Category Archives: Reviews

The Groundsmen by Lynn Buckle: A Greek tragedy of a novel

Cover imageBack in May I reviewed Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, the first publication from époque press, with which I was very impressed. Lynn Buckle’s novel is their second and could not be more different. Not that it isn’t impressive but whereas El Hacho was a timeless, fable-like novella written in clean, spare prose, The Groundsmen explores a supremely dysfunctional family telling their story in their own voices. It’s like having a nest of angry wasps in your head.

Louis and Cally have two daughters, both named after characters who people the Greek myths in which Cally takes refuge to escape her powder keg of husband. Louis looks to his brother Toby to keep him order. They spend much of their time together, even working for the same firm where Louis has carved out a role for himself as a techie. Only Toby grasps the full horror of what happened to Louis when he was a child, having been subjected to the same abuse by Uncle Brown, the groundsman. Both men have perpetuated the cycle, but whereas Toby has a semblance of adult responsibility, Louis careers from crisis to crisis, deeply embroiled in a torment of denial, misogynistic sexual fantasy and self-absorption. When Toby is made redundant amidst rumours of ‘inappropriate’ material found on his computer, Louis fears he may not be far behind, wrapping himself in his usual denial until he is asked to return all his electronic devices. As things begin to unravel even further for Louis, Cally realises she must break out of her stupor for the sake of her children. Meanwhile, five-year-old Cassie escapes her fractured family by turning herself into a dog in her head while fourteen-year-old Andi takes the more dangerous route of finding a boyfriend online.

Buckle’s novel is mercifully short. It’s not a book to enjoy, more one to admire. She tells her family’s story in bursts of interior monologue, a very effective device although these are people whose heads you won’t want to spend much time in. Louis veers chaotically from grandiosity to literally vomiting out his secrets; Cally seems paralysed by years of his cruelty and neediness; Andi retreats into social media, lonely and ripe for grooming while Cassie invents happy families for herself when she’s not channelling Blackie. Only Toby appears to have a veneer of responsibility. The measure of the success of Buckle’s novel lies in the sheer discomfort it provokes. It was a relief to finish it. I found the ending a little bewildering but it’s impossible not to admire the audacity of this unsettling piece of fiction.

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies: She is my delight

Cover imageI wasn’t entirely sure I would read Deborah Kay Davies’ second novel. The press release suggested that she’s often been compared with Angela Carter which set loud alarm bells ringing but I rarely read Welsh fiction, and its published by OneWorld who can generally be relied upon to deliver the goods. Set in the 1970s, it’s about the eponymous Tizrah, sixteen years old and beginning to question the strictures of the sect to which her parents belong.

Tirzah rarely leaves the village in the valley where she was born. Her parents are members of a non-conformist Christian denomination whose draconian rules are obeyed by some to the letter and by others with a little more generosity and compassion. Tizrah’s father is in the former camp, his roaring tirades tempered by her mother who counsels discretion and patience. Her best friends are her cousin Biddy and Osian, for whom Tizrah has puzzling little glimmers of desire which are more than returned. When Osian’s father catches these two alone together, a flame of righteous indignation is lit that results in his son’s public humiliation, cowing him into submission. Tizrah is having none of that. She’s all for questioning the chapel’s rules, escaping sermons by sending her mind soaring over her beloved mountainside. One day she confronts, Brân, a ragged young boy of her own age who seems to live in the woods on the mountainside and communes with the crows who live there. Shortly afterwards, Tizrah’s bright future, built on a determination to do well at school and escape the  judgement of Horeb, takes a very different turn.

There’s more than a touch of the fable about Davies’ tragicomic novel which is told from the perspective of Tizrah. whose ‘ungovernable heart’ leads her into the kind of trouble Horeb’s congregation is all too eager to condemn, despite often being less pure themselves than they’d like others to think. Davies’ writing is striking, particularly in her descriptions of the natural world, home to Tizrah’s true spiritual centre:

Here are armies of furry, half-grown, foxgloves spears, with their tight bunches of purple buds, and amongst the bracken, old, scrambling ropes of scarlet pimpernel

Her novel is peopled with many engaging characters, from Tizrah’s mother who quietly curbs her father’s worst judgemental outbursts to Biddy who shrugs off the more ridiculous pronouncements at chapel with pragmatic aplomb while Tizrah herself lives up to her Hebrew name: she is, indeed, a delight. Davies’ ear for dialogue adds to all this. And it’s very funny at times: Davies pokes gentle fun at the ludicrous shenanigans of Herob while never losing sight of the fact that they’re so busily caught up in their piety that they fail to notice tragedy unfolding on their doorsteps. Just one jarring note for me and that was Brân who, Wikipedia tells me, is a figure from Welsh mythology. I’m not sure Davies entirely knew what to do with him, perhaps wary of wandering too far off into magic realism territory. That said, I enjoyed spending time in Tizrah’s company.

