The Boy by Wytske Versteeg (translated by Sarah Welling): Not one of us

Cover imageIf you’re looking for a bit of escapism in the wake of the worrying upheavals in the big wide world over the past few months, best look elsewhere. Billed as a psychological thriller, Wytske Versteeg’s novel is an unsettling study of what can happen to vulnerable children even when adults have the best intentions for their care. It’s a short novel but it took me quite some time to read it.

Kito’s parents adopted him when he was a baby, taking him home to Holland from the country where his biological mother died in childbirth. His father works in development aid and his mother is a psychiatrist, not entirely comfortable in her role as a parent but determined to give her partner the child she is unable to bear herself. Kito is a quiet boy – a little too sensitive – an outsider observing other children but not confident enough to join in their play. His parents try to make things easier for him, never quite getting it right. Despite her training, his mother is appalled when she finds her son admiring himself in one of her dresses. As Kito grows older whatever tenuous friendships he has formed fall away. One night, after a beach party arranged by his drama teacher, he goes missing. Four years later, consumed with grief, his mother sets about finding out who is responsible. When she hears that Kito’s teacher has taken herself off to Bulgaria, she finds a way to work as a volunteer on Hannah’s smallholding and after months of patient observation extracts the story of what happened that night on the beach.

Versteeg’s novel is narrated through the voice of Kito’s unnamed mother giving it an immediacy which is both effective and discomfiting. The narrator’s unease with her role as a mother and her painful awareness of infertility is vividly contrasted with her open-hearted partner: ‘he started a relationship with me, as if he’d found a half-withered pot plant on the street and taken it home with him’; ‘deep within me was something dark and resentful and black, which was too powerful for Mark’s poor sperm’. The bullying suffered by Kito is quietly revealed, never heavy-handed, while Hannah’s ineptitude, naiveté and inability to exert authority over her rebellious class are sharply drawn. It’s a book about outsiders – the narrator, Kito, Hannah, the Westerners who settle themselves in Bulgaria’s countryside ‘off grid’ – all feel themselves to be outside society in one way or another and some pay the price. This is a deeply disturbing book, not a conventional crime novel with a cut and dried resolution, but a commentary on how we treat people different from the rest of us all wrapped up in a gripping, wrenching piece of storytelling.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson: A life apart

Cover imageBrad Watson’s novel comes with the knowledge that it’s based on the life of his great-aunt. The press release uses the word ‘inspired’ – a word which, I’m not entirely sure why, always makes me feel a little uncomfortable but in this case it seems entirely fitting. It’s the story of a woman born in rural Mississippi in 1915 with a birth defect, a genital malformation which closes the conventional path of marriage and children to her.

Unplanned and unwanted, Jane’s birth is an easy one but it’s clear that something is wrong. Jane has been born with a condition about which little can be done in the early twentieth century. Her father blames himself, her mother keeps her distance.  She’s a bright child, curious and closely observant, looked after largely by her surly elder sister Grace who comes to love her, albeit reluctantly. Their most frequent visitor is Doctor Thompson who delivered Jane and who takes a concerned and professional interest in her development, corresponding with his urologist friend about the progress of research which might help her. Jane attends school for a short time, managing her incontinence with a strict dietary regime which eventually affects her health. She takes herself off to dances, a pretty girl attracting attention and falling for a young boy who returns her love but forced to retreat before the prospect of marriage appears on his horizon. She follows Grace, long flown the coop, to the small town not far away where they live and work together, Jane returning home when her father eventually dies. Throughout it all, Doctor Thompson remains a steady presence in her life. In the end Jane knows she will be alone but it’s something she’s been preparing for all of her life, facing it with characteristic dignity.

