Tag Archives: Contemporary British Fiction

The Body Lies by Jo Baker: ‘Giving up is not consent’

Jo Baker seems to be one of those writers who can master any genre. Her last novel, A Country Road, a Tree, was a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s involvement with the French Resistance. Not a theme that appealed to me but I remember very much enjoying her ghost story, The Telling. In The Body Lies, she turns her hand to thriller writing, not my customary literary terrain but it’s told from the point of view of a creative writing lecturer, an idea which intrigued me.

Our unnamed narrator is assaulted on her way home from work, managing to fight her assailant off and greatly relieved that the baby she’s carrying is unharmed. Still shaken by the assault’s aftershocks three years later, she applies for a creative writing lectureship, surprised by her acceptance on the strength of her first novel. Her husband will stay in London, unwilling to give up his teaching post, visiting her and their son at weekends. Settling in is tough: she finds herself with more work than she’d expected, teaching both undergraduates and the six MA students she’d originally imagined would make up her entire teaching load. One student, Nicholas, stands out from the other five, producing polished but disturbing assignments. Soon, he’s the centre of the group, engaging sympathy with his passages about a lost girl and his declaration that he only writes the truth. At the end of the Michaelmas term, Nicholas holds a party insisting on walking our narrator back to her isolated house and leaving her at the door. When the babysitter drives off, Nicholas reappears, and our narrator lets him in. What follows is shocking, if not entirely surprising, but the account of what Nicholas has done to her, written in the form of his latest novel extract, chills her to the bone.

I’ve been puzzled and dismayed by the seemingly endless stream of thrillers depicting violence against women, both in print and on screen; even more so as some of them are by female authors. At first, The Body Lies could be mistaken for another, if classier, take on this trope but Baker steers clear of graphic detail, choosing instead to explore the portrayal of women in fiction and the way in which they respond to violence while still smartly ratcheting up the tension. Our narrator tells much of the story but other narrative voices appear in the form of assignments from her students plus documents and statements from others. The creative writing device is a clever one and the academic details are spot on – all too familiar to this lecturer’s partner. It’s a gripping novel which offers a critique of the genre while managing to be a successful addition to it. I wonder which form Baker will explore next. Given her outlines for the MA short story submissions, I’m hoping she might have her sights set on her own collection.

Good Day? by Vesna Main: When life mirrors fiction, or not

This is the second jacket I’ve fallen in love with this year, another which fits its book perfectly. The other was the gloriously pink cover for Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Vesna Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point.

Richard, the fictional husband, has been visiting prostitutes for seven of the twenty-five years he’s been married to Anna. When she discovers what he’s been up to, Anna is furious, becoming obsessed and later taking lovers of her own. In another thread, a young prostitute is sent to prison for murdering her pimp. Tanya had become involved in the consciousness-raising group that Anna had help run when she was a post-grad student. Each day the Reader asks the Writer if she’s had a good day and she replies with how things are progressing with Richard, Anna and sometimes Tanya. Discomfited by the similarities between the fictional couple and themselves, the Reader challenges the Writer who tetchily denies that Anna is a copy of herself or that Richard is modelled on the Reader. How will all this end both for Anna and Richard, and for the Reader and the Writer?

This is such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Good Day? explores themes of marriage, gender and fiction within the framework of its characters’ daily exchange with wit and aplomb. This isn’t about us is the refrain that recurs through the novel but cracks begin to show:

Do you think we have a happy marriage?

Do you?

 I asked first

The ransacking of their lives for character traits and intimate details sees the Reader becoming increasingly cagey, wary of the incidents from his day the Writer lights upon, names from his department that crop up and whole sentences which have been borrowed – sometimes with permission, sometimes without. His identification with Richard, standing up for him against Anna’s outrage, provokes the Writer to jump to her defence accusing him of a typically male reaction. As both novels near their ends, the Reader plumps for a happy one while the Writer protests that such conclusions are tedious, interestingly mirroring the attitudes in my own house. As with all the best novelists, the Writer suggests that it’s up to her readers to infer not to her to dictate. Main rounds off her smartly accomplished novel with a postscript which may or may not have you scratching your head.