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part One

Cover imageNovember’s packed to the gills with goodies, not all of them obvious Christmas presents although I’d be surprised if Jonathan Coe’s Middle England doesn’t appear on one or two wish lists. Set in the Midlands and London, it follows the last eight years through the lives of a set of characters including a political commentator and a Tory MP. Dubbed ‘a story of nostalgia and irony; of friendship and rage, humour and intense bewilderment’ by the publishers, it sounds like the kind of novel at which Coe excels. It feels a very long time since Number 11 and the return of the Winshaws so expectations are high.

A close contender for top of my own wish list is Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living which is set partly in India during the Second World War from which Charlie has returned, marrying, settling on a farm and hoping to turn his back on what happened in the remote mountains of Nagaland. ‘A beautifully conceived, deftly controlled and delicately wrought meditation on the isolating impact of war, the troubling legacies of colonialism and the inescapable reach of the past, Georgina Harding’s haunting, lyrical novel questions the very nature of survival, and what it is that the living owe the dead’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Harding, including her last novel, The Gun Room, which also tackled the theme of war.

Walter Kempowski’s Homeland examines the legacy of the Second World War from a different perspective. In 1988, a journalist is commissioned to report on a car rally, an assignment which will take him back to the place he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers promisingly. And it’s translated by one of my favourites: Charlotte Collins

Gerard Reve’s Childhood comprises two novellas: one set in wartime Amsterdam as a young boy watches the German occupation of his city, the other about a children’s secret society and its treatment of a newcomer. ‘In these two haunting novellas from the acclaimed author of The Evenings, the world of childhood, in all its magic and strangeness, darkness and cruelty, is evoked with piercing wit and dreamlike intensity. Here, the things seen through a child’s eyes are far from innocent’ say the publishers no doubt hoping for the same success that met Reve’s bleak but darkly funny The Evenings.Cover image

I’m polishing off this first selection on a more cheerful note with Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter, set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while sharply observing their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great.

That’s it for the first batch of November’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s taken your fancy. Second instalment to follow soon…

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): War and peace

Cover imageI reviewed Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter here quite some time ago now but it’s stayed with me. Its premise is simple – three German Second World War soldiers share a bowl of soup in an abandoned hut and are interrupted by a Polish hunter – but its exploration of the horrors of war is extraordinarily powerful. First published in French in 2003, Four Soldiers explores similar themes this time against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War in 1919.

A company of Red Army soldiers in retreat from the Romanians is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of the soldiers form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, unofficially led by Pavel. Kyabine is the brawn of the group, big strong and obsessed with tobacco. Sifra is quiet and diffident, adept enough to reassemble his rifle blindfolded, but it is to Benia that Pavel turns for consolation each night when his nightmare recurs. With the advent of spring, they’re ordered to burn their hut where they’ve played so many games of dice, gambling away the tobacco which Pavel finds ways of passing back to Kyabine, kissing the watch containing the picture of a woman with which they each takes a turn to sleep. They stumble upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days. A young boy is assigned to the four, at first regarded with suspicion, then enfolded into their friendship. As spring wears on the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I’d been reading more novellas this year, remarking on how powerful they can be: Four Soldiers is a perfect example. Told through Benia’s voice in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly and compassionately captures the comradeship of soldiers who form a deep bond of fellowship, enjoying a brief period of peace while shutting out the inevitability of what lies ahead. His writing is spare, stripped of any ornamentation and all the more evocative for it:

The officers stopped to look behind them, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, as if they’d forgotten something.

 Barely had we finished drinking that tea before we became nostalgic for it.

I was filled with emotion because each one of us was in his place and also because it seemed to me that instant that each of us was away from the winter in the forest. And that each of us was also far away from the war that was going to start up again because the winter was over.