Watson tells Jane’s story with a quiet empathy: never sentimentalising, always compassionate. Jane is a memorable, vividly drawn character – her curious observation as she tries to make sense of sex as a young girl neatly avoids the prurient and her loneliness is quietly wrenching. Watson writes beautifully about the natural world in which Jane finds many of her questions answered. Rural Mississippi is summoned up in vibrant word pictures: the tomato worm studded with a parasite’s larvae under its skin; the plangent cries of Doctor Thompson’s beloved peacocks running wild in the woods; a chapter opening ‘And then there was the long quiet afternoon of autumn’ precedes a particularly glorious description. Watson underpins his story with a wry humour steering it clear of the maudlin – ‘A busy winter it was here with ague and the results of physical violence bred and borne by folks cooped up a bit too much with their chosen enemies’ writes Thompson to his friend. This is beautifully restrained novel – quietly laying out what it is to be different, to understand that what everyone else takes for granted you will not have – all handled with the grace and dignity that Jane embodies. A lesson for us all.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in December 2016

Cover imageIn previous years I’ve merged December’s paperback and hardback offerings but the three paperbacks I have my eye on this year merit a post of their own, kicking off with Jessie Burton’s The Muse, cunningly published at the end of the month to capture the Christmas book token trade. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist was hugely successful a few years back. Burton’s second novel begins in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, who left her Trinidadian home five years before, about to find her niche working in a London art gallery. One day a lost masterpiece with a story behind it is delivered, purported to be by the legendary Isaac Robles. Burton’s novel untangles the painting’s history taking her readers to Spain in 1936. Lots of very complimentary reviews when it was published in hardback.

I’m not sure Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper got much coverage at all when it was first published here in the UK. A frustrated young woman with a few published short stories under her belt, is stuck in the temping world. Her life seems about to be transformed when a Nobel Prize winning author offers her the opportunity to translate his book. Unfortunately, as instalments of the manuscript roll in, it becomes clear that the book is untranslatable. ‘A deft, funny, and big-hearted novel about second chances, Good on Paper is a grand novel of family, friendship, and possibility.’ say the publishers which sounds like rather a nice way to round off the reading year.

My last choice, Andrea Canobbio’s Three Light-Years, is the only one I’ve reviewed. Still living inCover image the same apartment building as his mother, his ex-wife and her new family, forty-three-year-old Viberti longs for a child. He meets Cecilia whose son is suffering from an eating disorder and manages to get the boy to eat by distracting him with a conversation about James Bond. Before long Viberti and Cecilia are having lunch together. Subtle, often funny, sometimes infuriating this is not a novel for those wanting a conventional love story – there are times when you want to give Viberti and Cecilia a good shaking – but I enjoyed it very much. Nicely ambivalent ending, too, much like life.

That’s it for December. A click on the title of the first two will take you to a fuller synopsis while the third link is to my review. If you want to catch up with December hardbacks, here they are

The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed: Short stories with humour and bite

Cover image Rather like buses – you wait for ages then several come along in swift succession – my short story reviews seem be posted in clumps. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Anna Noyes’ elegant Goodnight, Beautiful Women, attracted by the idea of a linked collection promised by the press release. It was its eye-catching title and the raft of endorsements for Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men which snagged my attention this time. It’s nice and meaty too – stories long enough to get your teeth into. Despite having reviewed several collections by now, I still find it hard to avoid turning the whole thing into a lengthy catalogue so forgive me if this post reads a little like a list.

The thirteen stories that comprise Sneed’s collection explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. ‘Beach Vacation’ sees a woman on holiday, unexpectedly alone with her cocksure handsome sixteen-year-old, coming face to face with her feelings for him. In ‘Clear Conscience’ a brother suffering the very public fallout of his acrimonious divorce has his loyalty stretched to breaking point. A woman reflects on marriage to a handsome movie star, the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire and being in a glaringly spotlit relationship in ‘The First Wife’ while a young man may finally have emerged from the shadow of his father’s fame in the titular ‘The Virginity of Famous Men’. Recognition hits a lonely divorced call centre worker when her newly married colleague appears to be straying, a sixteen-year-old learns the lesson in compassion set by her mother and a woman finds herself charmed by a ghost but comes to understand that a prosaic living lover is better than an overly attentive dead one. These are a small sample of what’s on offer in this collection which grabs your attention and keeps it.

