The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

We’re sometime in the future where the world is split into landlockers and those who live on the sea.

In a world that is almost entirely sea, placing your feet on land was a privilege that must be earned.

We follow two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, performing Restings for the dead. She lives on a tiny island by the graceyard.

‘That’s the choice…Here or there. Dampling or landlocker. Sea or land. Man or woman. But this is something different. Don’t you see? We made our homes on the sea and on the land. We can stay here in the graceyards and be nothing. I mean, be neither.’

This choice over land or sea becomes key for both women. Callanish has chosen the graceyard over land as penance for a mistake. North is tied to the sea and the circus but Red Gold, owner of the circus and father of North’s fiancé, Ainsel, wants to buy them a house on land and restore his family’s former glory as landlockers.

There are two problems with this from North’s point of view: neither North nor Ainsel actually want to marry each other and North hates being on land:

Red Gold carried on a steady stream of exclamations as the three of them followed the gangway up from the port, their leather shoes soft on the wooden slats. The tin-sided towers looked more ramshackle than ever, the waves slapping at their bases. North could not understand why anyone would choose to live there. The crew called the landlockers ‘clams’ for their brainless need to cling to the shore. Was the desire to be near land so overwhelming that people would accept these shoddy homes, hoping that over the years they could creep gradually closer to the centre of the island? Soil was dirty, and it smelled; North wanted nothing more than to be away from it.

There’s also a third problem, Red Gold’s wife, Avalon. Avalon’s pregnant and desperate to bring her child up on land so she’s not exactly pleased when she discovers her husband’s decided to use the money she though he was saving to buy them a house on his elder son and fiancé. And it’s North who’s going to pay.

When people are cruel it’s often said that they have no heart, only a cold space or lump of ice in their chest. This was never true of Avalon. She had no heart, everyone knew, but there was nothing cold about her. In her chest burned an enormous coal, white-hot, brighter than the North Star. North knew the truth about Avalon: she was made of fire, and she would burn them all.

Unfortunately for North, she’s also somewhat of an easy target. This is largely due to her circus act which she performs with her bear. It’s this which makes her – and Circus Excalibur – special: there are many circuses on the sea but only one with a bear-girl. They kiss and dance while Red Gold plays up the bear’s ferociousness, but North sleeps in his arms in her coracle as it floats on the sea at night. North also has something in common with Avalon – she’s pregnant – but as the novel begins only she knows it and only she knows who the father is.

Callanish’s story is a little more straightforward. She lives at the graceyard, tending to the birds and performing Restings. She sometimes rows over to the next gracekeeper, Odell, but mostly her life is dictated by the sea and by death.

Callanish and North’s paths cross when one of the circus members dies and they need a Resting to be performed. Callanish is waiting for a delivery of graces following a lengthy storm, so the circus has to remain by the graceyard overnight. Both North and Callanish are unable to sleep and end up talking under the moonlight. Callanish reveals that she knows about North’s baby and North tells her how the pregnancy occurred, a confession that will bind the two women. But both of them have other things to deal with before they can meet again.

The Gracekeepers is a wonderful novel for several reasons: the world which Logan creates is fully realised. The suggestion that most of us will be living on the sea whilst only the rich can afford to stay on the land chimes with current developments in society. Callanish’s graceyard and the isolation of her job, her state of mind and of her location is convincing and weirdly appealing – is it just me who’d love to live in a cottage on a tiny isolated island? The job’s not so cheery but on balance… And the circus, oh the circus is just magical. (Those of you who read the blog regularly/follow me on Twitter know about my circus obsession so please excuse me while I gush over this one.)

The circus has acrobats – Sometimes they said they were siblings, sometimes a long-married couple. – a maypole – the pole, their hair, their bodies, all wrapped tight so the crowd couldn’t tell which were girls and which were boys, so they were all girlboygirls – a horse show, a fire-breather, glamours and clowns, and, of course, North and her bear.

Slowly, slowly, she used her hidden razor blade to slit the front of her dress…North stood, and she was not a she.

Her body fitted the silhouette of a boy’s. Her small breasts, her growing belly: all wrapped tight, all padded and bound in white. Her body gleamed like a marble statue. The styled tumble of her dark hair, now that the crowd looked more closely , seemed more like the mane of an unkempt boy. Blink and she’s a girl. Blink again and he’s a boy. Once more he turns to a she, right in front of your eyes.

Logan infuses it all with colour and the illusion of decadence. She also uses the circus and its place on the margins of society to explore ideas about gender and identity.

The circus, the exploration of gender and outward appearance and the touches of magic realism allow for easy comparisons with the work of Angela Carter. Ideas about climate change and the hint of dystopia lead to a mention of Margaret Atwood. But The Gracekeepers is more that the sum of those two writers; Kirsty Logan is a talent of her own, a very special writer indeed and I love spending time in the worlds she creates. I can’t wait to see where she’ll take me next.

(If you haven’t read Kirsty Logan’s short story collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, you really should. Click on the title for my review.)

 

Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.

All This Has Nothing To Do With Me – Monica Sabolo (translated by Georgina Collins)

All This Has Nothing To Do With Me begins with the following paragraph, underneath which is a photograph of the Titanic leaving Southampton:

The first section of our analysis will focus upon the pathological phenomenon ‘blind love’. We will see how an individual can be unexpectedly struck down by this tenacious illness, even though that same person has so far been progressing artlessly yet confidently through life. Scientifically speaking it is noteworthy, even poignant, to identify some of the early indicators of the disaster ahead. These intrinsic signs ignite like warnings written in letters of fire, and yet the individual passes hastily by with the innocent smile of a child being led to the sacrificial altar.

