Tag Archives: British contemporary fiction

Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore: An unexpected, very welcome treat

Cover imageIn his touching Foreword to Girl, Balancing and Other Stories, Helen Dunmore’s son, Patrick Charnley, tells us that she had discussed with him the possibility of a collection of short stories to be published after her death. Charnley mined his mother’s papers and laptop, gathering together thirty-three pieces written in the two decades since Dunmore’s last collection was published. Demonstrating the empathy that characterised so much of his mother’s work, Charnley tells us that the family’s delight in what he found is one of our reasons for publishing the collection, to share this work with Mum’ s readers, many of whom, too, must feel that their enjoyment of Mum’s writing has been cut short.

The first of the collection’s three sections, The Nina Stories, is made up of three linked pieces beginning with the comfort of warm olive oil in a sore ear and ending with an assertion of a young woman’s independence in the face of danger.

The Present starts with the teasing humour of ‘Taken in the Shadows’ in which the narrator contemplates John Donne’s portrait, the object of many a fifteen-year-old’s desire, imagining his ankle itching as he sits for it before recounting the miseries of a life spent in poverty. Three favourites from this section for me include ‘All Those Personal Survival Medals’ which turns a burning childhood humiliation into a life-saving triumph, ‘A Night Out’ in which two women, prematurely widowed, find unexpected friendship and the poignant ‘Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons’ in which a young girl is faced with the result of her family’s dismissive perception of her aunt.

The Past takes us from the wartime passion of ‘Rose, 44’ which sees a young woman’s hopes for her black American lover violently quashed to ‘With Shackleton’ in which a woman inwardly rails against her mother-in-law’s pride as she misses her husband, off on an expedition soon after her miscarriage to ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’ in which Dunmore has fun with Jane Eyre, throwing a very different light on Rochester and his daughter’s governess.

Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world are all adroitly explored. Several are set in Bristol where Dunmore had lived and worked for many years: ‘A View from the Observatory’ which recalls an illicit moonlit visit to the camera obscura on the Downs is a particular delight with its air of menace, deftly handled in Dunmore’s characteristic style. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words: in ‘Duty Free’ a woman reflects on the youth of the soldiers passing through on their way to Afghanistan but with characteristic restraint Dunmore makes no mention of what may happen to them. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are a multitude of lines I could have quoted but here are a few which seem to me to capture Dunmore’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation:

There were lots of drawings of a bare man who looked as if he didn’t know he hadn’t got any clothes on thinks an eleven-year-old at an exhibition

Our students like modules which demand opinions rather than extensive reading an academic wryly observes

I would stare down to see if my badness was flickering away across the dust like a snake remembers a woman of her childhood beating

They were offering smiles now, and Christmas greetings, as if they were all survivors of a wreck and had been hauled up on to the same raft expresses the relief of family Christmases almost over

I’m driving in the dark. There’s not another car in sight. I haven’t seen one for miles. Only my own headlights, brushing the loneliness

Even if a woman has always coloured her hair, she won’t be able to fool anyone after her death 

There’s not one dud in this collection. I’m sure Dunmore’s many fans will be as grateful to her family as I am for sharing this final, unexpected treat.

The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: Communes and how to survive them

Cover imageI was looking for a novel to get stuck into having just given up one I’d been eagerly anticipating but which proved to be disappointing. Set during the 2011 London heatwave, Rhiannnon Lucy Cosslett’s debut, The Tyranny of Lost Things, neatly filled the gap.

No one’s warned Harmony about the unearthly shrieks of the elderly alcoholic tenant downstairs which wake her on her first morning in her new flatshare at 26 Longhope Crescent but they’re strangely familiar. Unbeknownst to her flatmates, Harmony has lived in the house before when her parents were part of a commune. Torn between convention and wanting to flout it, Stella fell for thirty-four-year-old Bryn when she was just a teenager, struggling with his throwback hippie ideals, top of the list being free love. Harmony spent her childhood after her parents spilt following her mother from boyfriend to boyfriend and rarely seeing her father who took himself off to Wales. She’s dropped out of university, waitressing in a pub when one panic attack too many decides her to return to the house where she knows something traumatic happened twenty years ago. Harmony moves in with Josh and Lucia telling neither about her past but determined to find out what triggers the nightmares in which a red-haired young woman occasionally appears.