Sneed writes with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception: ‘These murdered women were not their responsibility, the General argued, despite their self-conferred role as the planet’s conscience’ lays bare the hypocrisy of politicians in ‘The Functionary’. She has a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavening her stories with a dash of humour: ‘It went all right, overall, because he didn’t do anything too stupid’ thinks Michael in ‘Clear Conscience’ contemplating his epitaph. After trying her very best for sixteen years a woman is faced with the realisation that ‘it seemed possible that she had turned into a terrible mother’ in ‘Beach Vacation’.  Just one foot put wrong for me and that was the slapstick comedy of ‘The New, All-True CV’, in which a job applicant reveals all – a great idea but a little too long. An interesting collection, then, deserving of all those starry endorsements.

The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam: There isn’t one

Cover imageThis novel is unlikely to appeal to everyone although we should all read it. It’s about assisted suicide, one of the great moral dilemmas of the twenty-first century Western world where medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds but not the ethical framework for dealing with its unintended consequences. Steven Amsterdam’s sharp, funny novel explores this conundrum through Evan, a nurse whose mother has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Evan is about to administer his first lethal dose to a builder riddled with cancer. Teddy’s family are with him: his wife not quite holding things together and his daughters not quite believing what’s about to happen. As a nurse on Mercy Hospital’s assisted suicide programme, a pilot project made possible by the enactment of a new law, Evan is closely monitored, part of a strict protocol carefully designed to protect all parties. His first assignment is a little bumpy but all is smoothed out in the debrief. After work, as he does every day, Evan visits Viv in the nursing home where a new treatment appears to have transformed her from the waspish, distant woman he knows and loves into the garishly made up, life and soul of the party. On one of Evan’s ‘assists’ he oversteps the mark, offering a little too much in the way of help, putting both himself and his boss in an untenable position. Soon he’s working off-grid, stepping over the line into unregulated territory, convinced that his vocation is to help those who want to be helped. Meanwhile, Viv moves out of her nursing facility, shrugging off his offers of help and urging him to find himself a life. Despite his relationship with Lon and Simon who have invited him into their lives and into their bed, the only support he’ll allow is from the roommate he met during Viv’s brief commune days. When Viv’s stabilisation dips into a disastrous decline, Evan is faced with a choice.

The Easy Way Out is an extraordinarily powerful novel, made all the more so by the knowledge of Amsterdam’s own work as a palliative care nurse. No axes are ground here: Amsterdam explores the dilemmas that surround this vexed question with compassion and humanity, leavening it all with a darkly sardonic humour – gallows if you like. Both Evan and Viv are sharply drawn. Evan’s lonely mission and its emotional fallout is painfully believable while Viv is wonderfully acerbic – Evan imagines her fury at being called ‘feisty’, that over-used cliché applied to women who speak up for themselves at a time when that’s something she can no longer do. It’s a smart, though-provoking novel that pulls no punches from its hard-hitting opening chapter to its surprising end. I was reminded of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as I read it – we all need to have conversations about our old age and decline, stop ducking the issue and pretending it won’t happen to us. And if our country decides, as some already have, that we must find a safe and secure way to legitimise assisted suicide we need to think carefully about the burden we place on those charged to assist. This is a brave novel – wise, funny and gripping. We should do Amsterdam the courtesy of giving it careful consideration.