On the following page, we see an extract from an email, sent by ‘MS’ to her friend Alexandra M. MS says she’s offered the job of editor of the film section to a young man who came to the interview wearing a cravat. She thinks this is ‘quirky’. The next email extract tells us:

P.S. He’s been given the desk right opposite mine.
If I stretch out my legs I can touch his feet.

There is a diagram of the office on the opposite page so we can view this for ourselves.

The first section of the book continues with the story of MS and XX falling into a relationship. Initially, they go for a series of drinks which MS documents through notes and photographs of his cigarette lighters which she keeps stealing. When he leaves a book on her desk, she includes extracts and letters she writes to the (dead) author. Amongst the transcribed text messages, meetings and photographs, there are also short pieces about ideas and states such as omens and happiness; an extract from an article about the Titanic, and on-going analysis of the state of the relationship.

By the end of the first section of the novel, MS is writing to Facebook and a mobile telephone provider requesting information:

Secondly, can your site alert a user to an abnormally increased consultation rate of his or her profile by the same person? And if so, what are the defined thresholds of abnormality?

It seems to be a well-known fact that errors sometimes occur in the delivery of the aforementioned [SMS] messages. For personal reasons, I would be very grateful if you could send me statistics outlining the frequency of this occurrence.

The middle section of the book takes what initially appears to be an abrupt turn. It tells the story of Ambra , age nineteen, meeting Alessandro F. Two months later, he leaves his three months pregnant wife and their young daughter to live with Ambra only to leave her and return to his family when she is three months pregnant. The daughter she gives birth to is Monica. As in the first section, events are analysed as well as reported and there are family photos and diagrams included.

The final section documents the end of MS and XX’s relationship but also interweaves the continuing story of Ambra. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions as to how one set of events might have affected the other.

All This Has Nothing To Do With Me reminded me of the work of Leanne Shapton and Sheila Heti. As Sabolo uses her own initials and owns the copyright of most of the photographs, we are led to question whether this is an autobiographical work. XX could be used to ensure the other parties anonymity or because this person is a creation, a character who could be just one person or who is designed to represent anyone MS or the reader could have had a disastrous relationship with. Sabolo deliberately blurs the lines to push the reader to consider how they curate their own life. What do our photographs, our letters, electronic communications, diary entries tell other people about us? How might we analyse our behaviour?

At fewer than 150 pages, All This Has Nothing To Do With Me is a slim volume with a lot of story and a lot of ideas packed into it. The use of a variety of forms and media mean that it is continually fascinating and entertaining. This winner of the Prix de Flore is well worth the couple of hours it will take you to read it and the many more you will spend thinking about it.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

She would like to believe Thomas, to think that the country as a whole will one day re-wild, whatever its new manmade divisions created at the ballot box. She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border.

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation. As the novel begins she’s about to make her first visit to England in six years:

She is being called upon to entertain a rich man’s whimsy, a man who owns almost a fifth of her home county. And her mother is dying. Neither duty is urgent; both players will wait, with varying degrees of patience.

She attempts to visit the rich man first – Thomas Pennington, Earl of Annerdale – but, after arriving late due to a delayed flight, is forced to return the following day. Then, Pennington takes Rachel on a tour of his estate to show her the enclosure barrier, the one in which he intends to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to Britain.

Above the moorland and trees, the Lakeland mountains castle. Above the crags, sky, occluded clouds. As a child, the territory seemed so wild that anything might be possible. The moors were endless, haunting; they hid everything and gave up secrets only intermittently – an orchid fluting in a bog, a flash of blue wing, some phantom, long-boned creature, caught for a moment against the horizon before disappearing. Only the ubiquitous sheep tamed the landscape. She did not know it then, but in reality, it was a kempt place, cultivated, even the high grasslands covering the fells was manmade. Though it formed her notions of beauty, true wilderness lay elsewhere.

Pennington wants Rachel to manage the enclosure but she sees the wolves living in captivity as a step backwards from her work on the Idaho reservation and declines. She returns to America, telling her colleague, Kyle:

It’s a good scheme. But a mad hope and glory project – he wants to re-wild, eventually…Britain has a history of wealthy eccentrics who love grand schemes, especially if they can be named after themselves. They think they can do whatever they want. Maybe they can – a few handshakes with old-school friends in Parliament and off they go. It’s not like here.

But, following a drunken one-night stand with Kyle at their New Year’s Eve party, she realises she’s pregnant and accepts Pennington’s offer.

The novel then follows her through the reintroduction of a pair of Grey Wolves; her decision over the baby, and her relationship with her brother, all played out during the lead-up to the Scottish referendum.

The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. Hall explores how these borders change people:

She doesn’t want a baby. She has never wanted a baby. A baby would be ridiculous. But how can she describe the feeling? The strange interest in it all, now that the situation pertains to her specifically. The mercurial days: fatal mornings when she is sure she wants rid of it, nights when the certainty evaporates and she imagines. It’s as if some rhythm – circadian, immune, hormonal, she does not know what exactly – waxes and wanes and, with it, her rational mind.

There’s so much about this book that’s impressive; Hall’s writing is obviously the key to it all, her sentences are precise and rhythmic, not a word out of place, not a slip in the voice. Her descriptions of the landscape of the Lake District and the wolves are breathtaking. Her characterisation – particularly of Rachel – is superb. It’s pleasing to see a woman protagonist, in her thirties, career-driven in an area rarely explored in literature, no desire for a relationship, self-sufficient, a risk-taker, portrayed without moral judgement.

