All the Good Things – Clare Fisher

I was trying to figure out how to tell him that earning £7 an hour was the opposite of fun. That having to smile all day at people, some of whom were rude, others of whom were nice, most of whom just looked through you as though you were a human shaped machine, emptied the ‘you’ out of you. That having £2 left over when you’ve paid your bills and bought your food and the odd drink in Wetherspoon’s doesn’t bring much relief, because what about next month? What if you get less shifts next month? What if you lose your Oyster Card? What if someone jacks your purse with your last £20? What if one of the soles you’ve been walking around for months with holes in finally falls off? What then?

21-year-old Beth is in prison. We meet her after her counsellor, Erica, has asked her to write a list of good things about herself. Beth’s response to this is to call it ‘retarded’; Fisher uses this as a way to quickly reveal both Beth and Erica’s personalities. Erica asks her to explain the use of the word, while Beth protests that she’s ‘not a retard’ becoming defensive. Once Erica begins to explain the word to her, there’s a glimpse of how scared and vulnerable Beth is.

Each chapter is titled with the good thing Beth is writing about, for example, chapter two is ‘Running until your body is a good place to be’ in which Beth reveals herself to a talented runner. Besides metaphorically, this can never come to anything because of course Beth’s mum and subsequent foster carers can’t afford to buy her good equipment, take her to meets and so on. But it is Beth’s behaviour which sees her thrown out of the school club. She relates times when she mimicked the coach in the changing room:

Behind me I heard a sad screech, like the ones cats make when you step on their tails. It was the coach she’d seen me […] I wanted to run out to the coach and tell her I was sorry and that my favourite way of falling asleep was to replay all the good things she’d said to me, but I’d never said anything like that to anyone, and I didn’t know how to start.

Each of Beth’s journal entries are written to her child who she no longer sees. On family days, she is the only inmate of the group she hangs around with who doesn’t have any visitors.

Fisher shows how the system fails vulnerable people. While teachers and social workers and foster carers do their best, there are cracks large enough for someone to fall through: what if someone decides fostering isn’t for them? What if a foster carer becomes ill? What if a social worker leaves and isn’t replaced immediately? What if a teacher tries to report something within their own school and is told it’s been resolved? By writing the novel in Beth’s voice, Fisher explores all of these things without it becoming a polemic. The reader sees and understands the things happening to Beth, even if Beth doesn’t fully understand the mechanisms herself.

Beth’s voice is convincing and also prevents Fisher from making the novel sentimental. The closest it comes is when Beth reads Of Mice and Men to one of the other inmates so she can talk to her teenage son about it, who’s studying it at school. It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking section of the book.

Some of Beth’s behaviour is bad and shocking but even at its worst, we can see what’s led to it. There’s a perfect metaphor for this towards the end of the book. Beth has attempted to run away from her life but, not knowing what else to do, she finds herself back on a train to London without a ticket.

‘No,’ I said. The part of me I lied with had run out. ‘No, I don’t have a ticket. I’ve never had one.’
‘But you have to,’ he said. ‘You have to get one before you board.’
‘I tried,’ I said. ‘I’ve been asking for one. My whole fucking life I’ve been asking. But they wouldn’t give one to me.’
The inspector raised his eyebrows and I wondered, was I meant to know him? Was he some uncle I didn’t remember?
That,’ he said, ‘I find very hard to believe. Leicester is well served for ticket offices.’
‘You don’t get it,’ I said, and at this point, I felt other people looking at me. I peered around the old man and yep, sure enough, the strangers in the next scene were looking up from their phones and their Kindles. ‘None of you do. You never will.’

All the Good Things is perfectly timed considering the state of the society we’re living in.

All the Good Things is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

Landyn and Vale Midwinter are a father and son united in grief but unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings to each other.

Ten years previously, Landyn had uprooted the family from Suffolk and taken them to Zambia. Money was tight and an advertisement titled ‘Farmers Wanted for a New Life in Africa’s Fertile Bread Basket’ seemed like a new start, a last chance to make a success of himself and provide for his family. What he couldn’t have anticipated was that the venture would result in the death of his wife and Vale’s mother, Cecelia.

