Tag Archives: Bloomsbury Books

This is Happiness by Niall Williams: On the cusp of change

Cover imageRegular readers may recall that I’ve a penchant for Irish writing, a liking for the lyrical yet pared back style of William Trevor, Colm Tóibin and John McGahern which characterises so much of the fiction I’ve read from that part of the world. Not Niall Williams’ work, though, if This is Happiness is anything to go by. Written in luxuriant prose, this coming-of-age tale winds back and forth over a single memorable summer which sees the electrification of a small town on the west coast of Ireland.

Seventeen-year-old Noe Crowe is spending the summer with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, having turned his back on the seminary where he was training to become a priest. The Wednesday before Easter, with the whole of Faha in church apart from Noe, the seemingly incessant rain stops. At around the same time, a man in his sixties turns up, introducing himself to Noe before taking off for a naked swim, much to Noe’s astonishment. This is Christy, employed by the electricity board to reaffirm all those in Faha signed up for electrification and lodging with Ganga and Doady while he does so. Noe finds himself accompanying Christy on his rounds, listening to his tales of travel and adventure until Christy confesses he’s come to Faha to ask forgiveness of the woman he jilted decades ago. Noe has his own love troubles, conceiving an unrequited passion for the doctor’s beautiful daughter who tends him when one of the electricity poles falls on him. As the seventy-five-year-old Noe looks back over that long dry summer when Faha stood on the cusp of change, he tells a poignant story of love, redemption and the secret of happiness.

As, from this, you can probably already tell, for storytelling, there were two principal styles available in Faha, the plain and the baroque

Perhaps it’s because I was half-expecting the aforementioned spare style not having read one of Williams’ novels before that it took me a little while to adjust to his relaxed, discursive storytelling which takes its readers down a multitude of byways. Once over that, I loved its lushness and affectionate humour.

He didn’t mind at all that when Ganga came calling he took an old paper or two back with him and in that way kept up to date with what was new in the world last week  

This is a novel choc-full of stories, peopled with engaging characters, not least Noe, our narrator, and Christy, the man who becomes his friend. Occasionally, the Vaseline-lensed nostalgia of it all felt a little too much – this was a time when grinding poverty was the norm in rural Ireland – but Noe reminds us of that poverty sufficiently often for it not to jar. Williams knows not just how to spin a yarn expertly but how to work it into an entire glorious sunlit tapestry of a community about to plant its feet in the twentieth-century fifty years into it. I loved it. Time to explore his backlist, I think.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2019 9781526609335 400 pages Hardback

The Offing by Benjamin Myers: The summer that changed everything

Cover imageFor some reason I hadn’t got around to reading Benjamin Myers despite recommendations by lots of people whose opinion I trust. The Gallows Pole has been on my TBR list for quite some time but it was the arrival of The Offing which finally kicked me into action. Myers’ new novel sees an old man remembering the summer after the Second World War when he tramped out of the pit village where his family lived for generations, eager for adventure.

Robert Appleyard knows that he’s destined for a life down the pit. There’s nothing else to do in his village but he’s determined to see a bit of the country before drudgery sets in. He works his way south to Whitby then onwards, picking up casual work here and there, eked out by the generosity of strangers, and sleeping in farm sheds. One day, he takes a turning down a lane which leads him to Dulcie Price, a woman quite unlike anyone he’s met. Tall, sharp-tongued and clearly posh, Dulcie welcomes him with nettle tea and the kind of conversation which leaves Robert taciturn but intrigued. Determined to work for the delicious supper Dulcie later puts on the table, he camps in her overgrown field then sets about scything it next day. One day turns into two and despite his protestations that it’s time he was moving on, he finds more work to do for Dulcie, setting about renovating the shack that was once a studio. There he finds a manuscript of poems by Romy Landau. When he asks Dulcie about it, she’s uncharacteristically quiet but over the course of a seemingly endless summer, Dulcie tells Romy’s sad story which is also her own. As autumn appears on the horizon, Robert walks back the way he came, a new friend made and both their lives changed irrevocably.

But I was a young man once, so young and green, and that can never change. Memory allows me to be so again  

Myers bookends Robert’s recollections with his thoughts as an elderly man so that we know both his roots and what he has become. The war casts a long shadow over the country sixteen-year-old Robert walks though: grief, hunger and deprivation are all too apparent yet so is kindness and generosity.

War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end.

With its evocative descriptions of the natural world, Myers’ account of Robert’s stay with Dulcie feels both timeless and unending. The wonderfully imagined Dulcie is undoubtedly the star of the show: forthright and delightfully eccentric, she’s artistically well connected – casually throwing her friendship with Noël Coward into the conversation – and determined that this bright young boy should live rather than just exist. Who can resist a character who declares:

Books are just paper, but they contain within them revolutions.