It baffles me that The Wolf Border wasn’t shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize and I’ll be on my soapbox if it isn’t on the Man Booker Prize longlist in the summer. Hall is one of the UK’s best writers and this is her most fully realised work. I hope that the current interest in nature writing and realistic female protagonists mean that this novel gets the recognition it deserves.

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their young children in Dietlikon, Switzerland – ‘the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led’. Anna feels isolated for a number of reasons – she doesn’t drive, she doesn’t speak much German and barely any Schwiizerdütch, she doesn’t have a bank account. When Anna’s psychotherapist asks asks if she’s ‘ever considered or attempted suicide’, she asks her to ‘Define “attempt”’.

She’d met this stranger in her German class. But Anna – his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her).

Anna and Bruno spend most evenings in solitude – him in his office; her reading, watching television or walking up the hill behind their house. While they begrudgingly seem to love each other, they are not in love. It was Bruno who wanted children and wanted to move to Dietlikon, his home town, to provide a safe, stable upbringing for them. Anna is terrified of becoming a mother:

Still, Anna got pregnant. And then again and then again. It seemed to just happen. She never said Let’s do this and she never said Let’s not. Anna didn’t say anything at all…Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon rule. Where the wind blew, she went. This was Anna’s natural inclination.

It’s no surprise then that within minutes of Anna’s first language class, Archie has flirted with her across the table, she’s decided she likes the bus he’s driving and at the end of the class, she’s telephoned Ursula, her mother-in-law, to tell her she’ll be late back for the children and followed Archie to flat for ‘an hour and a half of uninhibited sex’.

On Tuesday and again on Wednesday Anna followed Archie home after class. On Thursday and Friday, they skipped school altogether.

Hausfrau weaves together Anna’s life with Bruno, the children and Ursula; her visits to Doktor Messerli; the language class, and her affairs. There is also a friendship with a woman expatriate, Mary (whom she meets at the language class) which is fairly one-sided.

No doubt a significant proportion of the discussion around this book will be about Anna being unlikeable: she’s passive; she leaves her children with her mother-in-law while she has sex with her lovers, she spurns female friendship (or indeed, any friendship). But it’s hard not to believe that if the sex of the protagonist were reversed, it would barely raise an eyebrow, never mind pages of discussion.

There are many impressive things about Hausfrau: the quality of the writing; the philosophical thoughts and the musings on language. Anna often poses questions to Doktor Messerli such as ‘“What’s the difference between passivity and neutrality?”’ and ‘”What’s the purpose of pain”’ while the thoughts on language take a variety of forms – the language class itself, the way one of Anna’s lovers speaks English, and comments that form part of the narrative which may be the narrator’s comments or might be free indirect speech. This one early in the novel pretty much sums up Anna’s character and hints at what’s to come:

Only in the present tense is the subject married to its verb. The action – all action, past and future – comes at the end. At the very end, when there is nothing left to do but act.

Hausfrau is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, it’s an outstanding debut and I can’t wait to see what Jill Alexander Essbaum writes next.

 

 

Thanks to Mantle for the review copy.

The Shore – Sara Taylor

The Shore is as flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow, and usually you can just about see the dark smear that is Chincoteague Island off to the northeast. We are one of three islands, off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint. We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t ever remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the big maps.

The Shore begins in 1995 when Chloe, 13, is out buying chicken necks to use for crabbing. Chloe overhears a customer and the cashier discussing the murder of Cabel Bloxom. He’s ‘ “had his face shot to pieces”…[and] “They done cut his thang clean off!” ‘ By the middle of the chapter we know who’s shot him and why; by the end of the chapter there’s a second killing. It’s an explosive and shocking start to the book but the scenarios that surround both killings are sadly all too familiar.

Chloe, her younger sister, Renee, and their father live in a small house on Accomack Island, the largest of the three islands that make up The Shore.

It’s a little house, our house, one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs and a porch for each, and according to the phone company and the electric company and the taxman it doesn’t exist.

They’re poor. The girls are crabbing because there’s no food in the house. Their father works on the killing floor at one of the chicken plants because it’s the only work available. Their childhood is brutal – more so because they’re girls.

But this isn’t Chloe and Renee’s story; it’s the story of two families and the islands from 1876 to 2143.

In thirteen connected stories, Taylor tells us of women who leave and return, who can control the weather, who are smart and fight for their freedom from men, who find ways to survive despite the brutality that’s inflicted upon them. They’re tales of family and survival.

What’s most impressive about the book is the way Taylor moves between different characters and stories, making them and their voices unique. She experiments with different types of story telling – moving between past and present tense, using conventions of different genres. It’s this that’s led to the book being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which – and I say this as a huge fan of David Mitchell’s work – does Taylor a disservice; she nods to different genres rather than immersing the stories in them and the links between the tales are much subtler and require more work from the reader than those in Cloud Atlas. One of the joys of the book is working out how the characters link together.

However, on occasion, this is also the book’s downfall. There was one story in particular which seemed out of place and although at the end of the novel, it’s clearly connected, it took me out of the story and the atmosphere created before that point.

Regardless, The Shore is an impressive debut. It shows Taylor has an ability to write many different stories – there is no lack of ambition here and that more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings.

Fellow shadow Bailey’s Prize panel member Eric has also reviewed The Shore on his blog.

Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy.

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller + Q&A

This morning I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.

It’s 1985 and fifteen-year-old Peggy Hillcoat is at home in Highgate, London. The photograph of her father also includes his friends, all of them ‘members of the North London Retreaters. Every month they met at our house, arguing and discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world’.