Cosslett structures her novel around a series of objects – many of which trigger memories in the jigsaw of events that Harmony is trying to fit together – interspersing them with snapshots from her character’s commune childhood, giving the narrative a taut thread of suspense. London is vividly evoked in all its grimy, resplendent glory in what feels like a love letter to the city. Cosslett’s characters could easily have been stereotypical cardboard cutouts but she manages to avoid that, fleshing them out into complex fully realised human beings and giving her novel a pleasing edge with her sharp social observation. The skewering of male middle class protestations of political solidarity with the miners’ strike was particularly satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable novel which made me remember Lukas Moodysson’s hilarious, heart-wrenching film Together. Not sorry to have missed all that in my own old-fashioned, conventional childhood.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd: A satisfying snack

Always a delight to open a new William Boyd and find it dedicated ‘To Susan’. Nothing to do with me, obviously, but still… Short stories are almost as welcome as a novel for me these days particularly when two of them are pleasingly lengthy. Boyd’s collection also includes seven much shorter stories but, perhaps inevitably for a reader who still prefers longer fiction, these two were the ones I enjoyed best. Several are linked by the theme of art – those who would like to make it and those who do.

At just under 100 pages, you could almost call the eponymous story a novella. In her early twenties, Bethany flits from job to job, cursing her habit of immediately adding the last name of every attractive man she meets to her own and assessing the result. She’s the child of well-connected, acrimoniously divorced parents – father in Los Angeles, mother in London with whom she lives when she’s between men. When we first meet her, she’s working in a niche stationers’, spending her lunch hours working on her somewhat autobiographical novel, but before long she’s taken a bit-part in an indie film then she’s working in a gallery, calling herself a photographer. The story ends with the beginning of another year which sees Bethany wondering what she’s going to do next.

The Vanishing Game: An Adventure… is somewhat shorter but long enough for Boyd to have a lot of fun with Alec Dunbar, an actor down on his luck who accepts a job delivering a flask of water, supposedly from the River Jordan, to a remote Scottish church. Alec’s many roles in low-rent thrillers come in handy when he finds himself caught up in a real life version.

Of the seven shorter pieces, three stood out for me. In Humiliation a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. The Things I Stole tells the story of a man’s life through a trail of stolen goods – from a tin of cherry pie filling to his daughters’ happiness – ending pleasingly back where he began. The Man Who Loved Kissing sees a philandering gallery-owner get his comeuppance when his sure-fire way of avoiding another financially ruinous adultery backfires.

There’s much to enjoy in this collection, not least it’s humour. Bethany had me laughing out loud several times, reminding me of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Most of the stories explore worlds which Boyd knows well enough to ridicule effectively. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. One of my favourites is Fernando Benn – Neville to his friends – who declares in Bethany:I’m not a photographer… …I’m an artist who chooses to work in lens-based media’. Benn’s show consists of photographs of war photographs clipped out of books, surely a law suit waiting to happen if the gallery were not so obscure that no one will notice. He pops up again in The Diarists peddling ‘faux-faux naif’ art to the rich, so bad it’s good. A few of the shorter pieces felt a little dashed-off to me but on the whole this is a very enjoyable collection, enough to keep Boyd fans happy until the next novel.

If you’d like to read another (possible) short story convert’s review, you might like to pop over to Cleopatra Loves Books  who was thoroughly won over.