51y6zivk-el

The family’s time in Zambia is told in flashbacks between the story of Landyn and Vale’s current life in Suffolk. The novel begins as Vale and his friend, Tom, try to make their way through cold water, drunk and in the dark, to the boat they’ve stolen.

Nothing prepared us and we lost each other just as soon as we hit the water. The gully beat us and beat us again. I was just struggling to breathe. Then I heard Tom choke and rasp, and suddenly felt a huge weight. I thought I was dying then, but I kept fighting. And I still don’t know why.

Vale has to deal with the consequences of the night’s events, consequences that will force him to confront the death of his mother too. But Vale’s a young man and he doesn’t know how he feels, never mind what to do with these feelings:

Sometimes I just got angry when I should have been worried or upset. It was like I only knew one way to feel stuff. Ma would have asked, ‘What is it you’re really feeling love.’ And then I would realise I was sad or mostly, afraid. Afraid of all kinds of things, like looking stupid or failing at something. I tried to ask myself questions that Ma would ask but it wasn’t the same. She would have taught me to find a way through.

The novel’s narrated in alternate chapters by Vale and Landyn. Melrose uses this to show us the similarities between the two characters and explore why they’re finding it so difficult to communicate. The answers to this lie in the circumstances of Cecelia’s death – circumstances for which Vale blames his father – and in the unspoken, longstanding masculine code which prevents men from sharing their feelings with each other. These two things create the tension which runs throughout the book and which spills over into violence at several points.

The events of the novel are played out against the landscape, whether in Zambia or in Suffolk. Melrose treats nature as an additional character using the water, the land and the animals to place the reader in the natural world and show us how the characters relate to it. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of Landyn who is haunted by a vixen he believes is Cecelia:

If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around. So we allow the thing that haunts us to take up home with us and then, the magic happens.

Midwinter is a taut, tense, beautifully crafted debut. Melrose cuts to the core of masculinity, convincingly portraying a number of men dealing with catastrophic life events. Highly recommended.

 

If you’re interested in discovering more about Midwinter, I’ll have an interview with Fiona Melrose up tomorrow.

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Queens, New York, 1965. Ruth Malone’s been a single parent to Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, since she split from their father, Frank, a year ago.

Ruth knew she should be proud of these kids. She should be proud of herself, bringing them up practically alone. They had toys and books, their clothes were neat and clean, they ate vegetables for dinner every night. They were safe here. It was a friendly neighbourhood: when they climbed out of their window back in the spring, an old lady brought them home before Ruth even knew they were gone.

Earlier in the evening before the children go missing and this time aren’t returned, she has an increasingly desperate telephone conversation with her lawyer, which ends with, ‘He can’t have the kids. He can’t have them. I’d rather see them dead than with Frank’. The fact that the children also disappear from their bedroom, which was locked from the outside, makes Ruth a suspect.

When she knows the police are on their way to begin the search, Ruth touches up her make-up and changes her clothes.

‘She knew that there would be men, strangers, looking at her, asking questions. Their eyes all over her like hands. She had to be ready for them. She had to look right.’

9781509826575little20deaths
Initially the police assume Ruth’s hidden the children as some sort of punishment for Frank but then Sergeant Devlin, the man in charge of the investigation, details the times the police have visited Ruth’s apartment for noise complaints and the count of public intoxication they have on record for her. They go through Ruth’s bins and find ‘nine or ten empty bottles. Gin. Bourbon. Wine’ and then there’s the case under her bed:

A waterfall of postcard, letters, cards. He picked them up one by one and read the signatures. Dozens of them. All from men. Some from Frank, before they were married. A year’s worth from Johnny Salcito. A few from Lou Gallagher, going back to March or April. And some from other men, men she could barely remember.

Just like that, Ruth’s on trial for being a woman who doesn’t fulfil the patriarchy agreed role of angelic mother.