Books to Look Out for in December 2016

Cover imageDecember’s always a thin time of the year for new titles – publishers have long since assembled their choicest wares for the Christmas trade – but there’s usually something worth looking out for. This year three very disparate novels have snagged my attention. The first comes from an Australian publisher, Text Publishing, who seem to have an eye for a decent debut. Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is set in Melbourne where Audrey and Kate have spent a decade as bosom buddies. When Kate leaves, Audrey is thrown off-kilter as her family threatens to fall apart. ‘Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever’ say the publishers.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s The Good Lover sees a philandering man hankering after a woman he met in his youth. Karl Ástuson decides to track down Una, his first and only love, who left him with no explanation after only a few months. The prospect of happiness may be in his sights but unfortunately for Karl, a spurned ex has decided to make his exploits the focus of her new novel. Sigurðardóttir’s book is ‘an intriguing, unusual and beautiful novel about the messiness of love that will stay with the reader for a long time’ according to the publishers and it’s certainly an interesting premise.margaret-the-first

This last choice is a little outside my usual literary purview but it’s prompted by its protagonist, Margaret Cavendish, who popped up in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, the title of which she borrowed from her subject. A 17th-century duchess, Margaret, was a thoroughly accomplished woman, the first to be invited to speak at the Royal Society and the last for two hundred years. Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First tells her story in what Jenny Offil has called ‘A strikingly smart and daringly feminist novel with modern insights into love, marriage and the siren call of ambition’. Sounds unmissable to me.

That’s it for December hardbacks. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…

Cousins by Salley Vickers: A welcome and absorbing distraction

Cover imageI started Salley Vickers’ Cousins a few days before the American Presidential election. It’s a bit of a doorstep, a literary family saga if you will, and I was in dire need of something to distract me from constantly looking at the polls. I finished it the day after the election but this is a book blog not a political one so that’s enough of that. Vickers’ novel tells the story of three generations of the Tyes through the voices of three women as one of them tries to reconstruct what happened to the young man each of them loves dearly: grandson to one, brother and nephew to the others.

Hetta Tye is looking back to 1994, the year that her brother Will fell while attempting to climb the spire of Kings College, Cambridge, damaging himself horribly. She wants to try to understand exactly what happened, calling upon her grandmother and her aunt Bell to help her fill in the many gaps in her knowledge. Hetta remembers the phone call that summoned the family to Will’s bedside where he lay in a coma, her grandparents Betsy and Fred arriving from Ely before she and her parents could get there, and the distress of her cousin Cele, clasping his hand in hers. Theirs is a convoluted family: Betsy and Fred are cousins whose love story looked set to repeat itself in Will and Cele. As Hetta, Betsy and Bell tell their versions of the family story, they also tell their own. Hetta has always been in the shadow of her rebellious, fiercely intelligent brother set, it seems, on going off the rails. Bell has spent her life caught up in her own beauty, neglecting her daughter Cele who finds comfort with Betsy and  Will. Fiercely protective of her grandchildren, Betsy’s life with the idealistic Fred has not been quite the idyll it seemed. Stretching back to the Second World War, Vickers’ novel flashes back and forth leading us to the tragic events of 1994 and its consequences.

There are no literary fireworks in Vickers’ novel, just straightforward prose, presented in a straightforward style which feels a little old-fashioned at times but suits the complexity of this novel which explores politics, morality and the nature of family through the tangled history of the Tyes. As with any backward looking narrative, those telling the story are unreliable, given to the ‘prophet hindsight’ as Bell’s lover nicely puts it, or subject to the vagaries of an ageing memory as Betsy reminds us. There’s a welcome undercurrent of humour: ‘I didn’t quite spill wine down my front because I was wearing my cream cashmere’ gives you an idea of Bell’s character when faced with a startling revelation by Cele and Fred’s use of a nappy change – enforced by his wife – to lecture his colleagues on gender equality is priceless. As Vickers draws the novel towards its conclusion, she neatly ties in any loose ends, referring back to points made long ago. With its secrets, coincidences, overlapping connections and inter-marriage, the Tye family history is somewhat more convoluted than the average – you’ll need your wits about you to keep up at times – but their story repays attention. Not the escapism I might have been looking for but it took my mind somewhere other than the news for a while and for that I’m grateful.