The end is quietly devastating. While I can happily enjoy a well spun, chunky yarn  – Little being a case in point – it’s hard to beat the punch of a carefully honed novella.

Little by Edward Carey: Only in stature

Cover imageEdward Carey’s novel arrived through my letterbox so far in advance of publication that I’d forgotten all about it, only picking it up when I felt the need for something long enough to lose myself in. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little worked a treat, taking me first to eighteenth-century Switzerland then to Revolutionary Paris before its final Baker Street destination.

When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who barely knows what to do with a child but welcomes her help in modelling the organs brought from Berne hospital’s anatomy department. She’s a quick learner, adept at wax modelling, but tiny and unprepossessing with her sharp chin and pointed nose. Their work gains such a reputation that soon Berne’s worthies are commissioning busts of themselves. Marie wonders if she might be paid. When a rather pompous Parisian visits, Marie gains a new name, Little, from this man who will later become her friend. Bailiffs appear on the horizon when Dr Curtius falls out of favour with the hospital, precipitating a move to Paris where they find a billet with a tailor’s widow. Marie ricochets back and forth between Dr Curtius, who conceives an unrequited passion for the widow, and the widow who insists she’s a servant, asking when she will be paid until she’s engaged to teach Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, a relationship that will end in disgrace. Soon, the bustling business gained from Marie’s work at court will be replaced by the grisly modelling of the Revolution’s victims. The feral boy who once guarded their home will become the Revolution’s chief executioner. Grudges will be borne and scores settled in the worst of ways. When it’s all over Marie is alone, but – sharp and resourceful as ever – she finds her own pragmatic way.

Carey tells his tale through Marie’s distinctive voice, illustrating it with her drawings for which she has a prodigious talent. She’s an engaging narrator who unfolds her blood-soaked, heartrending story with sharp insight and a pleasingly sly wit, leading us through a life begun in poverty which ends as the proprietor of one of London’s most visited attractions. Carey’s writing is as precise as his illustrations, and wonderfully evocative.

Ernst finally halted at a house thinner and smaller than the rest, squeezed in between two bullying neighbouring residences, poor and neglected

Here is a truth: people are very fascinated by themselves

Look at you, the newest children in the overstuffed toyshop!

There’s a touch of the Dickensian about Little – playfully acknowledged in Marie’s professed annoyance with that author’s notetaking close to the end of the book – although the novel that sprung to mind for me was not A Tale of Two Cities but Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet which charts another orphan’s journey through French history. Carey’s novel was an unexpected treat for me. Entertaining, erudite and absorbing: it’s one to add to your Christmas lists.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry: A proper piece of Gothic for our times

Cover imageIf you’re a frequenter of my neck of the Twitter woods, I’d be surprised if you’d not come across Sarah Perry’s third novel well before it was published. Her publishers have been trailing it for months, ramping up an anticipation that was already well primed for many of us who enjoyed both her debut, After the Flood, and her much-lauded second novel, The Essex Serpent. Fans who are as wary of hype as I am can relax: Perry has outdone herself with this chilling slice of Gothic which, as with her previous novels, combines a rattling good yarn with a complex moral dimension.

Forty-two-year-old Helen Franklin has scratched a living in Prague for twenty years. She passes unnoticed, has few friends and dislikes her ancient landlady who scents a penitent. Not long before Christmas, she’s summoned by Karel, the partner of her friend Thea. Karel seems agitated. He’s been left a manuscript by an old man he’d befriended at the city library, a confessional memoir which lays bare the young Josef’s transgressions. Not long after he’s passed the first pages to Helen, eager to be rid of them, Karel disappears. Helen becomes entranced by both Josef’s story and Karel’s research with its many references to a woman swathed in black, reaching out a hand to those at their lowest ebb, desperate for a companion in her loneliness. This is Melmoth, known by a multitude of names throughout the world, condemned to witness the sins of humanity as a punishment for denying the resurrection of Jesus, seen with her own eyes. Helen becomes convinced that she’s being followed, turning her mind back to memories she has so carefully barricaded. As she buries herself in Karel’s research papers, full of stories of human weakness and depravity, she begins to see ghosts everywhere until the one she most dreads appears.