Peggy remembers the year the photograph was taken, 1976: her father built a fallout shelter in the cellar with space for four people. The fourth space was for his friend Oliver Hannington. It’s clear through her father and mother’s discussions that Hannington’s presence is exacerbating the tension between them. Ute, Peggy’s mother, is a concert pianist – ‘the youngest-ever winner of the International Chopin Piano Competition’ – and it is she who supports the family financially.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

James, Peggy’s father, spends his time preparing for the end of the world. Initially he trains Peggy to pack an list of essential items he’s made her memorise and gat herself to the shelter in four minutes. Once she’s mastered this – and he’s demonstrated her achievement to the North London Retreaters – Ute leaves on a tour of Germany. James keeps Peggy off school and begins to teach her other skills:

My father taught me how to trap and cook squirrels and rabbits, which mushrooms were poisonous and where to collect the edible ones like chicken-of-the-woods, chanterelles and penny buns, and how to make ramson soup. We pulled up the stalks of nettles and dried them in the sun, then, sitting on the edge of a grave, I watched him strip away the plant’s exterior and twist what had been foliage a few minutes before into a fine braid. I copied him because he said the best way to learn was to do things myself, but even with my small fingers, the cord I produced was clumsy and malformed. Still, we made hangman’s nooses of them and tied them to a branch that we propped against a tree.

During this time, her father tells her stories of living wild including one about a family who lived in ‘die Hütte’. Why Peggy asks what this is, he responds that it’s a magical cabin in the forest.

After a visit from her friend, Becky, Peggy returns to school for the last day prior to the holidays. When questioned by the headmaster about her two-week absence, she tells him that Ute’s died in a car crash. A week passes where Oliver Hannington lives with them and Peggy barely sees him and her father. It ends abruptly, however, with a phone call from Ute and a huge row between her father and Hannington during which James throws an object at the glasshouse, shattering it.

In the morning, I was woken by three short blasts of the whistle. My father stood at the bottom of the stairs, legs apart, head up. The backs of his hands had plasters stuck on them in several places, and there was another over the bridge of his nose.

‘Pack your rucksack, Peggy,’ he said, using his military voice. ‘We’re going on holiday.’

‘Where are we going?’ I asked, worrying what Ute would say about the broken roof and the glass all over the floor when she returned.

‘We’re going to die Hütte,’ said my father.

The novel then follows Peggy and her father as they travel to die Hütte and set up home there.

Our Endless Numbered Days is unusually structured. Beginning in 1985 when Peggy is home safely and interspersing the later day narrative between a recount of the earlier years might have had the effect of diminishing the tension of story. However, Fuller’s skilful narration and careful choices with regards to setting, names and, what appear to be, minor plot points, serve to keep the reader on edge throughout.

The use of fairy tale imagery works particularly well as James leads his daughter off into the woods; anyone familiar with European fairy tales knows that only dark and dangerous things lie in the woods, don’t they?

Our Endless Numbered Days is a highly accomplished debut novels. I read it fascinated by the events unfolding, waiting for the inevitable horrors to occur; it wasn’t until I reached the end of the book, however, that the full impact of the world Fuller has created struck me. This is a clever, tightly plotted novel with a shocking denouement.

Claire Fuller Colour

I’m delighted to welcome Claire Fuller to the blog to discuss the novel further.

The novel’s a dual narration but unusually is narrated by the same character at two different time periods; how did you go about constructing it?

I’m not a great planner, not any kind of planner in fact, so the structure just developed. But after a while I began to play with the two time periods – writing chapters about what happens when Peggy returns home to London, and others when she looks back to her life in the forest. I wrote through to the end of the novel and at that point I realised that the London chapters didn’t run together well – Peggy was having dinner before she’d had breakfast – and I was giving too much away about what happened in the forest. So I lifted out the London chapters and put them in a different document to work on them separately, and that’s when I changed them to just a single day in 1985. Then I slotted them back into the manuscript, revising them again so that any hints and clues were more subtle.

There are references to fairy tales in the novel – Peggy and her father go to live in a cabin in the woods in central Europe and Peggy’s name becomes Punzel while she’s there – what influence did fairy tales have on your writing?

The idea of referencing fairy tales came from a member of my writing group. I gave the group chapters as I was writing, and my friend suggested I make the woods more of a character and play on the fact that many fairy tales are set in a European forest. The fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers can be very dark – children are threatened, most often by a character they trust. So not only does Peggy become Punzel, but the porridge is too hot and there’s a shoe that doesn’t fit. Besides these, there are many more fairy tale references which I hope readers might pick up on.

Music is important in the novel – Ute’s a pianist, Peggy’s father makes a soundless piano in the hut – and the book’s also named after an album by Iron & Wine; how important was music to you during the writing of the book?

It was really important. I write with music playing. If I listen to the same pieces of music enough (as with Iron and Wine), I no longer hear the lyrics but they set a tone for what I’m writing. I also listened to La Campanella many times – this is the music which Peggy learns to play on her silent piano. And the song that James and Peggy sing together is an old folk song of unknown origin that I was taught by a girl guide when I was at school, and then taught to my children.

The reader knows at the beginning of the novel that Peggy’s home; how did you ensure that you maintained the tension having revealed this so early on?

Maintaining the tension was one of the things I enjoyed working on the most, although it was also one of the hardest things – drip-feeding just enough information to keep readers wondering and guessing about how and why Peggy gets home. But I don’t regard Our Endless Numbered Days as a thriller; I tried to write it so that it doesn’t all hang on ‘what happened’ and ‘who did it?’ And I know one or two readers have guessed the twist, but this doesn’t bother me at all.

As well as drip-feeding clues and hints I used the structure help to maintain tension. I was able to turn away from each strand just as something was revealed, or sometimes, almost revealed.