A Stranger City by Linda Grant: A river runs through it

Cover imageAfter three tries by Linda Grant’s patient and determined publicist, A Stranger City finally arrived through my letter box. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two copies but I hope someone’s enjoying them somewhere and telling all their friends about it. Grant’s novel paints a picture of a post-referendum London through the stories of a set of characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body is pulled from the Thames and who remains unclaimed and unidentified for four years.

Pete Dutton is the detective in charge of the investigation into the identity of DB27, the label given to the woman who is the twenty-seventh corpse retrieved from the river that year. Intrigued by her anonymity, Pete becomes obsessed, his thoughts turned away from his wife who is recovering from cancer at home. He contacts Alan McBride, a film-maker, whose attention has already been caught by a missing person alert on Twitter for the brash young woman he saw crushed by her slick hipster companion’s comment  overheard on his way back from viewing a house with his wife Francesca. Pete wants Alan to make a film about DB27 which Alan broadens to include Chrissie, who turned up alive and well, and Marco, her flatmate who set up the alert, regretting his sharp remark. Chrissie is a nurse who quickly comes to the aid of Rob when he’s caught up in a terrorist attack, forging a friendship with him that will result in the eventual revelation of DB27’s identity. Grant’s novel explores the rich and varied lives of these characters revealing a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it.

This many-layered, vibrant portrait of London encompasses a multitude of themes – privacy and exposure, interconnectedness and isolation, gentrification and poverty – the most prominent of which is the racism and its close relative xenophobia, unleashed since the 2016 referendum.

We won’t hear that in twenty years. If they stay, their kids will speak English as their first language and no new people will be coming. It’ll be a time machine, taking us back to the past

Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry, some of it ragged and frayed, of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Dickensian London is summoned up in a dreamlike episode when Francesca, the quintessential smart West Ender, uncomfortable in her new North London home, is taken to an area known as the Island by two neighbours. Pete’s love of his hometown and the river which runs through it is neatly contrasted with the superficial gloss of Marco’s PR world. It’s a structure that could easily have become bitty and overly-fragmented in less capable hands but Grant is too deft for that. I loved it – a novel with something to say which draws you in and  keeps you rapt to its end. Well worth the wait.

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: Painting on a small canvas

Cover imageThis is the first Tessa Hadley novel I’ve read in some time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy her writing but she sets her books in a world that can feel a little too small  for me. It was clear from its premise that the same would be true of Late in the Day but I found it an appealing idea. It’s about a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly.

Alex and Christine are listening to music one summer’s evening – he deeply immersed, she not entirely sure what she’s listening to but reluctant to give him the upper hand by asking what it is – when their peace is disturbed by the sound of the phone. It’s Lydia calling from the hospital to say that Zachery has dropped dead at his gallery. Christine rushes to help her, inviting her home to stay with them. These two have been friends since school just as Alex and Zachery have. Lydia had conceived a passion for Alex who taught French to both her and Christine at university but it was Zachery who she married after Christine and Alex got together. Christine and Zachery had also briefly been lovers. The two couples have remained close friends: their daughters becoming confidantes, Zachery showing Christine’s paintings at his gallery, sharing holidays, dinners and conversation over decades. Now the warm, open and loving centre around which they had arranged themselves has been removed stripping away the compromise and comfort of their lives and relationships. What ensues is not entirely surprising, yet it results in both the upending of what seemed immutable and the building of new lives.

Late in the Day tackles themes of ageing and marriage through four friends whose lives are intricately and closely interwoven, exploring gender roles within two apparently very different relationships. Both Lydia and Christine think of themselves as feminists and yet Lydia seems incapable of functioning without a man while Christine kicks against Alex’s innate need to be the superior partner. As ever, Hadley’s writing is quietly accomplished, intelligent and perceptive. The scenes immediately after Zachery’s death expertly convey the feeling of aching grief, shock and dislocation of sudden loss but there’s something a little old-fashioned about her work. It reminds me of Margaret Drabble’s Hampstead novels which is perhaps why I’m often in two minds as to whether to read one or not. That said, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.

