral encephalitis at eight years old. It rendered her incapable of speech and robbed her of the ability to walk. Medical experts put her chances of full recovery at next to nothing. But they had not reckoned with this girl’s determination to beat the odds.

O’Farrell reflects that “a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”. And yet the evidence of this book speaks to the contrary. In the middle of a crisis, she often berates herself for having not thought more carefully about her actions. Was it wise, she wonders in hindsight,  to have taken that evening walk around a remote late in Chile (she was seized from behind by a thief who presses a machete against her throat)? Why had she trusted the holiday maker and tried to wade out to a diving platform in the Indian Ocean with her young son ( a non swimmer)? Why had she been the one to leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teenager?

What drives her actions is often her intense desire for freedom: to break free from all bonds.

It is an urge so strong, so all-encompassing that it overwhelms everything else. I cannot stand my life as it is. I cannot stand to be here, in this town, in this school. I have to get away.

In her quest for that freedom, O’Farrell becomes a risk taker. It’s as if, having survived once, she is determined forever after to stick two fingers up to death. To face it down.

Her life is one crammed to the brim with accidents, illness and frighteningly close calls. They include a haemorrhage during a too-long delayed cesarean section, amoebic dysentery picked up on holiday in China, a close encounter with a blindfolded circus knife-thrower, and a narrow escape from a murderer .

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is consequently built upon drama, piling one hair-raising moment on another. On a walk up a mountain she escapes from a murderer by prattling on about ducks; on a flight to Hong Kong the plane plummets; on holiday in France she fumbles desperately for the door lock when two strange men approach the car in which she is feeding her new born baby.

This book could easily have become little more than a litany of episodes but O’Farrell has this knack of balancing the drama with reflection as she looks to make sense of her extraordinary life.

It’s one in which she has had cause to be thankful for the vast array of medical practitioners she has encountered over the years. Mostly she recalls their kindnesses: the unknown man who held her hand while surgeons battled to save her life in a theatre awash with her blood. She never saw him again but recalls even now the touch of his hand. Or the nurse who refused to leave the consulting room where the young Maggie O’Farrell was seeing a pediatric specialist. Decades later she hears he has been revealed as a paedophile.

Her life continues to involve “a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors” but now it’s her daughter that requires emergency medical treatment. Born with a severe immune disorder this child can have between 12 and 15 severe anaphylactic shocks a year.  It means O’Farrell and her husband are constantly on the alert for any encounter that could trigger a reaction.

It’s this final section of the book that I found the most powerfull and compelling. It’s brim full of the anxiety she felt as a young mum faced with a small child who is covered head to toe in burning, itching, bleeding eczema. She shares her feelings of desolation and helplessness and how the desire to protect her daughter is overwhelming.

Ultimately this isn’t a book about death or danger. It’s about life and love. Though O’Farrell concedes that our life on life is fragile:

We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.

her book is really a message to her daughter that the human spirit is a resilient one. It can  meet with danger and endure trauma. And can still bounce back.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an intense reading experience. But it’s one that is the highlight of my year so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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