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

I tend to have favourite books rather than favourite writers, but I do love all of Barbara Comyns’ novels, especially Who was Changed and who was Dead. It’s weird and dark and wonderful. Another favourite is We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. On every re-read its main character – Merricat Blackwood – still manages to beguile me. If there was one book I wish I had written, it would be that.

Thinking about contemporary books written by female authors, I loved The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, Alys Always by Harriet Lane, and The Virgins by Pamela Erens.

Thanks to Claire Fuller for the interview and to Fig Tree Books for the review copy.

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell + Q&A

I don’t have any answers, Lalla. Only questions. That’s how you learn.

We’re in the future but not so far into the future that the world’s unrecognisable:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear…Across the country, people lost their homes, the supermarkets emptied and the population stood, stunned and helpless, in the streets. My father watched the riots and the looting, the disasters and the forced evictions on every possible channel; he had the computer, his phone and his tablet and juggled them constantly, prowling about the flat and never seeming to sleep. The government resigned, and then came the tanks, and the troops with their terrible guns. My father vanished. Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and I watched the orange skies from the circle of my mother’s arms, weeping for him.

Our narrator is Lalage, who turns sixteen in the opening pages of the novel. Her father, Michael Paul, returns soon after his disappearance having sold his invention, the Dove, to the military government. The Dove registers people’s ‘screens’ (tablets) and they’re given an identity card with their screen address encoded, traceable by satellite. Important information is communicated via screen so those registered ‘got the information they needed to survive’.

The Dove makes Michael Paul a very rich man. As the world disintegrates, he uses that money to build a ship; a future for Lalla (as her father calls her), a safe haven.

The Ship Carey coverOn Lalage’s birthday, her father brings her a diamond he’s swapped for a tin of peaches. As St. James’ Park is bombed, eradicating those attempting to build an alternative society outside government control, Lalage’s parents argue about whether it’s time to move onto the ship. When Lalage’s mother hears a scream on the street, she moves to the window and is shot. The only place with the equipment and expertise to save her is the ship; they leave immediately.

The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. At her first meal, Lalage is served chicken and pineapple cake. She hasn’t tasted chicken in five years and has never seen pineapple before. Her father presents her with a screen and reveals it contains photographs of exhibits from every museum and art gallery. She begins to get to know the people on board and realises that they’ve been chosen by her father to be part of his dream. But Lalage isn’t clear as to exactly what that dream is; where is the ship going and what are her father’s intentions?

The doctor was right; I had never felt pain. I had never felt loss, or hunger, or genuine fear either. My parents protected me so well from what the world had become that I had no means to navigate it. They had surrounded me, made their plans to keep me safe, made sure that my only compass through life was my own experience of it. And it wasn’t enough. How could it have been? A lifetime ago, the sun had set in front of the infirmary door. Soon, it would rise on the other side of the ship. Already the sky was imperceptibly lighter, like a screen that has just been turned off. And as the light grew clearer and brighter, I realised that my parents had been wrong. That, far from being the pivot around which the world turned, I was smaller than a mote of dust, less significant than a gnat.

While Lalage’s mother has tried to show her the realities of the world she’s been living in, both she and Michael Paul have protected her from any real experience of them. It means she’s naïve and initially, unquestioning. It takes the first traumatic event on the ship to make her realise this, after which, she begins to listen to the stories of those around her and slowly begins to wonder what other people want from life and ultimately what she wants.

Although set in the future, The Ship reflects the time we’re living in. It raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It also prods at religion and asks why people value it despite its failure to deliver any concrete solutions. As Lalage questions her father’s motives, the reader questions what led to them, particularly as the stories of the characters on the ship are revealed.

The novel’s tightly plotted with a number of surprising twists. Occasionally, Lalage’s naivety means the reader realises the twist before Lalla does. When this happens, the dramatic irony serves to heighten the tension as you wonder what her reaction will be when the truth is revealed to her.

The Ship has the language and ideas of a literary novel, combined with the pacing and twists of a thriller. It’s an impressive debut.

527printI’m delighted to welcome Antonia Honeywell to the blog to talk more about The Ship.

The Ship is set in a version of the world which seems to be a logical conclusion of the position we’re in now; where did the idea come from?

I don’t see the world of The Ship as very far removed from where we are now. The rich are rewarded with tax breaks; the poor are hit with bedroom tax. People come out of the theatre and, on their way to dinner, step over someone who has nowhere to sleep. Public services are privatised and a very few people become very, very rich on the back of it. Our financial systems make it possible for people to become stratospherically wealthy. There’s a new kind of fear abroad in the world now, too, and I’m frightened of what it may do to people. And on a quieter level, so much everyday life takes place on the Internet – from supermarket shopping to booking holidays to disseminating information – that those who aren’t online are genuinely disenfranchised. That’s all reflected in the London of the opening chapters.

But the idea – the actual notion of a man buying a cruise ship and populating it with genuinely kind, well-motivated people – was crystallised when I married and had children. I had this little unit of love and happiness that I wanted to protect; how could it be done? (I’m not about to buy a cruise ship, by the way.)

The narration is first person from Lalla’s point-of-view. Did her naivety help with plotting the novel – deciding what to withhold from the reader, for example?

Yes, that was a deliberate decision. When I experimented with third person, I found myself writing huge chunks of explanation. ‘Because food was scarce, Lalla and her mother had to keep a constant eye on the screen to find out when the next distribution was to take place…’ It just didn’t work. But because Lalla is educated and literate, she’s able to explain the workings of the world (as she sees it) as she narrates the events of the novel. And her naivete, I hope, is an indication to the reader of how sheltered her life is – of how much worse things are for people without her privileges.