Blasts from the Past: Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

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 remember being deeply impressed with Nadeem Aslam’s writing when I first read Maps for Lost Lovers, not just because of its multi-faceted beauty but also because of his bravery in exploring relationships and tensions within a Pakistani community with no holds barred. It took him eleven years to complete, an indication of the dedication involved in making each chapter ‘like a Persian miniature’ and, perhaps, of the degree of soul-searching required for such unflinching honesty.

Chanda and Jugnu love each other dearly but are unable to marry until Chanda’s husband can be persuaded to divorce her. Instead they set up house together becoming the object of gossip and judgement. Their failure to return from a trip to Pakistan eventually results in the arrest of Chanda’s brothers for the couple’s murder. Jugnu’s brother Shamas, the respected director of the local Community Relations Council, and his devout wife Kaukab find their most cherished beliefs challenged as they try to cope with their distress and the uncertainty which ripples throughout both their lives and the tightly knit community in which they live. Aslam’s debut traces the year following Jugnu and Chanda’s disappearance. It’s a novel in which anger is balanced with compassion and tenderness for many of its characters, in particular for Kaukab who deludes herself that Pakistan is an earthly paradise but who is wracked by the reactions of her children to her piety, and for Shamas an educated liberal man who endures great pain and humiliation.

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

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Mulling things over

Cover imageThis is one of those novels that’s been gathering a head of steam in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not in an off-putting, shouty, endless-stream-of-gushy-tweets way – just enough to pique my interest. It’s a debut from a young Irish author about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. It’s a novel about relationships, about youth and the dawning of middle age, and about the gap between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.

Twenty-one-year-old students Frances and Bobbi have been friends since school. Bobbi is the outspoken one, happy to pontificate loudly, lengthily and intelligently about the state of the world while Frances fades into the background, dull and lacking in personality – or at least that’s how she thinks of herself. They catch Melissa’s eye while performing Frances’ poetry on the street. She wants to write a magazine feature about them to which they agree, a little star struck by Melissa’s reputation and her marriage to a beautiful actor. Frances and Bobbi find themselves drawn into Melissa and Nick’s orbit – meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi has a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Frances’ day-to-day life – her worries about her father’s alcoholism, her concerns about Bobbi’s handling of her parents’ break-up, her own seeming lack of direction – is the background hum to this affair in which neither party seems to know quite what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

Conversations with Friends is written entirely from Frances’ point of view. She thinks of herself as nondescript – Bobbi is the vibrant, beautiful one, argumentative but erudite with it. If that was the case, it would make for a rather dull book but Frances is not what she thinks she is as Bobbi makes clear towards the end of the novel. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood, trying to find a way to be and a place in the world. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing – Frances’ angst-ridden narrative reminded me at times of a Woody Allen film. Melissa’s friends are portrayed as a little jaded, painfully conscious of the age gap between themselves and Frances and Bobbi. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably. It’s about the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. I wasn’t at all sure about the ending but somehow it was in tune with the rest of the novel which I found curiously addictive.

Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone: Lost in the wilderness

Cover imageWho could resist that cover? Even before I had an idea of what it was about I knew I’d pick this one up in a bookshop. One look at it tells you that the myth of Leda and the Swan has to be in there somewhere even if you don’t – and I didn’t – recognise the title as a quote from W. B. Yeats’ poem which prefaces Eli Goldstone’s debut. The novel’s as arresting as its jacket, exploring grief, love and the secrets kept in the closest of relationships through the recently widowed Seb who takes himself off to Latvia, the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda.

Leda has drowned in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Seb, an academic already struggling with his work, is devastated. Antisocial at the best of times, he withdraws further into himself, wondering what he should do with this huge, gaping ache for his beloved wife, then discovers a cache of unopened letters, postmarked Latvia, hidden in a drawer. Leda had told him that she had no family but it appears that she had a cousin, Olaf, the sender of the letters one of which contains a lock of Leda’s hair. Seb decides to find Olaf, hoping for comfort but is faced with several puzzling revelations: it seems he hardly knew the woman who had been the centre of his world. Interspersed with Seb’s adventures in Latvia are extracts from Leda’s diary, revealing an intense, lonely and precociously bright child who grew into a troubled woman, obsessed with death.