The Waking by Matthew Smith: Questions, questions…

Cover imageMatthew Smith’s The Waking is published by Wundor Editions who are a mere one year old and have a tiny list. This is the kind of combination that has me reaching for the ‘no thank you’ button – accepting review copies then finding you don’t like them from the conglomerates is one thing, agreeing to look at one with no guarantee to review it from such a small outfit is quite another. The novel’s premise, however, was tempting and happily it turned out to be well worth reading. Exploring themes of grief, art and literature, The Waking is about Isabel, a young woman whose mother, Marianne, died in a fire when she and her siblings were children.

Isabel has spent her life surrounded by words. Her father is a literary critic and her mother was a novelist whose first book met with great acclaim. One evening, their parents at a Hampstead drinks party just around the corner, Isabel and her brother are in the garden caught up in a game while their younger sister is inside reading. They see what might be a fire in the house but do nothing until it suddenly takes hold. It seems that Marianne had returned, after all, and was unable to escape the flames. Having finished her degree, Isabel has installed herself in a flat bought with her mother’s money which has left her secure but directionless. She finds herself overcoming her suspicions of a PhD student intent on gaining information about Marianne’s work, opening-up to Imogen and accepting her revelation that she was once the family’s babysitter. A bond of intimacy forms between these two which throws Isabel into a quandry of doubt about her past, disturbing her sleep and clouding her memories, while throwing up a multitude of questions about Imogen and her perplexing behaviour.

Smith is a poet whose skills are smartly showcased in Isabel’s vivid childhood memories, brightly sketched word pictures around which he structures his novel. She’s a satisfyingly unreliable narrator: her memory a little patchy, her sleep so disturbed that she seems unable to think entirely straight. No slouch at suspense, Smith is adept at pulling the rug from under his readers’ feet. It seems that no one can quite agree what happened the night of the Hampstead fire, each version a little different from the previous one, and there’s a constant nagging question as to what Imogen might be up to. The novel loses its way in the reconstruction of Marianne’s unfinished novel towards the end which slackened the pace a little for me but there’s a satisfying resolution. Overall, it’s a gripping narrative, a smart and pacy literary thriller which explores the indelible scars of loss.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Antigone redux

Cover imageIt’s been three years since Kamila Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, a book I confidently expected to appear on the following year’s Baileys longlist. This year’s Man Booker judges have followed suit, longlisting Home Fire which I’m sure would have appeared on my own wishlist had I read it in time. It’s a retelling of Antigonethose who know their Sophocles won’t be expecting a happy ending.

On her way to begin a PhD in America, Isma is waylaid by the British border authorities and subjected to a humiliating interrogation. Once there, she settles into a pleasing routine, setting up her laptop in a local café most mornings. Her nineteen-year-old sister regularly Skypes her from home in London. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz also appears online, a frequent but silent presence. One day Isma recognises a handsome young man in the café. He’s the son of the British Home Secretary, a Muslim known to be a hardliner, determined to clamp down on extremism no matter how unpopular it makes him. Eamonn and Isma become comfortably familiar with each other but Isma is careful not to reveal her history until she trusts him. Her father died when she was a child, a terrorist on his way to Guantánamo. Hers is a family used to secrecy, tightly knit and even more so after the death of her mother when Isma took the upbringing of the twelve-year-old twins upon herself. When Eamonn offers to take a package home for her, he decides to deliver it in person, meeting Aneeka with whom he becomes smitten. To his surprise, she returns his interest and an affair begins but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria.

Shamsie excels at taking complex themes and humanising them. She structures her novel into five sections, shifting perspective between each of her principal characters so that we are presented with a rounded view of how this tragedy has come about. Her characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, each with a different experience of what it is to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century Western world. Parvaiz is far from a caricature jihadi – a young man who sees his sisters forging ahead in their respective studies but finds his own talents frustrated, easy prey to the older man who flatters and ingratiates himself, grooming him and leading him towards a hell that six months later he’s desperate to escape. Shamsie’s writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable. Tensions between what the state expects and requires, and the pull of familial love are explored in a story which kept me gripped to its dramatic end. This is a very fine novel, perhaps her best yet and thoroughly deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist.