There are a number of references to Christianity in the novel – The Exodus Act; The Nazareth Act; the apple given to Lalla – and Michael Paul seems to see himself as some sort of leader of men, giving the people a version of Eden. Are you suggesting that religion works as a comfort to some rather than a solution for all?

Now that is a fascinating question. The Biblical references are deliberate, and Michael definitely becomes a quasi-religious figure to the people of the ship. It’s a way of showing how ready the ship people are to resign responsibility for the big questions that need answering. They have absolute trust in him – and that absolute trust has worked out pretty well for them, so where’s their motivation for questioning him? And yet, power without interrogation is a dangerous thing.

I’m aware that doesn’t quite answer the question…for me, religion is both a power for extraordinary good and an excuse for the most mindboggling horror. The trouble comes when religious faith ceases to be intellectually active, or becomes so intellectually active that it forgets it’s dealing with human beings. I don’t understand, for example, how someone professing faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ can object to equal marriage, or the ordination of women. Discrimination is so lazy and yet, as a race, we’re revoltingly good at it.

As for the apple – we owe Eve, big time.

Each chapter begins with a sub-heading summarising events in that chapter, it’s something you often see in novels from the Romantic period but the only modern novel I can think of that uses it is The Luminaries; why did you decide to begin the chapters this way?

In earlier drafts, each chapter was headed with a headline of recent news, intended to highlight the connection between the society I was describing and the one I was living in. But I realised that the story shouldn’t be bolted to a particular period (and I’m glad I didn’t take that route, because recent events in the news are even more pertinent than the ones I’d have used). So I replaced those quotations with ones from a broad spectrum of history, but that felt wrong too, although for a long time I couldn’t work out why. Eventually I realised that the quotations, whether they were from the current edition of a daily newspaper of from Plato, took the reader away from Lalla’s personal story, albeit momentarily. The Ship isn’t a political lecture, it’s the story of a girl trying to make sense of the world she lives in. Readers can make the parallels with their own world or not; the story works without them, and there was certainly no need to shove them in the reader’s face. So each chapter heading became a signpost, if you like, as Lalla makes her way forwards. Chapter summaries are also a feature of some children’s books – The Land of Green Ginger and Winnie the Pooh, for example – and although The Ship is not a children’s book, Lalla is still very much a child.

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

Oh, Naomi, how long have you got? That’s harder than the religion question. George Eliot. Charlotte Bronte. Katherine Mansfield. Elizabeth Bowen. Jean Rhys. Margaret Atwood. Helen Dunmore. Jane Smiley. Maggie Gee. Salley Vickers… and the number of incredible new writers I’ve come across since my own book deal came through makes me feel that the future is very bright indeed.

Huge thanks to Antonia Honeywell for the interview and to W&N for the review copy.

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s latest novel tells the story of the Whitshank family. The book begins in 1994 with Abby and Red receiving a phone call from their son, Denny, who tells Red he’s gay. We soon discover this is one of many things Denny will say and do for which his only motivation might be annoying his parents.

“How would I know where he was calling from? He doesn’t have a fixed address, hasn’t been in touch all summer, already changed jobs twice that we know of and probably more that we don’t know of…A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on! You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong there!”

A page later, Red’s reminding Abby that Denny got a girl pregnant before he left school and bemoaning the day he married Abby, the social worker.

Denny’s the third of four children – Amanda and Jeannie are his older sisters and Stem his younger brother.

He was far more generous, for instance, than the other three put together. (He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.) And he didn’t bully other children, or throw tantrums. But he was so close-mouthed. He had these spells of unexplained obstinacy, where his face would grow set and pinched and no one could get through to him. It seemed to be a kind of inward tantrum; it seemed his anger turned in upon itself and hardened him or froze him.

The first chapter of the book is a potted history of Denny’s life, we are told about his many failures and few successes and how Abby and Red feel about their son. But this is not a book about Denny – although he does bookend the novel – it’s a book about the whole family and the second chapter takes us back to Red’s father, Junior, and the house he built.

By chapter three we’re in 2012 and Abby begins to disappear. Not just physically but also from conversations taking place when she’s present. Red stops attending to the house he’s always loved and their children begin to wonder whether it’s time for them to move somewhere else. When they refuse, Stem and his wife Nora move in.

What Tyler does so well here is show the tensions between the parents and the children who’ve invaded their house – particularly between Abby and her daughter-in-law, Nora – and between the siblings who each think they should be responsible for their parents’ welfare, particularly Denny, who reappears.

The novel then moves backwards in time; firstly to Abby and Red’s courtship and then back further to Red’s father, Junior, and how he met and eventually married Red’s mother, Linnie Mae.

Linnie Mae’s a particularly great character, seemingly a bit of a simple country girl, she manipulates situations to her satisfaction, those around her only realising what she’s done when it’s far too late to respond.

There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average…But like most families, they imagined they were special.

Anne Tyler’s speciality is making ordinary people seem special. She highlights those moments that seem to be generic family happenings – fights between grown siblings that come from seething tensions and then seem embarrassing moments after they’ve happened; antagonism between parents and children at various stages of their lives; the changes in relationships as people age and situations change. A Spool of Blue Thread is classic Tyler.

The book has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow jurors Eric and Paola. Click on their names to be taken to their review.

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
They held me captive for thirteen days.
They wanted to break me.
It was not personal.
I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself.

Mirelle is taken from her car in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly in front of the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars.

I dug my fingernails into my thighs and hoped my father would be a better man than I knew him to be, would ignore his convictions, would pay, and quickly. I hoped I did not know my father as well as I feared.

