Tag Archives: British contemporary fiction

Theft by Luke Brown: ‘An exhilarating howl of a novel’

Cover imageThat subtitle is a quote from the press release for Luke Brown’s smart, funny new novel and it’s what made me want to read it. I tend to find the A4 sheets that accompany review copies a wee bit over the top but I loved that phrase which turned out to fit Theft very well. Of course, if I’d known that its main protagonist was a bookseller and reviewer, I’d have needed no such persuasion.

Paul lives in the dilapidated Dalston flat he’s shared for years with various friends and acquaintances. He’s worked part-time in a Bloomsbury bookshop for a decade, trawling clubs at night for fetching haircut shots to post on the magazine page whose hits far outstrip his book reviews. He’s on the edge of London’s literary milieu, managing to land himself an interview with a reclusive novelist with whom he sparks a connection. Emily invites Paul to lunch at the Holland Park house she shares with her partner Andrew, a well-known historian several decades older. There he meets Sophie, Andrew’s daughter, busy cultivating her rebelliousness via her Guardian pieces on sexual politics. Holland Park is a world away from the small Northern seaside town where Paul was raised with his sister Amy. Their mother has recently died in a car crash, leaving them the family home. Amy’s keen to sell, planning to plough the proceeds into a flat currently just out of her financial reach and thinks Paul should do the same but he’s reluctant to let go of the life he’s led since he left university, despite having reached his mid-thirties. Over a year which sees the EU referendum, Paul continues to flirt with Emily’s world until he takes an irrevocable step and is cast out.

What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context.

With its snappy opening sentence Brown sets his readers up for mischief in this novel which explores the intergenerational divide, London’s literary life and the state of our divided nation. Paul is an engaging narrator – a bookish party boy, falling in love here and there, caught up in his obsession with Emily, seemingly unable to fully acknowledge his mother’s death and how angry it’s made him. Brown’s characters are astutely drawn – Sophie’s constant public yanking of her father’s chain in her Guardian pieces and her cynical virtue signalling are particularly well done – and it’s very funny at times, underpinned, as all good social comedy should be, with some acute observations. Paul’s London life is in stark contrast to the lives of his old schoolmates in the seaside town where the fishing industry has long since dwindled, replaced with nothing. A hugely entertaining novel with a pleasingly acerbic edge, I loved it.

And Other Stories: London 2020 9781911508588 320 pages Paperback

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth: Growing Up is Hard to Do

Cover imageDespite very much enjoying Emma Jane Unsworth’s Hungry the Stars and Everything almost four years ago, I still haven’t got around to reading Animals. It’s been quite some time since that was published but I’d be surprised if fans don’t think Adults was worth the wait. It’s the story of Jenny, fast approaching middle-age, who’s in the grips of a social media addiction that’s distracting her from her many problems.

Jenny writes the Intense Modern Woman column for an online feminist magazine which seems a little too concerned with chasing hits. She’s obsessed with social media – painstakingly composing a one-word caption for a croissant when we meet her, checking her phone mid-sex with her boyfriend of seven years – now her ex – and agonising over whether she should ‘like’ her internet crush Suzy Brambles’ latest self-promoting post. She has a house full of lodgers who unknowingly provide good copy and a scratchy relationship with her mother – once an actress, now a psychic. Jenny frenetically clicks and posts – stalking Suzy Brambles, checking up on her ex, reading nuances into every infinitesimal time lapse between likes and seeking her best friend’s approval for her many posts. The lone parent of a fifteen-year-old and the only sensible voice in Jenny’s life, Kelly’s patience finally snaps as her friend’s life unravels in an endless cycle of craving approbation, no matter how fleeting, from people she’ll never meet and who may not even exist. A crisis is on its way but by the end of the novel, Jenny has found a way to live and finally understood the value of friendship.

I don’t know how to feel about anything anymore

Unsworth’s novel manages to be both moving and cringe-makingly funny as Jenny’s story unfolds in short episodic chapters, flashbacks, emails, social media posts and furious unsent drafts – a clickbait narrative that echoes her state of mind. Stuffed full of sharp one-liners and smart observations about modern life, it’s on the button in its depiction of social media addiction, uncomfortably so at times. Unsworth smartly nails the chasm between how some of us present ourselves to the social media world and the chaos of reality, not to mention the painfulness of over-emoting, on screen and off, and the pervasiveness of life lived via our devices.