Perry’s novel is prefaced by a memorial to Charles Robert Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, the nineteenth-century Gothic novel from which her novel draws its inspiration. Like Maturin, Perry nests stories within stories throughout her book – from the young Josef’s betrayal of the Jewish family whose overtures of friendship he resents to the brothers, both civil servants, who coolly help administer the Armenian genocide. There’s a complex moral thread running through her narrative. Humans in their weakness seem doomed to transgress, either on the grand scale of perpetrating genocide or merely looking the other way but Melmoth is forced to witness it all and may come calling, reaching out her hand to those who resist redemption. All of this is couched in beautifully polished prose. Perry transports you to Prague with her gorgeous descriptions of this Gothic central European city which has seen so much conflict and suffering. It’s a superb novel – chilling, clever and immersive. I’m resisting that old clichéd description of an author at the height of her powers not least because after such an assured, original piece of work who knows what Perry will come up with next?

French Exit by Patrick deWitt: Squewering the rich

Cover imageI’ve been a keen fan of Patrick deWitt’s fiction since reading his darkly comic ripping yarn, The Sisters Brothers. His last novel, Undermajordomo Minor, was entirely different having more than a touch of the Gothic fairy tale about it. French Exit takes yet another turn with its caustic caricature of the wealthy upper classes, taking its readers from New York City to Paris in the company of Frances Price, her son Malcolm and Small Frank, their ancient cat.

Frances has been avoiding her financial advisor. She knows what’s coming. After years of jaw dropping extravagance her husband’s money has finally run out. She sells the contents of her swanky apartment, then the apartment itself, stashing 185,000 euros in cash along with her sedated cat in her handbag and crosses the Atlantic with Malcolm in tow. On board ship, Malcolm briefly takes up with a medium, later banged up in the brig for telling a passenger she’s about to die which said passenger promptly does. Once settled into her best friend’s apartment, Frances sets about ridding herself of her cash but not before Small Frank runs away. Soon they’ve acquired a full house of lodgers including a lonely widow, a private investigator and Madeleine the medium, tracked down to contact Small Frank. Frances is still spending money like water, handing it out to strangers when there’s nothing left to buy, and she’s desperate to find Small Frank. He is, after all, the vessel that houses her dead husband’s spirit.

DeWitt’s satire is almost cartoon-like in its outlandish comedy, lampooning the rich with a cast of vividly memorable characters: Frances the sharp-tongued widow, long thought to have taken off to Vail on a skiing trip after discovering her husband’s corpse; Small Frank lumbered with Franklin’s truculent, whining voice as he roams Paris, flea-ridden and hungry; and Malcolm whose only purpose in life is to keep his mother company. There’s a degree of humanity amongst all this excoriation: Malcolm’s emotional constipation after a childhood of being ignored by both parents contrasts with his mother’s attempt to burn the house down to get attention when she was a child. Not my favourite deWitt novel – The Sisters Brothers still holds pride of place for that – but still a welcome treat.

Blasts from the Past: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I know I bang on a lot about book jackets but I can’t talk about A Fine Balance without commenting on its wonderful cover which has been the same for as long as I can remember, certainly since I was recommending it as a bookseller. I’ve no idea if it’s faked or not but it’s superb. The book’s contents are pretty stunning too.

Determined to keep her independence after the sudden death of her husband, Dina sets up as a seamstress. As her eyes begin to fail she recruits two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, supplementing her meagre income by taking in a student as a paying guest. What begins as an economic necessity becomes an arrangement between friends, each wrestling with their own demons. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart. Through a cast of vividly drawn characters and with great wit and humanity, A Fine Balance explores the effects of the State of Emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India.

Hard to write about this book and not describe it as Dickensian, a comparison which many critics drew when it was published. Tolstoy also sprang to reviewers’ minds but Mistry claimed not to be drawn to either of these preferring Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Updike.