Narrated by Seb, Goldstone’s novel has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject. Seb is cerebral, erudite and a little superior – hopelessly out-of-place in the forests of Latvia with Olaf and his friends – yet manages to engage our sympathy. He finds himself trying to throttle a swan in the park, drunkenly playing cards with Latvian hunters and fending off the attentions of his lonely landlady, all delivered in a faintly sardonic tone. He’s a man who’s asked few questions of his wife while she was alive, perhaps preferring to think that she sprang fully formed into life the day he met her. Goldstone’s writing is often striking – Seb’s fear of death ‘springs like a cat from a high shelf, to scare the living shit out of me’; Leda’s mother ‘acts as if there is a live TV audience present at all times’; a dead swan ‘smells like a pillow that has been slept on by somebody I love’. There’s a thread of myth and fairy tale running through the novel as you’d expect from that cover and title but essentially it’s about grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with, explored in a witty and original piece of fiction.

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: Outfoxed

Cover imageHow to Be Human is one of those books I was in two minds about before reading, and perhaps still am, although it comes with a spiffy endorsement from Hilary Mantel, enough to make a debut novelist’s heart sing. Set in Hackney, on a housing development edged by what estate agents would no doubt term ‘idyllic woodland’, it’s about Mary, who has kicked her fiancé out of their house, and the relationship that grows between her and one of the foxes whose territory the developers have colonised.

Mary opens the door one evening to find a baby on her back step, so quiet she’s not entirely sure it’s alive. It’s Flora, the daughter of her neighbours Michelle and Eric but rather than taking her home immediately, Mary brings her inside. Wind back four weeks and Mary is in the midst of a disciplinary process, constantly late to her dull job at the local university. She rarely sees anyone, hasn’t contacted friends since her fiancé Mark reluctantly left after one more row made abundantly clear their relationship was at an end, and knows few of her neighbours. She’s spotted a handsome fox who seems to be delivering presents to her – one day an old pair of boxers which look suspiciously like Mark’s, another a perfect egg, entirely empty – and becomes fond of him much to her neighbours’ annoyance. One day Eric asks her to babysit. Mary spends an enjoyable evening, poking around the strangely familiar yet entirely different counterpart to her own house and discovering the joys of holding a baby. A little restless, she takes a walk around the neighbourhood, bumping into Mark who she meets again at Eric and Michelle’s disastrous barbeque, and finds herself softening towards him. One night in Mary’s bed and Mark assumes he’s back in her life but he has a rival: Mary has begun to welcome the fox into her house.

Paula Cocozza explores themes of isolation and madness through Mary who begins to see her fox as her beloved, deftly weaving  the failure of humans to understand their impact on the natural world through her story. Her writing is arresting – ’It was calming to emulate someone else’s sensible behaviour’; ‘She was still waiting for him to remove his things from her head’; ‘Somehow, having been seen with the baby made Mary feel more with the baby’ – all neatly convey Mary’s disordered state of mind. There’s a nice thread of humour running thorough it – the barbeque put me in mind of Abigail’s Party – which balances the claustrophobia of Mary’s decline. Michelle and Eric’s predilection for soft furnishings, wildly patterned with all manner of things from the natural world, contrast sharply and effectively with their hostility to the reality. Cocozza steers clear of the whimsy that might have crept into her portrayal of Mary’s feelings for her fox but the brief passages from the fox’s perspective jarred for me, leaving me wondering how I should interpret them. It’s a compelling novel, convincing in its depiction of a woman barely clinging to the shreds of her sanity and, on the whole, a success but I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Mantel, although you might prefer to trust her opinion over mine. Great jacket, though.

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to explore Split, inspired by Rick Stein’s Long Weekends TV series which brightened up our evenings last year. We’re hoping for a bit of sun, a spot of culture and some quiet reading.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: Life goes on…

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I kicked off my Blasts from the Past series with Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin. I love his work – so much so that it’s hard not to gush when writing about it, particularly as this new novel seems to me to be even better than the ones that came before. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life.

