Tag Archives: Contemporary British Fiction

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.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley: A pin-point sharp novella

Gwendoline Riley is one of those authors whose work I feel I should have read before now but for some reason I’ve never got around to it. She’s quietly gathered a good deal of acclaim over the years since her first novel, Cold Water: First Love is her fifth. Given its title, you could be forgiven for thinking you might be in for a little light romance but Riley’s spare, sharp novella is having none of that. It’s about a woman in her mid-thirties married to an older man and how she’s come to be with him.

Neve is a writer who’s lived on scraps for years, getting by with jobs in bars and the occasional grant. Now married to Edwyn, she’s devoting her days to writing while he goes out to work. Edwyn is much older than Neve, often cranky and unpredictable – showering her with pet names and cuddles one minute, abusing and undermining her the next and frequently reminding her of the single drunken night he cleaned up after her. Theirs is a marriage born of practicality rather than passion although Neve craves love. She grew up with a bullying father who ate himself to death, and a mother who fills her life with busyness rather than thinking about her second broken marriage and why she has no friends. Reflecting on the series of missteps and stumbles punctuated by disastrous relationships which has been her life so far, she tries to find a way to live with Edwyn and his carping. What is she to do with this husband who blows hot and cold, who shies away from intimacy, physical or otherwise, and uses his health as a manipulative tool against her? Perhaps this is love? As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the insults hurled at her. Emotional intelligence is not one of her family’s strengths – it seems that Neve has no idea how to conduct a relationship, platonic or otherwise.

Riley tells her story through Neve’s slightly perplexed voice, leavening her novel’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Each sentence is brightly honed, spare and pin-point sharp: ‘There were all sorts of satisfactions to be had, for the restless bully about town’ thinks Neve of her father who torments her as a child, later trying to buy her time with concert tickets; ‘he had a picture of me that he needed to deface’ she thinks of her casually on-again/off-again boyfriend while her attempts to distract Edwyn are ‘throwing sausages at a guard dog’.  Riley’s characters are funny, sad and discomfiting: her ditsy mother is a walking sartorial disaster whose speech is littered with italicised emphasis and catchphrases while Edwyn’s querulous defensiveness becomes increasingly nasty, punctured by his ridiculous ‘fall’ in a last-ditch attempt to gain sympathy.  Throughout it all, Neve is constantly undermined not least by herself: there’s hardly a mention of her writing although we know from a casual aside she’s published at least one book. An unsettling, thought-provoking novel which ends on a note of frail hope.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Knowing the worst or hoping for the best?

Cover imageBack in 2015, Claire Fuller’s much acclaimed Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list. I have a track record of disappointment with second novels, either expecting too much on my part or perhaps just one excellent novel in them on the author’s. Nothing wrong with that, of course: I don’t even have a mediocre one in me. Fuller’s new book, however, is very far from a disappointment: expectations were not only met but exceeded. Swimming Lessons is the story of a mother who disappears, leaving her family and her philandering husband with a paper trail of letters hidden among his many books.

Ingrid and Louise are studying English in ‘70s London, determined not to replicate their mothers’ lives. No marriage, children and drudgery for them: they plan to travel the world, to achieve. Gil Coleman teaches Ingrid creative writing. He’s a colourful figure with a novel or two under his belt, happily seducing his students but with his sights set on marriage and six children. Ingrid thinks their affair will be a mere summer fling but finds herself pregnant and installed in Gil’s seaside home while Louise looks on disparagingly, uncomprehending at what Ingrid has allowed to happen to her. When Nan is born, Ingrid feels nothing. While she frets about how they’re going to live now that Gil has left the university in disgrace, he takes himself off to his writing room, hard at work or so she thinks. Five years later, after a great deal of heartache, a second daughter is born. Then, when Nan is fourteen and Flora not yet nine, Ingrid disappears. Decades later, Gil is staring out of his local bookshop window, convinced he’s seen Ingrid and in his desperate efforts to pursue her, falls badly. Nan and Flora come home to look after him, one resigned to what’s happened and what will happen, the other still hopeful that all her questions will be answered and her dearest wish fulfilled.