The other angle of the story comes from Pete Wonicke, a rookie journalist at The Herald who’s desperate for a big story. A combination of persistence and timing means he’s assigned to Ruth’s story at the point when the children are reported missing. Initially Flint uses this take to show how the press portray Ruth, focusing on her appearance and her lifestyle, but eventually it becomes more than that:

He wanted to know what she was like, what kind of woman this terrible thing could happen to. He knew that logically Ruth Malone was the same person she had been three months ago, just with a layer of grief and horror – but when tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to assume that someone is different. Special. That there’s something about them that makes them the kind of person bad things can happen to. Because the alternative – that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time – is unthinkable.

Wonicke becomes obsessed with Ruth, believing he’s her white knight because, of course, a woman in distress is always in need of a man to save her.

Flint uses Ruth’s case to explore the double standards men and women are held to: she shows that several men connected to Ruth could be responsible for the children’s disappearance but they’re never considered suspects. Ruth’s guilty for not grieving in the correct way, for drinking, for having lovers, for not upholding the illusion of the perfect wife and mother. Of course, it’s not just the men that believe she should be meeting agreed criteria, it’s also many of the women who comment on the case, who’ve internalised the misogyny they’re exposed to on a daily basis.

Little Deaths impresses in a number of ways: the writing’s crisp and precise; Flint allows the reader access to Ruth’s thoughts, which make an interesting counterpoint to the views of those who watch but don’t really see her, and although the reader is aware of the outcome from the opening pages of the book, Flint’s plot grips as you try to work out how on earth Ruth could be found guilty and if she didn’t do it, who did?

I’ve seen some reviews which are critical of the ending of the novel. I suspect this is a matter of taste. Flint chooses to resolve the case and does so with what seems to me to be the most plausible scenario. That brings into question whether or not it needed to be stated explicitly, that depends on a reader’s preference for an open or closed ending. However, the way in which it’s revealed could be seen to be stretching the bounds of possibility although it’s not implausible. Whichever way your preferences lie, it’s a minor quibble with an impressive debut novel. Emma Flint is one to watch.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

Books of the Year 2016, Part Two

Yesterday I revealed my pre-2016 published fiction and 2016 non-fiction books of the year. Today it’s turn the of the 2016 fiction list and what an absolute corker of a year it’s been. (It needed to be to make up for the dire straits that is real life.) I’ve read and reviewed lots of good books so I’ve been very strict for this list and only included books I thought were superb and would happily re-read again and again. Click on the book covers to take you to my full reviews.

4627425830The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

If you’ve read my review or follow me on Twitter, it’ll be no surprise that this is my Book of the Year. Set over the course of a year, newly widowed Cora Seabourne decamps from London to Essex with her companion, Martha, and her withdrawn, unusual son, Francis. There she encounters two things which will change her life: the legend of the Essex Serpent, apparently returned and killing man and beast, and local reverend Will Ransome, who’s more modern in his thinking than Cora expects and is quite a match for her intellectually. With themes of science and religion, love and friendship this book is as smart as it is engaging. I didn’t read this book, I lived inside it. Pure joy.

 

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Eily leaves Ireland for London and drama school, determined to lose her virginity. When she does, it’s with Stephen, a relatively famous actor, who she assumes she’ll never see again. Of course it’s only a matter of weeks before she does and, despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight, a relationship, of sorts, begins. Over the course of a year in the 1980s, Eily and Stephen fall in and out of love and Stephen reveals his dark past. Written in a similar staccato, interior style to her debut, McBride places the reader in Eily’s head and we live out the year with her. Superb.

 
martin-john-final-300x460
Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in John’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing. An unusual subject told in an experimental, circular style, this really does linger long after you’ve finished reading it.

9781781256381


Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways due to their different cultural backgrounds – although all of their issues fall under the banner of patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives, loves and friendships.

 

 

6e5bc-humanacts

 

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium, listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify and moving through a number of narrative voices, including the body of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae. Shocking, violent and eyeopening.

 

 

coverMy Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. When Tina, the neighbour, calls social services, Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home. Heart breaking and precise, de Waal nails a child’s perspective, writing convincingly about a situation not often covered in literature.

9780349007601

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

1889. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There we find Jeanne Trabuc, wife of Charles – ‘The Major’ – the warden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, hospital for the mentally ill. A new patient arrives, an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh. Jeanne strikes up a friendship with the artist which becomes a catalyst for her long hidden feelings about her life. A wonderful novel about marriage – how it changes over time, how you can never really know someone even after thirty years – and the power of art to change the way you view the world.