Rebecca Shaw, sometimes known as Becky or Bex, goes missing over the New Year holiday when her parents are renting a holiday cottage. The villagers assemble in the freezing cold, anxious to find her, all too well aware of her danger. Despite searching in every possible place, she’s not found. The media descend, the police continue their investigations and Rebecca’s parents hunker down in their rented barn conversion. Speculation is rife. The first year ends with respectfully muted New Year celebrations. The villagers get on with their lives, nature continues its annual cycle but no one forgets what has happened. The second year sees the media still present, the villagers still concerned, still dreaming about the lost thirteen-year-old but hoping the limelight will shift elsewhere. After the dramatic events of its opening chapters, little happens over the years McGregor’s novel chronicles but the effects of the girl’s disappearance continue to be felt, steadily diminishing yet ever-present.

This is such an accomplished novel. The rhythms of the natural world and village life hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives: foxes mate; herons fish; snowdrops appear; badgers cub deep inside their setts; the parish council meets and minutes are taken; the boards are prepared for well-dressing and the almost inevitable annual defeat of the cricket team is played out. Each year small details of the characters’ backstories are stitched into the village tapestry; hopes of love are raised and dashed; children are born; parents die; teenagers leave home; crimes and misdemeanours occur. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl, sightings of her father, rumours about her mother, mentions of other girls whose disappearance might be linked to hers in the news. All this is delivered in McGregor’s gorgeous yet understated prose. Hard to pull out quotes without filling the entire review with them but here’s a flavour: ‘Everything that might be said seemed like the wrong thing to say. The heating pipes made a rattling noise that most of them were used to and the mood in the room unstiffened’; ‘A soft rain blew in smoky clouds across the fields’; ‘The nettles and cow parsley came up in swathes, the bindweed trumpeting through the hedges’. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume: ‘Barely there’

Cover imageSara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Deeply rooted in the natural world, it’s filled with wonderfully poetic descriptions. The sheer musicality of its language captivated me. I was, of course, hoping for the same from Baume’s new book given that it, too, seemed to have its feet firmly planted in nature. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world: in Baume’s debut Ray finds solace in One Eye the dog who becomes his first and only friend; in A Line Made by Walking Frankie is an artist, lost and unable to find a footing either in art or in life.

Twenty-five-year-old Frankie finds herself on the floor, face pressed to the ratty carpet of her bedsit, reluctant to move, listening to the noises of the neighbours she’s never met. Putting the childhood she wishes she could re-enter behind her, she left home to study art in Dublin where friendships begun in hope faded away. After graduation she found herself a job in a gallery, part-time and short-term, restoring its walls to a pristine white whenever a scuff appeared, but that’s over now. She has just one friend who she says goodbye to in their time-honoured fashion washing down a box of Black Magic with copious amounts of red wine. Her mother appears the next day and takes her home where Frankie languishes until she decides she needs to be alone, offering to house-sit her grandmother’s increasingly dilapidated bungalow, left empty and unsold since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin one day, Frankie decides to photograph it, to make it part of an art work, a project that might rescue her from her overwhelming unhappiness and loneliness.

Baume structures Frankie’s narrative around the photographs which comprise her project. Each chapter is made up of Frankie’s thoughts, memories of childhood and her life in Dublin, observations about the world around her, and descriptions of artworks reflecting her preoccupations. Their fragmentary nature works well, conveying the sense of a mind in disorder. The writing is characteristically striking: ‘By means of her brown paper bags, the shop woman shows me which purchases I ought to be ashamed of’; ‘Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head’; ‘The pills are just a new sort of sadness… …Softer, slyer’. There’s an aching feeling of loneliness and distress running through the novel conveying Frankie’s debilitating depression and her mother’s quietly careful, concern. Baume liberally peppers her narrative with descriptions of conceptual art works, amplifying Frankie’s musings. Some of these are very effective, in particular the eponymous work by Richard Long who specialises in ‘barely there art’ which sums up Frankie’s tenuous existence perfectly, although there were a few too many for me. It’s an unsettling novel, deeply affecting, and its ending came as a surprise.