Mirelle’s father believes that the kidnappers will return her unharmed. He refuses to meet their ransom demands.

After Mirelle graduated from high school in America, her parents returned to Port-au-Prince.

He had his fill of working seventy hours a week, answering to white men who would never promote him even though he gave them more than twenty years of his life. My father started his own construction company and it soon became the largest, most successful firm in the country. He was the triumphant son returned.

He’s also seen one of his friends bankrupted by kidnappers and he’s not about to let the same happen to him. The consequence of his refusal to pay the ransom is that Mirelle is repeatedly raped and tortured.

The story of her captivity is told alongside that of her and Michael’s relationship. Michael is a white American who grew up on a farm in Nebraska. They have a fairly turbulent relationship, both of them capable of offending the other and both too stubborn to talk through what’s happened. Their worst arguments stem from comments about Haiti and this is something Mirelle also has to deal with from some of their friends in Miami where they live:

I am a curiosity to my American friends – a Haitian who is not from the slums or the countryside, a Haitian who has enjoyed a life of privilege. When I talk about my life in Haiti, they listen to my stories as if they are fairy tales, stories that could not possibly be true by nature of their goodness.

One of my friends mentioned a magazine article he read about how Haiti had surpassed Columbia as the kidnapping capital of the world. Another told us about a recent feature in a national magazine on the kidnapping epidemic – that was the word he used, as if kidnapping were a disease, a contagion that could not be controlled. There were comments about Vodou and that one movie with Lisa Bonet that made Bill Cosby mad at her. Soon everyone was offering their own desperate piece of information about my country, my people, about the violence and the poverty and the hopelessness, conjuring a place that does not exist anywhere but the American imagination.

In An Untamed State, Gay looks at privilege and power, whether it’s the privilege and power that comes with money; the privilege and power that comes with being white, or the privilege and power that comes with being male.

Mirelle’s privileged because her family have money and she’s had a university education but the fact that she’s female undercuts that as far as the kidnappers and, in refusing to pay the ransom, her father are concerned. That she is also stubborn and opinionated and has a temper, of course makes her even more problematic as a woman because that’s not what we’re supposed to be and it’s the reason the Commander gives her for treating her so brutally.

All of the characters in the novel are complex and not particularly easy to like (except perhaps Mirelle’s sister); Gay examines why Mirelle’s father refuses to see what’s happened to her; why her mother stands by her father; how her husband struggles to come to terms with Mirelle’s kidnapping, her family’s behaviour, and Haiti itself, and how Michael’s family treat her as a black woman. It’s also a novel about how America views Haiti and what affect that has on some Haitians whether rich or poor.

An Untamed State is a brutal, powerful novel tackling big themes – poverty, wealth, race, gender. Despite it only being January, I’ll be surprised if I read many better books this year.

Ones to Read in 2015

There are a number of preview lists in the media at the moment. Rather than tell you what’s coming up, I’ve been reading 2015 titles since October so I can recommend books I think you should watch out for in the first half of 2015. Bar the bottom three titles – which are by three of my favourite writers and therefore, highly anticipated by me – I’ve read everything included on here; all of these books are very good and some are superb.

Full reviews will follow on the week of publication. All publication dates are UK and subject to change.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

On a visit to her parents in Haiti, Mireille is kidnapped in front of her husband and baby son. When her father holds out on paying the ransom, she’s subjected to brutal attacks. Her family will have to come to terms with the consequences but Gay clearly makes the personal political and An Untamed State is also about the treatment of women by men; the relationship between Haiti and America, and poverty versus wealth. This is an incredible book, if I read many better this year, I’ll be surprised.

Published 8th January by Corsair Books

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna, an American, has lived in Dietlikon, a quiet suburb of Zurich for nine years but she’s never felt as though she belongs despite being married to a Swiss man and having had three children there. When her therapist suggests she attend a German language class, she meets Archie and begins an affair. Essbaum interweaves lessons about language and passivity with Anna’s thoughts and behaviour and adds her work to a line of women going against society’s expectations.

Published 26th March by Mantle

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

The Whitshank family could be any family on the surface – Abby and Red and their four children, son Denny causing problems and disappearing for long periods until someone needs him. The novel begins with Abby’s story and her descent into forgetting things before moving to how her and Red met and then to his parents and their story. A number of family secrets are revealed along the way and Tyler writes families as only she can – with a keen eye and an acute understanding of how the bonds between family members work.

Published 10th February by Chatto & Windus

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

Callanish is a gracekeeper, someone who performs the burial of the dead. North and her bear are part of the Circus Excalibur, a circus that sails around performing – there is no place on what’s left of the land for them. But North is betrothed to the son of Red Gold, the circus owner, who wants them to have a house on land and restore his family line to the earth. Not everyone likes his plan though and North and Callanish’s paths are going to cross and set them on a different course. Logan builds upon the promise she showed in her short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. The Gracekeepers places her somewhere between Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.

Published 7th May by Harvill Secker

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell

London is burning. The British Museum is occupied. The Nazareth Act is in force and if you can’t produce your identity card in seconds you’re going to be shot. Lalla’s mother has tried to show her some of the reality but she’s sheltered by her wealthy father, Michael Paul, who’s been building a boat and selecting the people who will travel on it. When her mother’s shot, the boat sets sail but where are they going and what will Lalla discover along the way? A thoughtful, genre crossing, page turner.

