Tag Archives: Canongate Books

The River Capture by Mary Costello: Madness, Joyce and obsession

Cover imageMary Costello’s Academy Street was one of my books of 2014. The story of one woman’s attenuated life, I loved it for its small canvas and pared back prose, including it in both my Man Booker and Women’s Prize for Fiction wish lists. It popped up again here earlier in the week as one of my Five Novellas I’ve Read. You can imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to The River Capture, slightly daunted when I read that it was an homage to James Joyce, but still keen nevertheless. Costello’s second novel is about Luke O’Brien, a teacher in his thirties who has taken a career break to write about his beloved Joyce but who seems to be getting nowhere.

Luke returned to the family farm four years ago. He’s alone apart from his aunt Ellen whose bungalow is within waving distance. Luke lives on the rent from the family’s fields, determined to drive a hard bargain with the farmer whose cattle now graze them. He does everything but write, turning over all manner of things in his mind, constantly returning to Joyce and his characters. He wanders into town for his shopping, visits his aunt, talks about their family, marked by tragedy, and looks after his adored pregnant cat. One day a young woman appears asking a favour. Her uncle can no longer look after his dog and Ruth has been told that Luke might take him in. They fall to talking, exchanging family histories, sharing lunch and a little wine. Ruth leaves Paddy with Luke, promising to come back soon. When she does, their connection deepens, Ruth a little taken aback at Luke’s frankness about his sexuality. Long emails are exchanged then a weekend away and Luke begins to dare to hope for happiness, even taking Ruth to meet Ellen. It’s after that meeting that a bombshell is dropped, a secret revealed, and an ultimatum delivered precipitating an episode of madness that seems to have been flickering at the edges of Luke’s consciousness for some time.

The River Capture was something of a curate’s egg for me, delicious in the main but with a long stream of consciousness section which veered away from the linear narrative I’d become absorbed in. I should mention that I’ve never managed to finish one of Joyce’s novels and I suspect therein lies the problem.

The first part of Costello’s book had me transfixed with its gorgeous word pictures of the countryside and its portrait of a man caught up in obsessions, skittering from idea to idea. Luke is firmly rooted in family, breaking off his university studies to nurse his sick aunt and then caring for his mother. The farm is freighted with memory which unspools in Luke’s mind as he walks the land and looks around his house. The passages in which he grapples with the awful dilemma with which he’s faced are full of memories, family history, abstruse knowledge – one thought triggering another, often on an entirely different topic. It’s unsettling to read, a vivid depiction of a disordered mind, but it’s a very long passage and I found myself getting lost in it. So, perhaps not quite what I was hoping for although there’s a great deal that I enjoyed. I suspect if you’re a Joyce fan you might think differently.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781782116431 272 pages Hardback

The Spare Room by Helen Garner: Stretched to the limits

Cover imageI’m sure this isn’t the first reread I’ve reviewed here but aside from Amy Bloom’s Rowing to Eden, which turned out to be made up of several collections of short stories, nothing comes to mind. Australian writer Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was published in 2008 and has recently been reissued. I remember reading it in proof and being impressed with it then and it’s lost none of its power in just over a decade since. Our narrator, Helen, has been asked by a much-loved friend if she can stay for three weeks while she undergoes treatment for cancer. What ensues will test the bounds of friendship to its limits.

Helen met Nicola fifteen years ago, becoming firm friends despite the distance between Nicola’s home in Sydney and Helen’s in Melbourne. Impressed by Nicola’s casual grace, bohemian life and independence, Helen tries not to appear shocked when she arrives, much diminished, or to seem astonished at her faith in the Theodore Institute which claims to cure cancer by administering large doses of vitamin C. Nicola breezily insists she can fend for herself but Helen is having none of it, sizing up the Institute as a bunch of charlatans while trying to keep an open mind for Nicola. As the weeks wear on, Helen becomes exhausted by the night sweats and bouts of pain that summon her to Nicola’s room, increasingly appalled by the wackiness of the Institute’s treatments, their prohibition of strong painkillers and her own mounting fury, both with the so-called doctors and with Nicola’s resolute belief in a cure. When Nicola’s niece, Iris, visits, Helen finds an ally. Between them, they convince Nicola to see an oncologist who advises surgery. At the end of the three weeks, their friendship has been strained but not yet snapped.

That night we took the bottle of Stoly down the rough path to the landing where, sitting on our jackets in the dark, we launched the long conversation that would become our friendship.