I used to do things for their own sake but now grammability is a defining factor

The thin-skinned, self-absorbed Jenny could very easily have become an irritating caricature but Unsworth keeps our sympathy engaged, slipping in details of the story that lies behind her behaviour. The result is an intelligent, acerbic and entertaining piece of fiction with a heart.

The Borough Press: London 2020 9780008334598 400 pages Hardback

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas: Sharp, funny and very, very dark

Cover imageIt’s been well over four years since Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors was published. Since then she’s produced three children’s books. I’d been eyeing the schedules hoping for another adult novel, wondering if her writing career had taken a permanent turn when Oligarchy turned up. This short, biting novel should please Thomas fans with its story of a Russian oligarch’s daughter who spends a year in a British boarding school and finds herself turning detective.

Fifteen-year-old Tash has been whisked from her mother’s grungy Moscow flat and installed in a Hertfordshire independent school for girls by the father she’s only just met. She’s been given a black Amex card, told to buy whatever she wants and sent frequent parcels of expensive goodies. She’s mystified by her fellow dormmates, all caught up in their obsessions with social media, boys, and above all, losing weight. They’re a snobby bunch, looking down their noses at the local girls, tormenting their teachers – particularly the few males amongst them – and fantasising about the school’s founder, Princess Augusta, reputedly given a black diamond by the sultan who raped her. Tash spends her holidays in London with Aunt Sonja, her father’s sister and cybersecurity expert/hacker, who seems just as fixated on her weight and her looks as Tash’s school friends. When the most waiflike of the anorexics is found drowned in the school’s lake, the therapists are called in tasked with purging the school’s pupils of their obsession with starving themselves, but Tash is convinced that there’s more to Bianca’s disappearance than meets the eye. Then someone else goes missing and Tash’s sleuthing takes off in earnest.

Somebody in a long-ago government decided that girls should read classic feminist literature and so they are studying Angela Carter and the school can’t do anything about it because it’s the law.

There’s something of the mad fable about Thomas’ whirlwind novella which slings a multitude of well-aimed barbs at all manner of things, from private schools to social media, eating fads to therapists. She saves her sharpest swipes for the obsessive concern with thinness, launching a few digs at gym culture for good measure. As you’d expect from Thomas, it’s very funny – Mr Hendrix’ failure to curb the girls’ sneers at the populace of Stevenage in all their tattooed glory is a treat – but it’s also very, very dark. Sharp observation, smart satire and the hint of a feminist ending for Tash, Oligarchy filled the Thomas gap for me. I’m hoping that we adults won’t have to wait another four years for her next book.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786897794 212 pages Hardback

Shelf Life by Livia Franchini: A list for life

Cover imageI’m an inveterate list maker. It’s my way of organizing myself and remembering to do things. And I always make a list before shopping. Who knows what I’d come home with otherwise? Hardly surprising, then, that I was attracted to Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life which tells Ruth’s story through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé dropped his bombshell and left her.

Ruth and Neil have been together for ten years. He’d spotted her through the window of the travel agent he worked for just yards from her nursing school, engineering a meeting through her friend Alanna. Ruth had been working as a senior nurse at a care home catering to the aged rich for some time when Alanna popped up in her live again after a long absence. Theirs is an uneasy friendship: Alanna is a girly girl, given to confidences, indiscretions and beautiful with it; Ruth is intensely private, responsible and mousey. Struggling to find a way to live on her own after Neil’s departure, supposedly to a Cornish mindfulness commune, Ruth hides her misery the best she can. When Alanna announces her own engagement, Ruth’s astonished to be asked not only to be her maid of honour but to arrange the hen party which sees her entering a foreign land of cocktails, clinging dresses and hedonism. Things take a dark turn that night and another the following morning as Ruth nears the end of her list.