 

41v1xghshpl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

 

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a wonderful character: a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour. A gem.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2ff48fd942-916d-11e6-91d4-91c7eaaf09d6


The Power – Naomi Alderman

A male academic, living in a matriarchy, writes a book about how women gained power – personally, through an electric current which becomes live in their bodies, and politically. The story follows three women: Roxy, a gangster’s daughter; Margot, a mayor, and Allie, an abused foster daughter, as they overturn their situations and begin to run the world. All of this is documented by a male journalist, Tunde, the first to capture the power on camera. Violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse, this is indeed a powerful read.

 

91vnpzx7dal

 

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

24-year-old Eileen lives at home with her cruel, ex-cop father. She works at the juvenile detention centre where she fancies one of the prison guards who never acknowledges her existence. The week before Christmas, 1964, Rebecca Saint John arrives at the institution to be the first ever director of education. She takes a shine to Eileen and Eileen’s life takes a very dark turn indeed.

 

510ryhmdeel-_sy344_bo1204203200_If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa 

Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. Dealing with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures, the tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise.

dodgeandburncover


Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen

An exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction. Framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund, the story of her childhood and subsequent trip is told mostly through her notebooks. Virtually imprisoned as part of a social experiment by Dr Vargas, Lund’s childhood was an unusual one which ended when her sister disappeared. This is the story of her search for Camille. A welcome addition to the cult fiction genre, reclaiming something from generations of male writers. Hurrah!

Books of the Year 2016, Part One

As usual I’m dividing my Books of the Year into two parts. Part Two, coming tomorrow will be fiction published in 2016. Part One is fiction published pre-2016 and 2016 non-fiction. If you click on the pictures of the books they will take you to my full review.

WL PBK FINALWaking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green finishes a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits a man and leaves him for dead. The next morning, Sirkit, the man’s wife, appears at his door along with Etian’s wallet which he dropped at the scene. Sirkit offers him a deal but it’s one that will have serious consequences for his home life and his job. Everything in Waking Lions is grey area. Sharp, thoughtful and challenging.

7016625Push – Sapphire

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father. Suspended from school, she goes to Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. Precious tells the story of her time attending the group, in which she learns to read and write, intertwined with that of her family situation. Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination and Sapphire’s rendering of Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and authentic.

getimage239-669x1024.aspxOne Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg go on the run after Feinberg is caught having sex with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer. The deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s, sends the pair to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain. But Markovitch refuses to divorce his wife, the stunning but cold, Bella Zeigerman. The backbone of the story is that of three women: Bella; Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, and Mandelbaum’s wife, Rachel. Gundar-Goshen uses them to explore the ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here.

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen kills Robbie O’Donovan when she finds him in her house. As the mother of Cork’s biggest gangster, Jimmy Phelan, she doesn’t need to worry about clearing up her mess. But the mess is bigger than a body and some blood: Robbie’s girlfriend, Georgie, is looking for him and she has problems of her own; Tara Duane, Georgie’s confidant is keen to know everyone’s business and she lives next door to Jimmy’s alcoholic clearer-upper, Tony Cusak. And then there’s Cusak’s son, fifteen-year-old Ryan, who loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. A bloody entertaining read.

24902492
Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Ruby’s returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City. Everyone knows she’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which have attached themselves to her. As she gives herself to them, we learn about her childhood and the long-standing relationship she has with Jennings’ family. Bleak but threaded with hope and beautiful writing.

 

9781444775433The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position, finds himself in the Marshalsea for unpaid rent and other debts. He arrives after the widow of Captain Roberts has taken up residence in the debtor’s  prison after Robert’s murder made to look like suicide. Hawkins gets drawn into solving the murder as he deals with his roommate, the despised Samuel Fleet, and the prison’s regime, divided by rich and poor. Intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. Entertaining.

 
9781846689499Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. As a middle class, politically aware area, it also holds political power, a power which has become legendary over four decades. The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre. Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power.

51rxujxkrdl-_sx333_bo1204203200_
Negroland – Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family. Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities. Negroland is a superb book which consider the intersections of race, class and gender. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society.