Garner’s sharp novella weighs in at just under 200 pages, drawing on her own experience of nursing a close friend to explore friendship, dying and the pernicious hope engendered by desperation. Helen’s anger rings out loud and clear against the cynical exploitation of the terminally ill and against Nicola’s insane optimism, a mask behind which she hides her terror. Glimmers of gallows humour lighten the subject’s grimness as Iris, Gab and Helen dissolve into hysteria, diffusing their fury at Nicola’s doggedly contrary attitude. Nicola is entirely believable: either monumentally selfish or brave in her determination – take your choice – but wholly human in her desperate need to hope. Helen counterbalances her beautifully, all practicality and organisation but helpless in the face of such need. Throughout it all flows compassion and love. Just as powerful the second time around, this is a clear-eyed view of death and our responses to it, explored through both the dying and the rest of us who must do what we can for them knowing that our turn will come.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786896087 195 pages Paperback

Murmur by Will Eaves: An imagined life

Will Eaves’ Murmur was originally published by CB Editions, a ‘one-person-venture’ as its website describes it. A brave decision, then, to publish an experimental piece of fiction which makes considerable demands on its readers’ attention but it’s paid off handsomely. Eaves’ book was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths and James Tait Black Prizes then bagged both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize. In this extraordinarily ambitious novella, a man is undergoing chemical castration having been convicted of gross indecency. Although the man is given a different name, it’s clear Alan Turing’s is the experience that Eaves is imagining.

In a jubilant mood after finishing a difficult paper, mathematician Alec Pryor has picked up a young man at a fair and taken him home. Shortly after their encounter, Cyril attempts to blackmail Pryor, then Pryor’s flat is burgled. Pryor takes the matter to the police but finds himself under arrest. This is 1952: homosexuality is a criminal offence. Pryor is sentenced to chemical castration which not only changes his body but also induces vividly hallucinogenic dreams, offering glimpses into his past and an exploration of his theories about consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Murmur is impossible to encapsulate in a short review, although had I taken note of Annabel’s words and read up about Turing I might have grasped a little more of what Eaves’ cerebral book has to offer. Made baroque by the Stilboestrol injected by a kindly nurse once a week, Pryor’s dreams together with his correspondence with June, his ex-fiancée and Bletchley Park colleague, make up the bulk of the novel, sandwiched between two short journal entries. Recurrent tropes of fairgrounds, mirrors, a nocturnal swim with his beloved schoolfriend Chris and confrontations with his family run through these dreams which are beautifully described in poetic sometimes lambent prose. Eaves manages to combine a gorgeous use of language, erudition and an occasional playfulness with an aching compassion at its most poignant in his description of Pryor gazing at his changed body in the mirror:

His hands were mine, too, formerly, of that I’m sure: but I’m not him, not any more. His hands caress me and I can’t feel anything

Pryor no longer quite recognises his reflection as his body becomes other than it was. His desire has been stolen from him by the barbaric ‘treatment’ deemed necessary by the state. We know how this ended for Turing, of course. When I’m feeling particularly dismayed by the state of my nation, or even the world, I remind myself of just how much has changed for gay men. Some things do get better.

I’ve barely done the many and varied ideas explored by Eaves’ book justice, I’m afraid. If you’d like to read a more articulate review you might like to visit Annabel’s, Clare’s or Rebecca’s.

He Is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O’Connor: Secrets and Lies

Cover imageThis seems to be the year of the novella for me helped along by Madame Bibi who devoted the whole of last month to the form. Set in a small Irish town, Rebecca O’Connor’s He Is Mine and I Have No Other may be short on pages but it’s devastating in its revelation of tragedy, secrets and lies as it tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lani who falls in love with a troubled boy.

Lani lives with her mother, father and grandmother in a house on the edge of town. Every day she watches a boy make his way to the graveyard just above their house where thirty-five orphan girls lie buried, conceiving a passion for him and persuading her best friend to go with her to his school disco. They concoct an alibi for parental consumption, pilfer a few cans and take themselves off – Lani determined to ask the boy to dance. To her amazement he says yes and the two begin to exchange letters – his a little overwrought, hers more prosaic. Already painfully self-conscious, Lani swings from ecstatic fantasies about Leon to a conviction that she’s being laughed at until she discovers that he has a past which marks him out from other boys. Despite the happiness of her mother’s unexpected pregnancy, there are also secrets in her own home, kept tight since her grandmother was Lani’s age.

Lani tells her own story, her narrative occasionally punctuated by short entries from her aunt’s book on the orphans burnt in a convent fire made poignant by their hopes for the future in amongst the neglect and abuse suffered at the hands of their supposed protectors. O’Connor lightens the tone of Lani’s story with a much-needed thread of humour  – her parents call each other ‘mam’ and ‘dad’ but presumably not when the condom broke, thinks Lani, sarcastically; ’the fumes from the aftershave were deadly’ at the school disco which is excruciatingly vivid in its depiction of adolescent awkwardness as the first slow song plays. Lani views boys with deep suspicion as if they’re another species: they smelled, most of those boys. They smelled like they had dirty things on their minds. Lani’s parents’ happiness and concern for her contrast sharply with the misery of Leon’s predicament but there’s no getting away from tragedy in this novel. Prepare to have your heart well and truly wrenched.