Published 19th February by W&N

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper’s fed up of tidying up after her graphic designer husband, Elliot and teenage daughter, Martha. When she’s on her way to her friend’s fancy dress party as a superhero and prevents a mugging, she gets a buzz from acting as a vigilante protecting other women. Add to this the graphic novel designed by Elliot, containing a female victim with an unrealistic body; the graffiti picture of a girl in the uniform of the school Martha attends, and a man who’s attacking girls in Martha’s year and Jenny has a purpose in life. Hard to put down.

Published 8th January by W&N

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

Peggy’s father is a member of the North London Retreaters, discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world. While her mother, professional pianist, Ute, is on a tour of Germany, Peggy’s father tells her Ute is dead and takes her to live in die Hütte somewhere in Europe. The structure of the novel moves between Peggy’s present when she has returned to London and her mother and her time in die Hütte and how she and her father survived. Fascinating and terrifying.

Published 26th February by Fig Tree.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

When Yeong-hye begins to have nightmares about meat and murder she decides to turn vegetarian, something highly unusual in South Korean society. It strains her relationship with her husband and her father but makes her highly attractive to her brother-in-law. Told in three linked novellas, each from a different point of view, The Vegetarian becomes odder and more unnerving as Yeong-hye deteriorates mentally and physically.

Published 1st January by Portobello Books.

The Chimes – Anna Smaill

Simon goes to London with his bag of objectmemories, and the name and tune of a woman his mother told him to find. Lives are run by The Order who tell them Onestory every day and erase their memory with Chimes every evening. There is no writing, no shared stories and communities are difficult to forge; music rules everything. But Simon has a purpose, he just needs to remember what it is. An extraordinary story told in a brave and unusual way.

Published 12th February by Sceptre.

 

Before the Fire – Sarah Butler

Stick and Mac are leaving Manchester for Spain. Stick’s had enough of the memories of his sister, dead in a fire; his father who left him and his mother after his sister’s death and now has a posh house with his new wife and kids, and his mum’s OCD which is giving them both sleepless nights. But the night before they’re due to leave, Mac’s attacked and now Stick’s going nowhere and life looks a whole lot worse, especially as the 2011 riots are about to take place. A great addition to working class literature.

Published 12th March by Picador.

 

The Shore – Sara Taylor

Some families just don’t work out. The Shore is a collection of three islands off the coast of Virginia. There live a group of people related to each other. The book begins by introducing Chloe and Renee, daughters of Ellie and Bo. There’s been a murder and people in the local store are gossiping about it. By the end of the first chapter, there will have been three. The book then goes on to tell the stories – past and future – of those related to this central family. The reader travels back to 1876 and Medora and forward to 2143 and Simian. Ambitious with plenty to say about the treatment of women.

Published 26th March by William Heinemann.

The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester

Frankie George, reporter for the London Evening Gazette, is sent to write a profile of Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist and suffragette, but that evening, Ebony disappears and a woman mistakenly identified as her is murdered. Weaving a murder investigation with the activities of the suffragettes, The Hourglass Factory is a satisfying, multi-strand story with some serious points to make about women and gender roles.

Published 15th January by Simon & Schuster

 

All This Has Nothing to Do With Me – Monica Sabolo (translated by Georgina Collins)

When MS interviews XX she hires him because he’s quirky, tall, young and a mess. MS falls into an obsessive, largely unrequited love which she fuels by keeping notes about XX and taking ‘mementos’ from their after-work drinks. These are documented in diary entries, emails and photographs. The book then moves to tell the story of MS’s childhood and her parents. Sabolo interweaves her own photographs and uses her own initials in this novel which seems to blur the boundaries of fiction and autobiography in a similar way to Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton.

Published 9th April by Picador.

And the three I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to:

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

In A God in Ruins, Atkinson turns her focus on Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy – would-be poet, RAF bomber pilot, husband and father – as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century. For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have.

I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s novels since Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread Award (now the Costa) in 1995 and she’s never disappointed.

Published 5th May by Doubleday.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

For almost a decade Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District.

The earl’s project harks back to an ancient idyll of untamed British wilderness – though Rachel must contend with modern-day concessions to health and safety, public outrage and political gain – and the return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.

The Wolf Border investigates the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness, both animal and human. It seeks to understand the most obsessive aspects of humanity: sex, love, and conflict; the desire to find answers to the question of our existence; those complex systems that govern the most superior creature on earth.

Hall’s been my favourite female novelist since I read The Electric Michelangelo; I think she’s one of the UK’s greatest.

Published 26th March by Faber & Faber

The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

Gustavo ‘Turnpike’ Sanchez is a man with a mission: he is planning to replace every last one of his unsightly teeth. He has a few skills that might help him on his way: he can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums, he can interpret Chinese fortune cookies, he can stand an egg upright on a table, and he can float on his back. And, of course, he is the world’s best auction caller – although other people might not realise this, because he is, by nature, very discreet.Studying auctioneering under Grandmaster Oklahoma and the famous country singer Leroy Van Dyke, Highway travels the world, amassing his collection of ‘Collectibles’ and perfecting his own specialty: the allegoric auction. In his quest for a perfect set of pearly whites, he finds unusual ways to raise the funds, culminating in the sale of the jewels of his collection: the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ – Plato, Petrarch, Chesterton, Virginia Woolf et al.Written with elegance, wit and exhilarating boldness, Valeria Luiselli takes us on an idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable journey that offers an insightful meditation on value, worth and creation, and the points at which they overlap.

I reviewed Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, back in 2012 and it was one of my books of the year. I’m looking forward to entering her strange, clever world again.

Published 2nd April by Granta.

 

Thanks to Mantle, Chatto & Windus, Harvill Secker, W&N, Fig Tree, Portobello Books, Sceptre, Picador, William Heinemann and Simon & Schuster for the review copies.