Indeed, they do, both large and small as Robert goes on to demonstrate.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Modern America in the Mojave

Cover imageGiven my weakness for small town American novels and an immigration theme I had a shrewd idea I’d enjoy Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans just from its title. It explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in the Californian desert town of Joshua Tree for decades.

Nora is celebrating with her flatmate when she hears the news of Driss’ death. She’s a musician, funding her work through supply teaching having turned her back on medical school to her mother’s chagrin. Her elder sister, Salma, is Maryam’s favourite: the good daughter – a dentist married with two children –  while Driss had always favoured Nora. She rushes home in shock, unable to take in what has happened then determined to get to the bottom of it. Back in the town she was so eager to escape, she feels suffocated by the constant attention and condolences but finds herself confiding in Jeremy, her high school band mate and an Iraq war veteran, now sheriff’s deputy. The sole witness eventually comes forward but it’s a lucky traffic stop prompted by a high school grudge which finally solves the case. Throughout the months between Driss’ death and the arraignment of the culprit, family dynamics, grief and the possibility of love are explored against a background of a modern America where casual racism and sexism abounds, and the repercussions of the Iraq war run deep.

Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. Secrets are revealed, circumstances are seen from different perspectives, interpreted or misinterpreted by others. The many narratives are deftly knitted together, each voice carefully kept distinct – from Maryam to whom Driss’ secret comes as no surprise to the detective wrestling with her stepson’s sullenness. Nora’s and Jeremy’s are the dominant voices, each with their own challenges as Nora is faced with her father’s fallibility and Jeremy understands that the traumas he suffered in Iraq may not be entirely put to rest. It’s an accomplished, absorbing novel. Lalami’s writing is subtle – the theme of racism runs throughout the book but is never laboured – and her characterisation strong. Time to explore her backlist, I think.

Blasts from the Past: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

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 into as many hands as I could.

Fugitive Pieces is one of those excellent books that sold satisfyingly well when I was a bookseller. I can’t remember why – there was no Richard and Judy at that point and it’s a properly literary novel – but it was a pleasure to see it flying out of the door. Its appeal for me was partly its premise but I’ve always had a particularly soft spot for novels by poets which Anne Michaels is. Written in richly beautiful language and studded with striking images, it’s a profound meditation upon the nature of loss, love and the healing power of words.

Athos Roussos discovers a mud-covered boy while excavating an archaeological site in Poland, and takes the child home to the Greek island of Zakynthos. Seven-year-old Jakob Beer has escaped the Nazis, forced to listen to the cries of his parents as they were murdered while he lay hidden in a closet. Athos nourishes Jakob with knowledge and words, applying balm to the wounds inflicted by such devastating loss. After the war they move to Toronto but when his beloved mentor dies and his brief marriage fails, Jakob returns to Greece to work as a translator and write poetry. When he meets Michaela, the possibility of happiness finally becomes a reality only to be snuffed out by a traffic accident. After Jakob’s death Ben, the child of concentration camp survivors, sets out in search of Jakob’s journals.

Michaels has written only one other novel as far as I know, The Winter Vault, published thirteen years after this one. It’s a fine piece of fiction but no match for the brilliance of Fugitive Pieces, at least for me. I wonder if she’ll write another.

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

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: An idiosyncratic collection

Cover imageI’d heard good things about Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time well before publication, not in a shouty in-your-face, can’t-get-away-from-it kind of way but enough to snag my attention. Then I spotted Jon McGregor’s and Sally Rooney’s comments, both clearly smitten with Flattery’s writing. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it but her collection certainly made an impression.

Show Them a Good Time comprises ten stories – some quite short, others lengthier and one which, at over ninety pages, is almost on its way to becoming a novella. ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ sees two young women, students in their final year, collaborate in writing a play staged for just one night before they find their way to the unemployment office. In ‘Not the End Yet’ a woman dates a series of unsatisfactory men in a basement restaurant as surly teenage waiters look on. ‘Parrot’ is about a stepmother who feels uneasy in her role, fielding phone calls from her stepson’s expensive Parisian school about his behaviour. In ‘You’re Going to Forget Who I Am Before I Forget Who You Are’ a children’s author on tour talks to her pregnant sister who’s troubled by her sudden inability to make small talk. Then her memory dims further. ‘Track’ sees a young woman fleeing depression, falling into an affair with a comedian whose career is in decline, his only solace the laughing track his mother gave him. These are my favourites in a collection which explores relationships, gender roles and trying to find a place for yourself in the world.