If you’d like to read another review of Home Fire, Claire over at Word by Word has reviewed it here and Heavenali here.

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright: A tale of two countries

The Cut is the second in the Peirene Now! series, books commissioned by the publisher’s founder, Mieke Ziervogel, in response to the questions shaping our world. The first was Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ collection, breach, based on the stories they’d gathered in Calais and the now defunct ‘Jungle’ refugee camp just outside the town. This one addresses the profound dismay many of us felt after the result of the EU referendum here in the UK a year ago. Ziervogel commissioned it because:

‘The result of the EU referendum shocked me. I realised that I had been living in one part of a divided country. What fears – and what hopes – drove my fellow citizens to vote for Brexit? I commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that have opposed each other since the referendum day.’

The result is The Cut, funded through crowdsourcing.

Cartwright’s novel opens dramatically with a woman in flames, running down the street. A man is filming her, no one tries to stop her until someone on a mobility scooter throws a blanket over her. From there, the story of Grace and Cairo unfolds. Grace is the archetypal privileged young professional woman, a film maker who has come to Dudley in the Midlands to make a documentary about what was once a prosperous, industrialised town, now living off scraps. She meets Cairo, working-class, already a grandfather in his forties and firmly rooted in Dudley. Cairo stands a little apart from his raucous workmates: well-versed in the history of his home town and articulate with it, he makes an excellent interviewee, agreeing to fill in the background information Grace lacks. These two disparate people, each apparently on opposites sides of a deep divide, become attracted to each other but it’s clear there can be no happy ending here.

Cartwright’s narrative flashes forward and back to before the vote and after, telling his story in the main from Cairo’s point of view with the occasional interpolation from Grace. Through Cairo, Cartwright carefully constructs a view of a very different Britain from the one I inhabit: rundown; few opportunities; full of men and women fed up with being told what to do and think by people like Grace – people like me, if I’m honest – and firmly in the Leave camp not because they’re stupid but because they’re angry or see no hope for a future for themselves and their children.  ‘These people’ is a refrain that haunts the novel, a contemptuous dismissal, which has cost us all a great deal. Cartwright is careful to avoid painting the two sides in black and white –  the issue of immigration is neatly dealt with, far from the only factor in Leavers’ decisions; Cairo’s daughter seems likely to vote Remain while we never learn how Cairo voted. The relationship between Cairo and Grace is a very effective way of representing two opposing sides of an apparently unbridgeable argument and Cartwright uses it well.

It’ll come as no surprise if you’re a regular reader of this blog that I voted Remain. I’m not naïve enough to believe that the EU is perfect but you can’t reform an institution of which you’re not a member. Like Ziervogel, I was shocked and horrified by the result, but I felt that we should try to understand how it came about. I’ve thought long and hard about it over the past year, coming to much the same conclusion that Cartwright seems to in The Cut. I’m still a staunch Remainer, still European and still angry about the way in which our politicians mishandled and continue to mishandle the referendum and its result but I know I’m guilty of ignorance of the discontent that clearly marks our country and the reasons for it. We Remainers need to try to understand how that has come about rather than dismiss all Leavers as racist and stupid because they’re not like us. That said, it was a close result. The people may well have spoken, as we’re constantly reminded, but 52% of those who voted wanted us to leave the EU, 48% of us chose to remain. We have also spoken.

The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig: Something nasty in the woodshed…

Cover imageThere’s something irresistible about a state-of-the-nation novel, even if that nation has shifted cataclysmically since the novel was conceived. This isn’t the first book in that vein Amanda Craig has written – I remember enjoying Hearts and Minds which explored the lives of immigrants in London a few years back. Two characters from that novel take centre stage in The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.