From Gil’s dramatic sighting of Ingrid, Fuller draws you into her novel alternating present day events with Ingrid’s story written in letters tucked into appropriate books. It’s a structure which works beautifully, setting up a nice thread of suspense as we ask ourselves what has happened to Ingrid. Fuller perceptively explores the complexities of motherhood, marriage and love, overarching it all  with the question – would you rather know and accept the worst, as Nan has long resigned herself to do, or carry the bright hope of not knowing that Flora and Gil have fostered since Ingrid’s disappearance. It’s an engrossing story, beautifully expressed. Fuller’s writing is quite cinematic at times – vivid snapshots which reminded me of her flash fiction, a weekly pleasure. The little bibliographical note at the end of each of Ingrid’s letters is a treat for the anoraks among us, and I loved Gil’s annoyed response about first editions: ‘Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. Fiction is about readers’. Quite so.

English Animals by Laura Kaye: An outsider’s view…

Cover imageSuch a striking cover for this debut, and entirely fitting given it’s set in the English countryside although animal lovers may get a bit more than they bargained for in this novel about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Laura Kaye explores what it is to be an outsider in more ways than one in this funny yet perceptive coming-of-age story.

When Mirka spots her future home from the taxi window, nestled in the English countryside, she thinks it’s perfect but her arrival is heralded by the sound of bickering, a favourite pastime for Richard and Sophie. Soon it becomes clear that there are no children for Mirka to look after. She’s expected to help around the various businesses that keep Fairmont Hall afloat: B & B, weddings, pheasant shoots and – Richard’s latest wheeze – taxidermy for which Mirka turns out to have a surprising talent. Despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome Mirka into their home – Richard joshing with her and Sophie teaching her how to do the daily crossword. Naturally neat and tidy, she manages to instil some order into this grubbily chaotic household – even the taxidermy becomes a pleasure as she devises tableaux, from a chicks’ hen party to a mouse rave, quickly snapped up by Richard’s hipster client. All seems to be set fair for Mirka, who has fled a violent home, but soon she finds herself falling in love and an affair begins for which one party may have higher hopes than the other.

Kaye tells her story through Mirka’s engaging voice, showing us English country life from an outsider’s point of view. There are some nice little digs about xenophobic attitudes, from Celia’s gullible swallowing of Romanian dognapper rumours to a tendency to lump all foreigners together, muddling Slovakian with Slovenian. Kaye depicts a certain sort of upper-middle-class Englishman painfully accurately in William who is all too recognisable but there’s also affection in her portrayal of English eccentricity and village life. It’s very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. All this is framed by an involving and appealing story peopled by well-observed characters. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, undemanding but well turned out enough to make me eager for more from Kaye.

Blasts from the Past: Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog you may have noticed that I’m a huge fan of Helen Dunmore’s writing. She’s the one I always turn to as an example of the way in which male writers still manage to eclipse women in terms of coverage and kudos. Inevitable, then, that one of her books would crop up in this spot eventually and it had to be this one: it’s the book that got me my first freelance gig writing reading guides for Bloomsbury’s website when it was awash with Harry Potter money and generous enough to feature other publishers’ titles. For me, Dunmore’s writing is hard to beat and Talking to the Dead showcases it beautifully.

Nina has gone to help her sister Isabel, weak from the difficult birth of her first child and in retreat from the rest of the world. Both Nina and Isabel’s husband are deeply concerned for her mental and physical welfare but eventually find themselves drawn into an obsessive affair. As the heat of the summer intensifies so do relationships within the household. Nina begins to remember scenes from her childhood with Isabel, in particular disturbing memories of their brother who died at three months supposedly of cot death. The pace of the narrative quickens as it works towards its shocking climax when Isabel goes missing.

For such a slim volume, Talking to the Dead is a richly complex book. On one level it has the pace of a thriller with clues scattered throughout the plot. On another and almost contradictory level, it is a long prose poem written in language which is as sensuous and languorous as the heat which seems to permeate every page. On yet another level it is packed with insight into the complications of family life and the secrets which may lie hidden for years but which can both shape and destroy our lives. Dunmore’s writing is richly poetic (she’s said that poetry is a more natural medium for her than fiction, although she excels at both) and her sensuous descriptions of both food and sex in Talking to the Dead are fine examples of it. It’s still one of my favourite books after all these years, and not just because it got me my first break.

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