Taking a shopping list as a structure for your debut novel is a daring tack to take – lots of potential for clunkiness – but Franchini handles it well. I began her novel looking for the link with each item but her story drew me in so that I forgot about all that. Ruth’s character is well drawn and carefully constructed, her friendship with Alanna smartly done. There’s much more to Alanna that you might at first think. Neil has his own say, leaving you wondering why Ruth hadn’t kicked him out years ago then remembering her loneliness. Woven through Ruth’s narrative are email exchanges, texts and chats from Ruth’s schoolmates, most of which work well but some felt a wee bit contrived. Through it all runs a vein of nicely judged humour culminating in the hen party which sets readers up well for the shock that ensues. With its poignant depiction of social awkwardness and isolation, Shelf Life is far from the slightly fluffy read I’d somehow assumed it to be and all the more interesting for it.

Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner: A smartly turned out collection

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Chloe Turner’s debut collection by its cover. Such a lovely pared back image and once you’ve read what’s inside, you’ll find it’s entirely relevant, too. Witches Sail in Eggshells comprises seventeen short pieces – some just a couple of pages, others stretching over ten – all as smartly turned out as that jacket.

There’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ flavour to the opening story, ‘The Hagstone’, in which a pebble brought home by Leda’s sister enlivens her collection with sinister results. It’s hard to say whose behaviour is the worst in the lengthy ‘Piñata’, or perhaps the children are simply taking after their parents at eight-year-old Marlie’s birthday party. Shorter and more taut, ‘Inches Apart’ sees a woman whose marriage has dwindled, wondering if she’ll choose to see the evidence of her partner’s infidelity while in ‘Labour of Love’ – one of my favourites – a gardener finds first joy then surprising comfort in working her vegetable patch.

Many of Turner’s stories are about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents. ‘Show Me What You’re Made Of ‘ is a chilling, almost gothic, exploration of domestic violence and coercion while a thread of tension runs through ‘Collecting Her Thoughts on the Prison Steps’ as we wonder how things will end for a woman caught up in a controlling relationship. More cheeringly, a woman is brought face to face with one of her ex’s lovers when their sons become friends and is surprised at how she feels in ‘Waiting for the Runners’.

Grief, ageing, love and quiet heartbreak are also constants. There’s a lovely wistful tone to ‘The Day You Asked Me’ in which an old woman remembers the first time her childhood sweetheart asked her out on his boat, charting their lives until he asks again decades later. In ‘On Old Stones, Old Bones and Love ‘a glimpse of a young couple in love and her husband’s kindness in a crisis reminds an ageing woman of the passion and adventure they once shared.

All this is delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose:

As she knelt, loose stones made themselves comfortable in the soft tissue of her knees. (Labour of Love)

The stalk was furring like a baby rabbit’s pelt, and the smirking mouth was starting to pucker down at the edges, but I still felt it was laughing at me. (Waiting for the Runners)

It was late springtime when you asked me for the first time. The sun was young in the sky, untroubled by cloud, and there were jellyfish everywhere, shrugging and sagging their way through the pea green. (The Day You Asked Me)

Though there is something sad about her, a drooping wilt to her tall frame as if her roots might be too shallow. (The House with Three Stories That Might Be Five)

Dogs barked at them, and the octopuses would wave a tentacle back in disdain. (A Raft of Silver Corpses)

A book that lives up to its fetching cover, then, but you don’t have to take my word for that: Reflex Press have cleverly put ‘The Hagstone’ on their website for you to read.

Expectation by Anna Hope: Testament of friendship

Anna Hope’s new novel is very different from Wake and The Ballroom, her first two, both of which I enjoyed and both of which were set in the early twentieth century. Expectation opens in 2004 and has the kind of structure that I find irresistible, exploring themes of friendship, motherhood, love and feminism through the lives of Hannah, Cate and Lissa who share a house together in their twenties.

Hannah and Cate met when they were twelve. Rivals for the top place in their English Literature set, they became firm friends and remained so despite Cate winning a place at Oxford while Hannah found herself at Manchester. There she met Lissa, beautiful and sassy, the daughter of a ‘70s feminist. All three settle into a house overlooking London Fields after university, living lives full of hard work and enjoyment. Hannah becomes the deputy director of an NGO, marrying Nathan, Lissa’s childhood friend, apparently the perfect couple. Cate involves herself in the anti-capitalism movement, leaving her lover in the States when her visa runs out while Lissa becomes an actor with all the insecurity that entails. By their mid-thirties, their carefree life has slipped away: Hannah and Nathan are into their third round of IVF; Cate has a baby with a man she barely knows, marrying him and moving out of London, and Lissa makes ends meet with whatever work she can find. These three are bound together in friendship, meeting regularly, sometimes sharing problems, sometimes donning a brave face and sometimes looking enviously at each others’ lives. Much has changed by the end of the novel – betrayal, grief, disappointment, pain have all been suffered along with forgiveness, joy and hope.