1000x2000
The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour. It explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth. Rigorous and fascinating.

4624860241_202x323
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Laing examines the idea of being lonely in the busiest place on earth – the city, specifically in her case New York City. Part memoir, part mediation on art, Laing looks at a number of artists who’ve dealt with the theme of loneliness – in their work and often in their private lives too – focusing in on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The Lonely City is a fascinating exploration of what loneliness is; how we attempt to stave it off; why some people are consumed by it, and what its relationship to artistic creation might be.

 

Fiction Round-Up

There are some books that, for a range of reasons, I read but just didn’t get around to reviewing in full this year. Because I’d like to start the new year without a pile of books I haven’t reviewed yet glaring at me I thought I’d do a couple of round-ups instead. Today it’s fiction, later in the week will be non-fiction.

la_boca_tvf_04_12_2015-4-618x1024

The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson

In 1914, Gerty Freely moves from Cornwall to Moscow and becomes a governess. Narrated in Gerty’s old age from the house in Hackney where she lived with her husband until his death sixth months previously, The Vanishing Futurist tells a story of the Russian Revolution through Gerty’s involvement with Nikita Slavin and the commune they establish with friends. We know from the prologue that Slavin, an inventor, disappeared in January 1919. The official story is that he left in an invention of his own making but Gerty reveals the truth. A smart and ultimately heart-breaking novel about the price of freedom from social norms.

speak-by-louisa-hall

Speak – Louisa Hall

Five voices tell the story of the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn, incarcerated in Texas State Correctional Institution, tells of how he designed babybots to help children with their speech. The babybots were programmed to respond to the things their owner told them, storing details in their memory. In transcripts from Chinn’s trial, we meet Gaby Ann White who talks to the voice of a former babybot called Mary3. Through the discussion we learn about the bond these children developed with their babybots before they were taken from them. In 1968, Karl Dettman writes to his wife, Ruth, who is using the computer he’s designed, called Mary, as a child substitute, causing tension in their marriage. The fourth voice are letters from Alan Turing which chart his friendship with Chris Morcom and his thoughts regarding Artificial Intelligence. Finally there’s The Diary of Mary Bradford, a pilgrim girl from the 1660s, which Ruth Dettman is editing – and has named her husband’s voice activated computer programme after. Hall weaves the five voices together showing a society both enamoured with and frightened of AI. A superb novel which should have garnered far more attention than it has.

big_lie_b_pb3

The Big Lie – Julie Mayhew

A counterfactual novel in which the Nazis have won World War Two and the UK is part of the Greater German Reich. Jessika Keller is the daughter of a high-ranking official, loyal to the state and a promising ice skater. When Jess is seven, the Hart family move onto her street and their daughter, Clementine, becomes her best friend. But Clementine and her family aren’t like the Kellers. Clementine is a rebel and soon her attitude starts to have an effect on Jess. And what would happen in a right-wing state if Jess were to fall in love with the wrong person? Beautifully written and all the more chilling considering current world events.

isbn9781472151865-detail

LaRose – Louise Erdrich

LaRose begins with Landreaux accidentally shooting dead his neighbour’s young son. Following traditional example, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, send their young son, LaRose, to live with their neighbours in place of the dead son. LaRose not only tells the story of the fallout of the death, the switch and the impact on both families, it tells the families’ backstories. There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years. We follow the story of Emmaline’s ancestor LaRose and discover the relationship between Landreaux and Romeo Puyat, who used to be classmates and now despise each other. A complex, engrossing, family/community saga that explores how earlier generations affect and influence the present.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f58260864-2e22-11e6-bb4a-bf8353b79a10

The Girls – Emma Cline

No doubt you’ve already heard of Emma Cline’s debut The Girls. Set in California in 1969, Cline details the summer when her narrator Evie becomes enamoured with a group of girls and becomes part of a cult. This leads to an encounter with a Manson-like figure. The summer and adolescence are well-captured. Evie rebels against her mother, pushing boundaries at home, as well as legally, in her desire to be part of an adult world she doesn’t understand. However, Cline inserts chapters told in a present day in which Evie is staying at a friend’s apartment with her friend’s son and his girlfriend. This gives Evie the opportunity to reflect upon what happened in 1969, commenting on some of the behaviour displayed by the two young adults she finds herself living with. Not only are these chapters not as vivid and atmospheric as those from Evie’s adolescence but knowing Evie survives to middle-age also serves to undercut the tension of the 1969 scenes. Cline’s a writer with a promising future but The Girls fails to live up to its promise.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber, Orbit, HotKey Books, Corsair and Chatto & Windus for the review copies.