Flattery’s stories are hard to do justice to in a few lines. Puzzling, sometimes disconcerting and a little off the wall, they’re oddly captivating, both funny and sad. All are written from the perspective of young women: men tend to appear as bit-parts, often not very flattering ones. Flattery’s tone is sardonic and a little subversive. Her female characters are cleverly observed, vivid despite their feelings of not fitting into the world. Lucy and Natasha in ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ reminded me of the eponymous Paulina and Fran in their mismatched friendship. As is so often the case with short stories,  it was the writing that had me scribbling quotes right, left and centre. Here’s a smattering of favourite lines:

As the night progressed, the realisation invariably arrived that this man was not a package at all: he was an envelope, an envelope with a bill in it, an envelope she, quite frankly, wanted to put in a drawer and forget all about (Not the End Yet)

Her mind felt like a long trailer carrying a number of cars; if one car went they would all go, scatter across the motorway, cause carnage.  (Abortion, A Love Story)

Athough she was alone, she didn’t feel alone, she felt like a part of a large pantomime dragon made-up of other women, a long line of them, moving and swaying invisibly through the city. (Abortion, A Love Story)

This was the end of her first relationship and she was determined to enjoy it. (Abortion, A Love Story)

We were both long acquainted with disappointment and the joys of being used (Show Them a Good Time)

She moved up and down the staircase, cheapening the place with the cut of her clothes, searching for her soul at a frantic pace that suggested she was rummaging through a demolition site for the remains of her belongings rather than spending a pleasant few hours in a museum (Parrot)

She had been a bit tired when she entered art college, but dropping out exhausted her (Parrot)

I’ll leave you with one final quote from ‘Abortion, A Love Story:

‘I’m not sure,’ Lucy said, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know if I get it’

I’m not sure I do, either, but it was fun trying.

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Silence is not always golden

Cover imageI read Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story around this time last year and knew it would be one of my books of the year. I was delighted, then, when I spotted Loyalties on the publishing horizon. It tells the story of a young boy, caught up in the fallout from a bitter divorce, and explores the ties of silence that bind society together in a sometimes mistaken loyalty.

Hélène is a teacher with her eye on Théo. He’s too quiet for a twelve-year-old boy, seems exhausted much of the time and has only one friend. She’s convinced he’s being abused, just as she was as a child when she was subjected to systematic beatings by her sadistic father. She begins an investigation, first through official channels then stepping over the line. Théo spends alternate weeks with his mother and father. His mother is consumed with an entrenched hatred while his father slides into a deep depression. Théo has found an escape, drinking with his friend Mathis in the hope of obliterating his pain and anxiety. Meanwhile Mathis’ mother, Cécile, has discovered that her husband has an online identity that fills her with horror. In this brief novella, de Vigan examines how children can lose their way when the adults around them have lost theirs.

De Vigan tells her story from the perspectives of her four main characters giving a first-person immediacy to both Hélène and Cécile, one caught up in her own history the other reeling back from the discovery of her husband’s vile opinions. Silence and compromise are the themes here: Cécile has allowed herself to be remodeled into the person her husband wants her to be; Mathis can’t reveal Théo’s father’s condition because it will humiliate his friend and Hélène’s mother failed to step in to prevent her beatings. Théo’s situation is heart-wrenching, caught between two adults, more parent than child to one of them. De Vigan’s writing is as pinpoint sharp as ever but my expectations were sky-high after Based on a True Story which was breathtakingly good, not a description I use very often smacking as it does of hyperbole. Unfair to make that comparison given how very different in style and subject the two novels are, but inevitable, I’m afraid.

Land of the Living by Georgina Harding: War and its aftermath reprised

Cover imageA new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Her last novel, The Gun Room, explored the legacy of war through a photographer and the unwelcome fame endured by one of his subjects. Land of the Living revisits the theme from a different perspective. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence.

Charlie is a veteran of the Battle of Kohima, fought in the Indian province of Nagaland close to Burma’s border. His sleep is broken by nightmares, his days punctuated by flashbacks to the jungle patrol of which he was the sole survivor. Rescued by Naga warriors whose village he lived in for several months, he was taken to a British settlement where he met Hussey, a keen ethnographer and agent of the empire. As Charlie sets about his work, Claire wonders about the things he witnessed in Nagaland, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman. In 1947, three years after Charlie first met him and facing the independence of the only country he has properly known, Hussey visits the Ashes. During the night, Claire is woken from her own jungle nightmare by their laughter and wonders what the men can have found to amuse them. By morning Hussey has gone, leaving Charlie unburdened and Claire about to give birth. New beginnings are on the horizon.