You must keep hold of your friendships, Lissa. The women. They’re the only thing that will save you in the end  

Hope bookends her lovely, empathetic novel with two sunny Saturday mornings, the first in 2004 when Hannah and Cate buy breakfast to share with Lissa at home and the second in 2018 when the three, now in their mid-forties, meet for a picnic. Each of the friends’ lives are followed in narrative threads which intertwine, interspersed with snapshots from their past filling in their stories. The result is a pleasingly immersive novel which is a clear-eyed testament to the value of enduring friendship while far from romanticising it. Hope has a good eye for character: Hannah, Cate and Lissa are all perceptively drawn with depth and care but Lissa’s mother Sarah, who castigates her daughter at one point for how little her generation have made of the advances achieved by ‘70s feminism, is particularly affectionately portrayed. A quick check of Hope’s acknowledgements touchingly reveals that her mother, like Sarah, was a Greenham Common veteran. This is such an enjoyable piece of fiction. Steering well clear of the saccharine, Hope rounds it off with a satisfying ending to a novel filled with wit, humanity and compassion.

For those interested in the Booker Prize longlist, I managed to outdo myself this year and score a big fat zero. Here’s what I’d hoped for – here’s what the judges have decreed. Ah, well…

Lost Property by Laura Beatty: A road trip through history in search of meaning

Cover imageI’ve not read anything by Laura Beatty before but I found Lost Property’s synopsis intriguing. A woman finds herself in a state of despair at her country’s apparent indifference to the suffering and poverty on its streets and decides she must find a way to understand how such a state has come about. This witty yet profound novel of ideas takes us across Europe in a second hand camper van on a road trip through history, following our unnamed narrator’s quest for meaning.

Our narrator is a writer living in London with her partner who organises tours to Greece. After an exchange with the beggar who’s set herself up close to our narrator’s flat, complete with a banner labelled ‘BritAnnia’, our narrator finds herself in a dark place. What has become of her country which goes about its business, turning away from people sleeping on the streets? She and her partner pack up their belongings and take off for France. Rupert is a pragmatist, happy to go along with his partner’s quest while accepting the state of the world she finds so troubling. As our narrator explores European nations’ intertwined histories on her laptop, their journey takes them through France, on to Italy then into Slovenia and the Balkans until they reach Greece and come face to face with the refugee crisis. They volunteer in a camp on the island of Chios where our narrator finally lets go of the fear that has gripped her. Along the way, they encounter a multitude of historical, literary and mythological characters, from Eustace II who fought alongside William the Conqueror to Jean of Arc, from Christine de Pizan to Hermes. By the end of this odyssey, our narrator has found a degree of peace and understanding about what nationhood means to her.

That rather trite synopsis is a feeble attempt to encapsulate this ambitious novel. Beatty pokes gentle fun at Eustace who takes up residence in the campervan and interjects cynical smart remarks into our narrator’s conversation with Rupert, making her device palatable for those of us who might feel a wee bit uneasy with it. Our narrator’s idealism is neatly counterbalanced by Rupert’s pragmatism, allowing Beatty to explore both sides of the argument. Her writing is often striking, her historical vignettes illuminating and vivid, although occasionally delivered with a little too much detail for me. Inevitably, given that the search for the meaning of nationhood is at its heart, I couldn’t help reading Lost Property as a Brexit novel although its scope is far wider than that. It’s not an easy read – it’s hasn’t been easy to write about and I fear I haven’t done it justice – but it’s a richly rewarding one, and it’ll make you think.

Entanglement by Katy Mahood: Chance, circumstance and love

Cover imageOh, I do love a dual narrative. If executed well it can be an immensely satisfying device, setting up readers for the moment when the two storylines cross and become one. Maggie O’Farrell was my go-to for this kind of novel for some time: her earlier books are a masterclass in the technique. David Nicholls’ One Day is another fine example and Laura Barnett took it a step further with The Versions of Us, offering three routes for Eve and Jim. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement is in a similar vein, following two couples over thirty years and ending on a significant day for each of them.