Interview with Anakana Schofield

In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.

3744

Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?

In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.

The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.

The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.

The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of  clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.

I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.

The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?

The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.

In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.

It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.

The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?

We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.

There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.

I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.

What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.

martin-john-final-300x460

The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?

I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.

I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.

I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?

It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.

I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive  sentences.

How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.

And what a shortlist!

I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.

The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific,  Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.

I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.

I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!

Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.

 

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things.

Remember those heady days when you set off for university? Young, fresh, desperate to see the world and all it had to offer? Eily has left Ireland for London and drama school. She’s intoxicated by the city:

Get out at Barbican.

Her first into the salient wind, fists of grasping hair. Me blinking the grit over the bridge and after her. Brick and towers. Lour and paint. Here’s nowhere like any life I’ve learned. Even going under, it goes on up. She’s saying how it’s ugly and I think not. I think it is Metropolis.

It’s also her introduction to drink, drugs and, she hopes, sex. Despite her Irish landlady who doesn’t allow her to have men in her room and complains constantly about her using all the hot water, Eily sets out to lose her virginity.

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

She meets Stephen when the ash from his cigarette drops onto her hand as they’re standing at the bar in a busy pub. He’s a relatively famous actor, although she doesn’t know that. They have some tetchy discussions about reading Dostoyevsky, love and youth and Eily lies to him about how much travelling she’s done.

When they go back to his and begin to undress, she begins to worry about what she’s about to do: ‘But Oh my God, I just Oh God, exhale. Ah now Ireland too much shame.’ He attempts to ally her fears, acknowledges it’s her first time and gains her consent.

Kissing then sloping me, shifting his weight Ready? Yes. And he. Jesus Christ! No don’t pull away. It hurts. I know but it’s not quite in yet. I can’t. You can, just let me, he says It’ll never be as bad again. How do you fucking know? Educated guess. Then Oh fuck, he goes That’s it. And he is all against me. And he is inside. Attempting to kiss through a pain running wild from his body into mine. I bite my own lip and stare above. Ceiling swirls there. Cracks. Worlds beyond the pain not improving. Now. Or now. Or yet. I wish I hadn’t. I’d never done this. I wish he didn’t know.

It ends badly but he convinces her to stay the night. When she leaves the next morning, she doesn’t look back, choosing instead to remember how much she loves London: ‘This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily, I am in it now too’.

What Eily doesn’t bank on is seeing Stephen again, this time in the National Theatre, where he makes a beeline for her and convinces her to leave before the play’s over. Despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight – a relationship, of sorts, begins.

Remember this moment. I will remember this because, even though this morning’s not much of his life, it’s very much of mine. Whatever happens, nothing will be the same after and nothing will be like it again.

The novel’s narrated by Eily in a similar style to the one McBride used in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, although I think this is generally less staccato than her debut. Sentences are rhythmic and sometimes rhyme, with echoes of Shakespeare built into some of the phrases. However, at the mid-point of the book, Stephen delivers a monologue, in straight prose, telling Eily (and the reader) the full horror of his childhood. He has some dark secrets which he’s never shared before. It seems fitting that McBride chose a monologue for him, as he’s the type of character who would have to tell all in one go or not at all.

Events in both Stephen and Eily’s lives bring into question memory and individual viewpoints, of people choosing what to see and what to remember. McBride explores the damage the past can do to the present through Stephen and Eily’s behaviour and the constantly changing status of their relationship.