Shifting occasionally from Charlie’s perspective to Claire’s, Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Much is left unspoken between these two , her apparent light-heartedness disguising her understanding of the chasm between them. Harding manages all this with characteristic deftness, quietly conveying Charlie’s dislocation from the prosaic everyday:

He drew the curtains and tended the fire then sat down in the armchair beside it with the whisky glass in his hand. The room only began to seem inhabited when the dog followed him in.

Much is communicated in a few well-chosen words while her descriptions of both Norfolk and Nagaland are lyrically evocative:

The fog wasn’t coming down again. The night would be clear and cold. The sky towards sunset was becoming unexpectedly lighter, pale turquoise-blue streaks bared in it, the first colour of the day.

With its exploration of the legacy of empire and war, the burden those who fought carry on their return and the silence with which it is often borne both by family and veterans, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

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: War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen (2002)

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.

It was the jacket that first attracted me to War Crimes for the Home. There’s a nice little Rosie the Riveter period feel about it that made me want to read the book, and I’m pleased to say that all these years later it remains the same. I suspect that means Bloomsbury feel it’s not worth the usual repackaging that denotes a facelift for a steady seller, or perhaps the relaunch of an author’s backlist in the hope of a little boost from a new title. A shame – it has a superb main protagonist, gutsy and bawdily funny with it, plus a twist that while it isn’t altogether unexpected works beautifully.

Liz Jensen’s novel explores memory and old age through Gloria a reluctant resident of the Sea View nursing home. Gloria loves a joke, but her memory’s not so good. Nearly eighty, her passionate nights with the dashing Ron, an American Second World War pilot, are crystal clear but there are puzzling gaps, black holes that have to be filled when her son starts asking uncomfortable questions which she isn’t sure she can answer. Her wartime love affair with an American Air Force man has left a legacy of secrets so deeply buried that it seems even Gloria is no longer privy to them.

The irascible yet determined, ‘feisty’ (how I hate that word) old woman was something of a rarity in contemporary fiction when Jensen’s novel was first published – Lesley Glaister’s protagonists, who no one would dare to call ‘old dears’, or, of course, Angela Carter’s twins in Wise Children come to mind but that’s it. Nowadays they’re more common but Gloria remains one of the most convincing fictional old women I’ve encountered.

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

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison: Dark clouds gather

Cover imageBoth Melissa Harrison’s previous novels are notable for their vividly evocative descriptions of the English countryside, the kind of thing readers are treated to in the very best nature writing. This combined with a dollop of sharp social observation made At Hawthorn Time stand out for me. All Among the Barley goes several steps further with a powerful piece of storytelling set in the early ‘30s when a young woman turns up in the East Anglian village of Elmbourne, inveigling herself into the affections of a vulnerable fourteen-year-old girl.

The Mathers have worked Wych Farm for generations. Edie has known little else for her entire fourteen years. She caught diphtheria as a young child, almost dying from it, and it seems that her mother is determined to keep her safe at home. She’s a bright child, more often found reading than doing her chores, too clever to have made much in the way of friends. In 1933, the year of the most beautiful autumn Edie can remember, times are troubled as the Depression bites. Edie knows little of that but she does know that her father is in the grip of worry about grain prices and that John, the farm’s horseman, and he are at political loggerheads. When Constance FitzAllen appears in the village, asking questions and professing a love for the old rural ways, Edie senses that life could be something other than the occasional trip to the cinema with her mother, visits to her grandparents and a future of marriage with babies soon to follow. As the farming year wears on, harvest becomes the urgent focus, all hands put to bringing it in and safely storing it. Almost in celebration, Constance calls a meeting in the village pub, promising free beer with dramatic results.

Harrison unfolds her story through Edie who is looking back to the events of over half a century ago. Naïve yet intelligent, Edie is the perfect narrator for this story, flattered by the attentions of Constance but not savvy enough to examine her motives. Constance’s romantic views of the countryside are neatly conveyed, revealing a nostalgia for a world that never really existed rather than concern for those who live there. Harrison sets her novel against a febrile background: suspicion of change, economic hardship and fear of the other leave Elmbourne prey to the shadowy forces of fascism that are gathering throughout Europe. I’m not suggesting that those times exactly mirror our own but it was hard to read this novel without the spectre of the EU referendum and its fallout popping up in my mind. For those feeling less doomy about all that, there are a plethora of gorgeous descriptive passages to enjoy. Here are two favourites:

The woods and spinneys lay in our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes  

The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks

 An impressive novel, then. Harrison seems to go from strength to strength.