Tag Archives: 1970s

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.

Blasts from the Past: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

Cover imageThis 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 in as many hands as I could.

Way back in my bookselling days I remember being given a proof of Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs. It was pleasant enough but didn’t make a huge impression on me. Years later, now working on a magazine, I was sent a copy of Late Nights on Air and became completely enthralled by it. It’s about a group of people operating a radio station in a Canadian backwater which may sound a little dull but Hay’s writing and characterisation are such that it’s utterly entrancing.

In the summer of 1975, Harry has returned with his tail between his legs from his television job in Toronto and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who has the late night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. It’s a book suffused with a quiet loneliness and longing. Hay intimately acquaints her readers with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care deeply about what happens to them. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

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

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I’m a keen Ron Rash fan. His pared to the bone writing laced with lyrical descriptions of the Appalachians is right up my alley. I’m not sure the beautifully jacketed The World Made Straight, originally published in 2006, has made an appearance here in the UK before now or if it has, how I managed to miss it. It’s set in the 1970s but the Civil War, fought over a century before, throws a long shadow for some living near Shelton Laurel, the site of an appalling atrocity.

Trying to find a way to make money after losing his job at the local supermarket, seventeen-year-old Travis Shelton is fishing when he stumbles on a field of marijuana plants. He knows they belong to the Toomeys who are not to be tangled with but he steals some anyway and heads off to see Leonard, the local dealer. On his third visit, Travis walks into a bear trap, landing himself in hospital. When his father all but chucks him out he turns up at Leonard’s door and is reluctantly taken in. Leonard has his own demons to fight. Dismissed when a pupil framed him for possession, furious at being found cheating, he’s a teacher whose ex-wife and young daughter are living in Australia. A relationship grows between these two: Travis is a smart kid, curious about the world; Leonard can’t resist feeding that curiosity, finding Travis books to read and encouraging him to go to college. Running through the novel is the memory of the Civil War and the massacre at Shelton Laurel. The ancestors of both Travis and Leonard played a part in that bloody conflict, along with those of the Toomeys. As the novel edges towards its tense conclusion it’s clear that the sides taken have not been forgotten.

The most striking aspect of Rash’s fiction for me is his use of language. His writing is spare –  ‘he rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money’ – yet his descriptions of the natural world are often quite lyrical – ‘the leaves of the trees thinned out enough that the sun laid a scattered brightness on the water’. He’s clearly a fisherman: gorgeously vivid descriptions of the river run throughout this novel, always with an eye to fishing opportunities. The novel’s characters are astutely observed and convincing – both Travis and Leonard are flawed yet redeemable. Rash weaves the Civil War deftly through his story, prefacing each chapter with an entry from the local doctor’s ledger in the years leading up to and during the conflict whose implications become clear as Travis immerses himself in the region’s history. It’s an engrossing read with a gripping climax which ends in a brutal redemption. What a treat to be presented with an unread Rash novel so soon after last year’s Above the Waterfall.  Wikipedia tells me that there are two novels preceding this one. I hope Canongate are on the case.

Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson: Girls growing up in the ’70s

Cover imageSomeone at Oneworld has a very sharp editorial eye, or maybe there’s a whole team of them. They managed to bag both the last two Man Booker Prizes, first with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings then Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. They also published Sweetbitter, one of my favourites from 2016, and The Prison Book Club, an equally impressive piece of non-fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s elegant, slim novella is another triumph. It’s a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past.

August and her brother lived in rural Tennessee until she was eight and he was four when their father took them back to the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up. They miss their mother but August comforts her brother, telling him that someday she will join them. Day after day they watch the goings-on in the street from their apartment window, forbidden to leave the house by a father grown fearful after fighting in the Vietnam war. August sees three girls playing, skipping and laughing together on the summer streets. She longs to be a part of their group and, one day, she will. Smart, beautiful Sylvia, whose parents see a bright future ahead of her, welcomes August into her friendship with Gigi and Angela, both talented but less privileged. These four will form an alliance against the world, a refuge from the insistent hum of male attention, until cracks begin to form. By the time of her father’s funeral, August is an anthropologist, an Ivy League graduate who has studied death rituals throughout the world – successful but no longer in touch with the friends who had meant so much to her.

August tells her story in her own voice, unfurling the past in fragments as memories so often do. Woodson’s writing is strikingly beautiful – poetic and often impressionistic yet capable of packing an emotional punch with a single sentence or phrase. Small details, slipped in, slowly reveal why August jumps off the subway before her stop rather than greeting her old friend. It’s a narrative infused with heart-wrenching loss: ‘I thought of my mother often, lifting my hand to stroke my own cheek’ remembers August who comforted her brother as she combed his tangled hair telling him to imagine that hers are ‘Mama’s hands’. Woodson’s portrayal of female friendship is equally arresting: ‘I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying Here. Help me carry this.Another Brooklyn is a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. It will be with me for some time.

The Lives of Women by Christine Dwyer Hickey: An old, old story, and a sad one

Cover imageChristine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure how many readers are acquainted with her quiet, measured prose although the jacket of her latest novel suggests that Last Train from Liguria was a bestseller. I’d like to think that was the case and that The Lives of Women, with its long, slow reveal of a tragedy and the shadow it casts, will meet with similar success. It certainly deserves to.

Elaine has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. Nearly fifty, she’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. One day, up in the attic exploring a leak, she spots workmen in the old Shillman house and is catapulted back to the summer in the ‘70s which triggered her departure. Along with several other families, Elaine lived with her anxious, over protective mother and her silent, aloof father on the small middle-class estate to which she’s returned. A little diffident and recuperating from a virus at the beginning of the summer, Elaine looked forward to gossipy visits from her best friend Agatha. While Elaine was in hospital her lonely mother had become friends with Mrs Shillman, acquiring a drink habit into the bargain. The arrival of Serena and her daughter Patty with their odd American ways added spice to the lives of the estate’s bored housewives. Serena befriended their teenage daughters, overseeing them with a liberal hand. As the summer wore on, the teenagers did what teenagers do while the women drank and socialised. Towards its end a tragedy played out which affected all who had a part in it, Elaine most of all.

Hickey alternates her narrative between the first-person present day and the third-person ‘70s, emphasising the distance Elaine has put between herself and the summer which shaped the rest of her life. Her writing is precise, quiet and unshowy, making it all the more striking: ‘On a ship babies and women always come first, in the suburbs, they always, always come last’ perfectly describes the departure of the men to their important lives leaving the women at home with little to do. Hickey takes her time revealing the summer’s events, leaking small details, occasionally springing larger surprises as if Elaine is circling the facts until she can face them. It’s all beautifully done: when the event itself is reached it’s hardly a surprise but that isn’t the point. The story is an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’ve not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. She’s well worth your time.