In a recent review of the novel in The New York Times, Jeanette Winterson commented:

There’s endless sex in this novel. If the writing were terrible, we’d be in “Fifty Shades” territory. But McBride is good at describing heterosexual sex because she doesn’t describe it in the usual ways…

Well, of course there’s lots of sex, this is a couple in the early days of their relationship. But I don’t think McBride’s success in writing about sex is merely down to the style of the writing, it’s also because she writes sex that’s messy and real. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s a bedsit in Camden and a thousand other rooms around the world.

I feel similarly about The Lesser Bohemians as I did The Essex Serpent; I didn’t read this novel, I lived inside its pages. McBride has a rare talent for placing you inside the character, seeing what they see, feeling how they feel. I was filled with joy and wrenched apart again and again; it was exhausting and exhilarating. I revelled in it. On the back of the book, there’s a quote from Anne Enright in which she declares Eimear McBride ‘a genius’, she’ll get no argument from me.

 

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

Pimp State – Kat Banyard

The second week of my coverage of books by women appearing at Jersey Festival of Words focuses on non-fiction. It’s not often I choose to read non-fiction books but I always enjoy them when I do. Note to self: read non-fiction more often.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 13.53.14

The first book I’m reviewing is Pimp State by Kat Banyard, founder of the campaign group UK Feminista and, according to The Guardian in 2010, ‘the most influential young feminist in the country’. She appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 3pm in the Opera House, where she will be joined by former sex worker, Diane Martins, for a discussion about Pimp State. Tickets are available here.

‘While we have the demand for prostitution not being addressed we cannot achieve gender equality,’ insists Madlala-Routledge. ‘Men who buy sex don’t regard the woman as a whole human being. Basically they regard her as an object – something that’s available to them for their satisfaction for the money…So basically that says to us this can’t be somebody you treat as an equal, this can’t be somebody you treat as having dignity, as being a whole human being, for you to actually treat them like that or think of them like that.’

Banyard makes the focus of her book clear from the outset:

A pimp state – a society where commercial sexual exploitation is promoted, not prevented – is not one where women and men can live as equals.

It is a state that we can – and must – change.

She draws links within the first few pages between the sex trade and ‘society’s notions of sexual consent, violence and equality’ which she explores further in the six chapters of the book, chapters which she titles ‘Myth 1’ to ‘Myth 6’.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2ff8553cc6-2f0b-11e6-a5c2-7b913168177e

The six myths Banyard unpicks are: demand for the sex trade is inevitable; being paid for sex is regular service work; porn is fantasy; objecting to the sex trade makes you a pearl-clutching, sexually conservative prude; decriminalise the entire prostitution trade and you make women safe, and resistance is futile.

In Myth 1, Banyard looks at the different areas of the sex trade – prostitution, lap-dancing clubs, pornography – and speaks to women who have worked in these areas as well as the men who’ve used them. Interspersed throughout the chapter are reviews culled from a website called ‘Punternet’ where men leave comments about the sex workers they’ve visited. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that they’re grim at best.

Throughout the book, Banyard talks to people who’ve worked in the sex trade, who’ve run elements of the sex trade, who’ve policed the sex trade, who’ve studied the sex trade in an academic context. Parts of it are horrifying. Some of it is very interesting, particularly when she writes about countries where ‘The Sex Buyer Law’ has been introduced.

For me, the section that had me asking the most questions was Myth 2, where Banyard considers the term ‘sex work’, which has become the preferred lexis in recent years. She questions the adoption of the term by a number of international organisations and then gives us the following paragraph:

So if ‘sex work is work’, then presumably if an airline company requires all its female flight attendants to offer male passengers blow-jobs, as well as drinks and snacks, that’s all right? What about City firms stipulating that female employees must have sex with male clients as part of their corporate entertaining duties? OK? How about when a male boss asks his female secretary to give him a blow-job? It’s the kind of scenario feminists have spent decades working to get recognised as sexual harassment. But, I guess, if this is ordinary work then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description?

It’s an interesting – and a provocative – link supporting the line of argument Banyard takes throughout: How we respond to the core message of the sex trade speaks volumes about how seriously society takes violence against all women. She then invokes legal experts to explain the connotations of sex work becoming a recognised, legal profession. Here she focuses on the rights of the buyer to a ‘good service’ and how, as a worker required to pay tax, a sex worker’s body would be owned by both the buyer and the state.