That’s it from me until nearly the end of this month. We’re taking to the railways again, leaving for London later today then catching Eurostar to Amsterdam before heading east. The aim is to travel light but no doubt space will be made for a book or three.

Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner: Delivers on its promise

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I first came across it in Canongate’s catalogue. Some of you may have already heard of Matthew Weiner, or you may know his writing from Mad Men or The Sopranos but not his name. As is so often the case, it’s the starry actors’ names that stay with us – Elisabeth Moss or James Gandolfini – but not the scriptwriters’ without whom, of course, there’d be no boxed set to watch and rewatch. Heather, The Totality is Weiner’s first novel, a slim, dark piece of fiction which more than fulfilled expectations raised by hours spent in front of his screen creations.

Mark and Karen have just tipped over into their forties when they meet. She’s something of a beauty, working as a publicist but happy at the prospect of marriage and a family. He works in finance, no physical match for her with his chubby plain features but successful in his way, if only through luck. They marry, set up house and soon Karen is pregnant. Heather is a beautiful, intelligent child, almost preternaturally empathetic. She becomes the centre of Karen’s life while Mark resentfully accepts whatever crumbs are thrown his way. When the penthouse apartment is renovated, most of the residents move out for the duration but Karen insists on staying, reluctant to disturb Heather’s routines. One of the workers arouses Mark’s suspicions when he’s caught ogling Heather, now a startlingly attractive teenager. A child of poverty and violence, Bobby is the opposite of Heather with whom he has become obsessed. For Mark, his intentions are terrifyingly clear.

Weiner’s smart, sharp debut explores privilege and deprivation, marriage and parenting, love and jealousy with precision and insight, all wrapped up in a taut piece of noir. The perspective shifts smoothly between the four main characters intensifying the novel’s suspense and our relationship with them. Weiner’s prose is as polished as you might expect from his screenwriting: clipped, crisp yet vivid.

Mark knew that unlike his Sister, who had starved to avoid breasts and menstruation and men, Heather would be a normal teenage girl, and that was no comfort either

Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her and was now incisive to the point of pain

Heather’s privilege and Bobby’s lack of it are quietly contrasted in parallel narratives woven neatly through the novel’s episodic structure. It all works beautifully and the ending is a triumph. Weiner’s book comes proclaimed ‘superb’ by Philip Pullman, and indeed it is.

Blasts from the Past: The People’s Act of Love by James Meek (2005)

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.

The People’s Act of Love is one of those rare things: a novel that came to me via H’s recommendation. He tends to read much more non-fiction than I do, relying on my suggestions for fiction apart from crime of which I’m not fond. In fact, I think I handed this on to him as something that seemed more up his street than mine. He raved about it so I had to read it then became a fervent convert. We weren’t the only ones – it was praised to the skies by critics who bravely compared it with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

In 1919 the remote Siberian town of Yazyk is home to an extreme Christian sect. Stationed nearby is the remnant of a Czech battalion and their mad captain, desperate to get home after losing the civil war. The arrival of the charismatic but slippery Samarin, recently escaped from a Russian gulag, together with the suspicious death of a local shaman throws Yazyk into a chaos of suspicion and terror, further complicated by a beautiful young woman of ambiguous status whose attention has been snared by Samarin.

There are a multitude of storylines running through Meek’s novel. Hard to do it justice in a few lines. I’m wary of the old ‘literary page-turner’ cliché but this really is gripping with several quite shocking revelations. Meek’s descriptive writing is extraordinarily vivid, summoning up the harshness of the frigid Siberian landscape. It’s about war, love, idealism, belief and the extremes that people will go to in pursuit of them. Perhaps I should listen to H more often.

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

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey: Loose lips sink ships

Cover imageDonna Morrissey’s new novel comes with a hearty endorsement from one of my favourite authors, Ron Rash, who’s dubbed it ‘one of the very best novels I have read in years’. It had caught my eye even before I’d seen the press release but after reading that how could I resist? Attentive readers may have noticed that this is the second Rash endorsement I’ve fallen for recently. He was pretty keen on The Barrowfields too. Set in Newfoundland, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation.