As she and her husband wait for their train at Paddington Station, Stella locks eyes with a man and shares a flash of recognition although neither of them can quite work out why. Wind the clock back thirty years to 1977 and Stella is arriving at Paddington, eager to share the news of her pregnancy with John. Both are post-graduate students: he in quantum physics, she in literature. Given that it’s the ‘70s, Stella knows she’ll have to suspend her studies while John continues to make his name but she’s yet to grasp the grinding exhaustion and incipient resentment bringing up a toddler will provoke. Then John is struck down with a virus and the golden future they’d envisioned on their wedding day is no longer in prospect. Meanwhile, Charlie prepares for his sister’s wedding not far from where Stella and John were married, anxious about his alcoholic mother and the man his vulnerable sister is marrying. Their day will be devastated by a pub bombing. Beth returns from France, marrying Charlie against her well-heeled family’s wishes. These two will have a much-loved daughter, just like Stella and John, but Charlie’s work offers far too many opportunities for drink. Both couples face challenges that one will overcome and the other will not. Thirty years after Stella arrived in Paddington bursting with news,  all four will be brought together by circumstance although they may not entirely recognize it.

Entanglement is about chance and the randomness of life, about love and the way we become caught up in our relationships with others. Stella, John, Beth and Charlie criss-cross each other’s paths over the thirty years Mahood’s debut spans leaving traces they may never entirely understand. By necessity, it’s a novel which entails suspending any disbelief in coincidences which abound throughout although none of them were implausible for me. Mahood smoothly shifts perspective from character to character but it’s Stella and Charlie that power this story forward from that opening shared moment at Paddington as we move inexorably towards the point where the two families become entangled. Engaging characters, empathetically developed, neatly brought together in an absorbing story which ends on a note of hope: I loved it, swallowing it in one greedy gulp. Already looking forward to Mahood’s next one.

The Sunday Times Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with the University of Warwick Shortlist: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Cover imageFiona Mozley’s Elmet has already snagged the attention of several literary prize judges: it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year and shortlisted for 2017’s Man Booker Prize. Set on the fringes of what was once a mining village, it’s about Daniel and Cathy whose father has built a house on land owned by a ruthless landlord.

Daniel and Cathy have lived in the copse close to the railway since Granny Morely died when Daddy was out on one of his trips to who knows where. Cathy’s now just fifteen and Daniel’s fourteen. They no longer go to school, growing vegetables and foraging food alongside their father, a giant of a man who earns money from bare knuckle fights and settling disputes with his fists. Daniel knows very little about their mother, just a few memories of her infrequent visits which suddenly stopped. He wonders about asking Vivien to whom Daddy sends them for a makeshift education. Daniel and Cathy watch and listen, alert to any exchanges between Daddy and the rest of the village. They’re both outsiders but while Daniel is happy to cook and read with Vivien, Cathy takes her cue from her father. When Mr Price turns up, Daddy understands that he’s to have no peace. Together with an ex-miner, Daddy hatches a plan to overthrow this village tyrant ensuring fair wages and rents for all the families in thrall to him. Both know there’s not much hope of success but neither envisage the events that will culminate in Daniel’s desperate quest to find his sister.

Told through Daniel’s childlike voice, Elmet is reminiscent of a fable with the mythical figure of Daddy, the proud giant fiercely protective of his children, at its centre. Underpinning the narrative is a constant menace which contrasts with Daniel’s gentle voice, a menace that explodes into graphic violence at its conclusion in a scene not for the fainthearted. There’s a strong sense of social justice running through this novel. Men are so desperate to supplement their meagre benefits that they’ll work for a pittance; rents are high and evictions commonplace. Power is wielded by the few who mete out their own brutal form of justice. It’s a world where a young woman, confident in her own strength, lives in terror of violence. This is an extraordinarily impressive debut – bleak, beautiful and visceral. I wonder what Mozely will come up with next.

Just one more review as a shadow judge for me – Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon which I’ll be posting next week. I’m off to the bloggers’ event at the Groucho Club on Saturday then we shadow judges will be getting together on Monday to come up with our winner.

f you’d like to read two of my fellow shadow judges’ reviews of Elmet Paul’s is at HalfManHalfBook and Amanda’s is at Bookish Chat. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.

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.