Banyard’s foci gave me an insight into elements of the sex trade of which I was previously unaware. Her links between domestic/sexual violence and the sex trade are compelling and supported by detailed research, as is her support of The Sex Buyer Law. In general terms, I agree with the points she puts forward but one thing has bothered me since finishing the book: there are no dissenting views considered from a single woman at the front of the sex trade (I’m not including those in ‘management’ roles in this definition i.e. brothel owners). If every sex worker agrees with Banyard’s arguments – even if they would rather not declare it publicly – then fine, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of those sex workers who have embraced the term sex work and want their job to be legalised.

Pimp State is a well-argued, detailed look at the sex trade and its consequences. The fact that some of those consequences are far more wide-reaching than it might seem at first glance make this book a must read and discuss. I’m very much looking forward to Kat Banyard’s event and hearing more about her work.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

When the Sky Fell Apart – Caroline Lea

When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. Like the stink when Claudine had once tried to burn Maman’s old wool blankets because they had itched.

Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks.

When the Sky Fell Apart begins as the Second World War reaches Jersey. First come the bombers and then comes the occupation. It’s told through the eyes of four characters: ten-year-old, Claudine; Edith, a herbalist; Dr. Carter, an English doctor who remains on the island, and Maurice, a fisherman.

lea_sky_rgb

Claudine is clever in a family suspicious of intelligence. Her father goes to fight in the war while her mother struggles to survive, never mind look after her children. Claudine, according to Edith is ‘thin-faced, sallow and ill-kempt. Wild, knotted hair and a torn boys’ trousers and a boys’ shirt – grubby around the collar’. Claudine befriends a German soldier, a move that leads her into a terrible situation.

When Clement Hacquoil, the butcher, burns on the beach, Edith arrives to help. She sends for the doctor but it’s one of her ‘legendary’ potions which revives him. The locals seem to be torn between those who are thankful for her concoctions and those who call her a witch and believe she has ‘the devil’s magic in her fingers’. Edith was widowed in the First World War and has lived alone since. She’s the straight-talking main character and provides an insight into other characters as an astute reader of people.

Dr. Carter is one of the people who comes to rely on Edith, seeing her as a support to his work, not a hindrance. Carter’s the character with a dark secret from the outset. When the bombs begin to fall and a large number of women and children arrive at the hospital looking for sanctuary, he faces them

He held up his hands and quelled the first quiver of fear in his gut by reminding himself of the sensation of the ruler slapping down on his palms if his hands had ever trembled as a boy.

The sacrifices Carter makes throughout the war take an incredible toil on him. His story is a particularly fascinating element of the novel.

Finally, Maurice. He’s stayed to care for his wife, Marthe. She has the degenerative disease Huntingdon’s Chorea and Maurice feels he can’t leave her with anyone else after he discovers her carer has been going out and leaving her alone for hours and because he fears the Germans finding her and sending her to a concentration camp.

But he knew he must stop the fishing when he came home and she’d spilled a pan of boiling water down her legs. She was rubbing at them – perhaps she had thought that might take the pain. But her skin was peeling off in her hands where the hot water had blistered it. Translucent pairings of flesh, like white petals, which she threw to the floor, while underneath, her blood – so much blood.

As the novel progresses, all four characters’ lives will become entwined and they’ll need each other if they have any hope of survival.

When the Sky Fell Apart is an engaging look at the occupation of Jersey. Lea considers the way the locals are treated and what they do to survive – from stealing and hiding to becoming ‘Jerry Bags’ to working for the Germans. All of the characters’ stories have dark elements to them although Lea’s style and tone prevents the novel from being the bleak piece it could easily have been. My only criticism is that Edith is often referred to as ‘old’ when she must be all of fifty. However, without giving anything away, there’s a glimpse of a much more youthful version of her as the story progresses. Over all, When the Sky Fell Apart is a good read and if, like me, you know little about the German occupation of Jersey, an interesting introduction to it.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 13.53.14

Caroline Lea appears with Simon Scarrow at Jersey Arts Centre at 11.45am, Sunday 2nd October, 2016. Tickets are available here.