As far as I know Mistry has only published three novels – Family Matters came out in 2002 and there’s been nothing since. Sixteen years is a long time between books and I’m beginning to think that it may be time to give up hope.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: The Man Booker wish that got away

Cover imageRegular readers may already have noticed that I’m a fan of Sarah Moss’ writing – Names for the Sea, Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone have all been given an outing here – and with Ghost Wall, it seems she’s surpassed herself. A mere 150 pages long, this novella is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie has been dragooned into a summer project by her father, a bus driver and enthusiastic amateur historian. Together with three students and their professor, she and her parents will live as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, cooking what they forage and dressed in rough spun tunics. Sylvie’s used to Bill’s didactic ways. She knows more about their subject than Molly, Pete and Dan who are playing at re-enactment, sloping off to the local Spar for covert supplies and spending the odd illicit evening in the pub. Molly applies her nail varnish and changes her matching bra and pants regularly, frivolities Bill wouldn’t permit Sylvie or her mother, Alison. Women disgust him. Easily offended by the slightest show of knowledge other than his own, Bill takes his frustrations out on Alison who’s relegated to cooking their meagre meals. As the hot summer days wear on, Sylvie and Molly become close. Molly becomes increasingly unsettled by marks on Sylvie’s body, marks she tries to hide. Flush with their success at the recreation of a ghost wall, used by the Ancient Britons in an attempt to repel the Romans, the professor and Bill are intent on another, more sinister re-enactment.

Told through Sylvie’s voice, Ghost Wall is a much tighter piece of fiction than the four previous novels I’ve read by Moss. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book – from Sylvie’s shame to the sneering voice in her head – offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the landscape in hot weather:

Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine and dry feet.

Walking up there, it feels as if you’re being offered on an open hand to the weather, though when you look down there are plenty of soft little hiding places, between the marsh grass in the boggy dips and in the heather, vibrating with bees, on the slopes.

The novella’s climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. This is such an impressive piece of work. At the end of my Man Booker wish list I said that I might well read a gem published before the deadline that I would regret not including and this is it. Once again, however, the judges disagreed.

Seven Days in North Norfolk and Half a Book

View from Blakeney Hight StreetAfter our long railway jaunt around central Europe earlier in the year H and I both fancied settling in one place for a week. Despite having spent three enjoyable holidays in North Norfolk in four years, we’d not been back in almost a decade: a return visit seemed ideal. We set off on one of those gorgeous autumn mornings, arriving in Blakeney in the late afternoon only a little discombobulated by the ‘axe-throwing escape rooms’ sign just outside Kings Lynn.

North Norfolk is famous for its big sky stretching out over theView out over North Norfolk marshes marshes to the sea. On a clear night the stars are spectacular, something we never see at home thanks to all that ambient light thrown up by the town. It’s also home to lots of pretty villages, many with delis offering treats, plus the small town of Holt which still boasts a proper department store. None of your brand concession nonsense at Baker and Larners.

Beach Houses WellsWe already had a catalogue of walks in our heads, the favourite of which for me is a circular hike beginning at Wells-next-the-Sea continuing to Holkham and back up the beach past Wells’ colourful beach huts whose numbers seemed to have expanded greatly since our last visit. One of the joys of this walk is watching lots of happy waggy dogs cavorting on the beach although they, like us, were having a bit of trouble with the buffeting wind.

By mid-week the bluster was in full-swing so we took ourselves off inland to Hindringham Hall’s Hindringham House gardensgorgeous gardens, far more lovely than we were expecting with its beautifully ordered kitchen garden, groaning with produce, and autumn crocuses scattered across lawns surrounded by a moat.

Inevitably there was a wet day but I’d wanted to visit the Sainsbury Centre at UEA in Norwich for Arcade Norwichsome time. The collection is housed in Norman Foster’s first building, still looking good despite its fortysomething years. Only a smattering of artefacts is on display from the vast collection but it’s beautifully curated. My favourite piece was a miniature Peruvian lama fashioned in silver c. 1400-1532. The afternoon was spent wandering around Norwich which is far enough away from anywhere else to have retained its character. It even has a little outbreak of Art Nouveau.

And the book? Sad to say that not nearly as much reading was done as either of us had hoped thanks to our cottage’s crepuscular lighting, clearly not designed for readers. I did manage to get stuck in to Emma Flint’s Little Deaths set in ’60s New York. Based on a true crime, it’s the story of a double child murder told from the perspective of the children’s mother whose apparently louche lifestyle puts her in the frame and the rookie reporter who shoulders his way into covering the crime and becomes obsessed by her. Not usually my cup of tea but it’s deftly handled and engrossing.

An enjoyable break, then, despite the blowing about by Storm Ali. I’m enjoying the current spell of sunny autumn days before knuckling down to winter. Long may it last.