Made redundant from her job as an architect, thanks to Britain’s post-financial crisis recession, Lottie is searching for a way out of her marriage. She and Quentin share a house in London bought long before property prices became stratospheric. She finds a Devon farmhouse with a surprisingly low rent, lets the London house and takes off with Quentin, their two young daughters and her mixed-race teenage son reluctantly in tow. The plan is to sell the house once the economy has recovered so that she and Quentin can each buy a flat. Everyone hates the countryside: the dilapidated farmhouse offends Lottie’s professional sensibilities and she misses her mother; Rosie and Stella miss their friends; Xan is bored to tears and the butt of racist remarks; Quentin uses the proceeds from his column deriding rural life to pay for a cleaner about whom the girls are distinctly suspicious and frequently takes off for London, ostensibly to cultivate his contacts but staying with his new girlfriend. As the year rolls on, each of them finds a way to cope without the glossy, sophisticated charms of London. Even Quentin occupies himself, speculating about writing the biography of their landlord, an ageing rock star who rejoices in the name Gore Tore. Alongside the Bredins’ story, another one unfolds. It seems that Home Farm’s previous tenant was murdered, a gruesome crime still unsolved.

If you’re looking for a piece of engrossing, intelligent fiction, The Lie of the Land is just the ticket. Craig handles her themes deftly, covering a multitude of issues afflicting twenty-first century British society within the framework of a rollicking good story. Her portrayal of rural poverty and deprivation, unnoticed by the tourists on whom the local economy depends, blows a hole through the much-cherished idea of the English pastoral idyll. Marriage is put under the microscope and men, even the apparently devoted, are found wanting. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel: Cold Comfort Farm came to mind when the grisly murder appeared on the horizon, and a few pages later Craig gives it a nod with a quote. Her characters are nicely three-dimensional, Quentin neatly dodging redemption when he tells his mother close to the end of the novel ‘without selfishness, I’ll have a life of misery and boredom’. The murder thread is satisfyingly – if a little melodramatically – resolved and the ending is a perfect fit. The book’s message was summed up for me when Lottie tells Xan ‘Maybe nobody gets what they believe should be theirs, but just getting a bit of it is worthwhile. Just a bit is more than most ever get’. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: A smart beach read

Cover imageComing towards the end of what felt like months of relentless electioneering, I was in need of a well turned out piece of escapism. Something I could lose myself in and forget about the world for a while. Invincible Summer looked just the ticket. It takes four friends who meet as undergraduates in 1997 and follows them up until the year they turn forty – a structure I find irresistible as you may have already noticed if you’re a regular visitor to this blog.

Adams’ novel opens with Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien lazing around on a sunny afternoon, sharing a bottle of wine. Benedict has a massive if quiet crush on Eva who lusts after Lucien who seems to be working his way through the female population of Bristol University much to his sister Sylvie’s disgust. Each of them follows a very different route after graduation. Benedict becomes a researcher in particle physics. Eva confounds her socialist father by working as a trader in the City. Sylvie takes a multitude of scuzzy jobs, working on her art in her few spare hours. Lucien continues his party-boy antics as a club promoter. Over the twenty years the novel spans, the bright shiny futures they’d assumed were before them become a little tarnished. Marriages are made and unmade, affairs are had, children are born, ambitions are achieved then unraveled but setbacks sometimes turn out to be the best thing that could have happened. The book ends, as it began, with the four friends together, more knocked about than they once were but content and happy in each other’s company.

There’s a touch of David Nicholls about Invincible Summer but with a little more of an edge and a few pleasingly sharp flashes of humour. Adams’ characters are nicely rounded – neither saints nor sinners, although Lucien might fall into the latter bracket for some. Adams knows how to spin a story, drawing her readers in, deftly handling the dynamics of friendship and steering neatly clear of any saccharine-sweet ending. It’s not a book that will set the literary world on fire but I enjoyed it very much: an involving, entertaining, thoroughly believable piece of much-needed escapism. One to pack in your bag if you’re off to the beach this year or in need of sticking your head in the metaphorical sand.