Kyle Now is not at all sure what he’ll do with his future. He has a university place but is unwilling to turn his back on his family, still reeling from the loss of his brother in an accident on the oil rigs. His father spends much of his time in a drunken stupor, his sister has taken off backpacking in Africa and his mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Kyle is shouldering this heavy burden when Clar Gillard’s body is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed. This is a community where nothing goes unnoticed or undiscussed. Soon the village is rife with gossip about possible culprits, fingers pointing every which way from Clar’s wife, who he frequently abused, to Kyle’s father, known to detest Clar, to Kyle, himself, beaten by Clar the night of his killing. Over the next few days, Kyle finds himself questioned by the police, stumbling over evidence and trying to keep his father’s head above water as they both face his mother’s operation. Kyle has his suspicions about the identity of the murderer but unlike the rest of the village he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. Secrets are plentiful and well-guarded. I guessed the perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.  The Now family’s desperate grief is palpable in Morrissey’s depictions of a father unable to talk about his son’s death and a mother patiently working her way through her pain alone. Caught in the middle, Kyle’s angry struggle to protect both parents is both poignant and compellingly convincing. The portrayal of one half of a community unable to keep its mouth shut while the other seems incapable of keeping anything but shtum might seem too convenient in another setting but here in a remote village where ‘everyone was your brother or aunt or cousin or neighbour and they knew your dead like they knew their own’ it seems entirely plausible. Morrissey’s writing is admirable clipped yet vividly evocative of its setting: the landscape and weather are punishing, spoken of as if each were a person with a fickle power over the inhabitants. If The Fortunate Brother is anything to go by, Morrissey and Rash are a fine match: if you like one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like the other.

Blasts from the Past: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)

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.

I’d read one of Carol Birch’s earlier novels years before Jamrach’s Menagerie was published and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t particularly inclined to read more but I have a weakness for novels with a circus or carnival theme – Nights at the Circus, Carter Beats the Devil, Dreamland, Tipping the Velvet to name but a few – so this one snagged my attention with its dramatic rescue of eight-year-old Jaffy from a tiger’s jaws by menagerie owner, Charles Jamrach.

Stricken at what could so nearly have been a tragedy, Jamrach offers Jaffy a job cleaning out the animals’ cages which the boy happily accepts, becoming friends with Tim Liniver and falling in love with Tim’s sister. At the age of sixteen, Jaffy is sent with Tim to the Dutch East Indies aboard a whaling ship to capture a ‘dragon’ for the menagerie. The intrepid pair is successful but when the ‘dragon’ bites one of the crew it’s thrown overboard. The ship is later sunk – struck by a whale – leaving just twelve of the crew alive and stranded in two boats. As the twelve begin to die of thirst and starvation, the survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism. Eventually straws are drawn to decide who will be killed and devoured next. When land is struck, only two are left alive – half-mad with horror and grief.

Birch is a rip-roaring storyteller and this is quite a tale to tell. It’s packed full of vivid description, memorable characters and adventure. I remember racing through this novel one holiday, completely lost in it. Sadly, last year’s Orphans of the Carnival failed to match it for me.

Jaffy’s dramatic rescue is based on an incident in the nineteenth-century East End, now commemorated with a statue in Wapping, when an eight-year-old was indeed rescued from the jaws of a Bengal tiger owned by a Charles Jamrach who ran a menagerie. Sadly the latter part of the book is also based in fact – the dreadful fate of the whaler, Essex, rammed by a sperm whale in 1820.

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.

Blasts from the Past: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (2002)

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.

I first heard about The Cutting Room when I began what turned into a decade-long stint as the reviews editor for Waterstones Books Quarterly. It was one of those books that everyone seemed to talking about. I was a little out of touch having suffered a prolonged bout of ill-health but suspected it wouldn’t be for me, more in my crime fiction loving colleague’s neck of the woods. Not for the first time, nor the last, I was completely wrong: it’s a strikingly assured debut which immediately had me in its grip.

Bowery Auctions is close to bankruptcy when its auctioneer is offered an opportunity that will pull it back from the brink – clearing a house stuffed with precious objects. Rilke agrees to do the job despite the owner’s insistence that it must be completed within a week and that only he must deal with the attic which he finds full of rare pornographic books. He’s not a squeamish man – his own habits are somewhat promiscuous – but the discovery of photographs depicting sexual torture and what may be a murder committed many years ago appalls him. He begins an investigation that takes him into the murkiest areas of Glasgow in search of the truth. Welsh’s novel explores the depths of human depravity as it draws towards a shocking and sobering denouement.

I’ve said this so many times before about so many authors but Welsh never quite matched her first novel for me and is now launched on a dystopian series which does not appeal one jot. Never mind, I’m sure The Cutting Room would stand up to a reread.

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