Tag Archives: Emma Jane Unsworth

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

Books to Look Out For in January 2020: Part One

Cover imageTime to look forward to another year of literary exploration with lots goodies in the offing for January by the look of it. I’m beginning with a title that’s been popping up in my Twitter feed for so long it feels as if it was published last summer and which I’ve already read. Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt is about the experience of immigrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, a theme explored in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, although Cummins’ novel is much more raw and immediate. ‘Vivid, visceral, utterly compelling, AMERICAN DIRT is both a page turner and a literary achievement: a novel that will leave you utterly changed’ say the publishers. Suffice to say it made me cry. Review to follow next month.

Tim Murphy’s Correspondents continues the immigrant theme, spanning the twentieth-century and on into the twenty-first, through the story of Rita Khoury, an Irish-Lebanese woman whose parents immigrated to the US. Rita studies Arabic, becoming a journalist, and is posted to Iraq to cover the 2003 American invasion. It’s described by the publishers as ‘a powerful story about the legacy of immigration, the present-day world of refugeehood, the violence that America causes both abroad and at home, and the power of the individual and the family to bring good into a world that is often brutal’ which sounds excellent. I loved Christodora, Murphy’s previous novel.

Two families living in Los Angeles are linked by an event in their collective past in Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, apparently. Grace Park is the child of Korean immigrant parents, struggling with her elder sister’s increasing estrangement, while Shawn Mathews is helping his cousin Cover imageadjust to life outside prison. Both are from different backgrounds and generations but their paths are set to cross as violence threatens to engulf the city. ‘Beautifully written and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and urgent novel for today’ say the publishers.

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book is about a very different kind of family, old money sure of its own entitlement rather than immigrants making their way in a new country. The Miltons are the epitome of privilege in 1935 but even they’re not immune from tragedy, consoling themselves by buying a small island off the coast of Maine. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the island is up for sale causing their granddaughter to uncover some disturbing evidence about the source of the family wealth. Dark secret territory, then, and spread across New York and Maine, too. Irresistible for me.

Thomas Martin seems to be a decent version of privilege in Ani Katz’ A Good Man. Comfortably off, happily married with a loving daughter and his feet some way up the advertising career ladder, he appears set for a happy and successful future but things go horribly wrong when tragedy hits his family, the people he knows it’s his duty to protect. ‘A Good Man is a dark and gripping novel of psychological suspense about a family man, in the wake of a horrifying act, trying to work out where he went wrong. It is the debut of a bold and brilliant new talent’ say the publishers, and it does sound promising.

Cover imageI really should have read Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals by now but I’m jumping in with Adults, her new novel, whose blurb puts me a little in mind of Fleabag. Thirty-five-year-old Jenny’s real life is pretty much the opposite of what she portrays on social media. Unloved and unemployable, even her friends are sick of her. Then her mum turns up unexpectedly. ‘A misadventure of maturity, a satire on our age of self-promotion, a tender look at the impossibility of womanhood, a love story, a riot.’ say the publishers ending this preview on an entirely different note from how it started.

That’s it for the first instalment of January’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that takes your fancy. More soon…

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in July 2016

Cover imageEmma Jane Unsworth’s Hungry the Stars and Everything‘s been knocking around my shelves for some time. I’ve heard good things about Animals but I’m afraid the Katie Fforde endorsement on Hungry’s jacket was somewhat off-putting, suggesting it might be a tad fluffy. Well, it’s not. Helen Burns is a restaurant critic with a talent for calling up the devil now and again. She lives with a man she loves but maybe not quite enough. When she hears about a stunning new restaurant she books a table, deciding to dine alone and finds it to be not just a sublime experience for her taste buds but a revealing one about how she came to be where she is now. Each exquisite course on Bethel’s tasting menu calls up a formative episode in Helen’s life and by the end of her meal she’s come to a momentous decision. It’s a clever structure and it works well although the occasional appearance of the devil seemed a little contrived. Only goes to show that there’s gold in them there TBR shelves.

It’s often the case that these monthly roundups include a non-fiction book of some kind. Regular visitors to the blog will know that I mostly deal in fiction but I always have some non-fiction on the go. July’s was Canadian writer Ann Walmsley’s The Prison Book Club which I began a little sceptically and finished wanting to give Walmsley a big hug. She was drummed into helping her wonderfully enthusiastic and energetic friend, Carol, to establish aCover image book club in a men’s prison. Not easy, as you can imagine, but the formidable Carol isn’t one to take no for an answer, managing to set up not one but two groups. Walmsley had her own concerns to surmount after a vicious mugging outside her home. Walmsley records the groups’ monthly meetings, covering a wide range of books including The Grapes of Wrath, The Woman Who Walked into Doors – Roddy Doyle agreed to answer the prisoners’ emailed questions –  A Fine Balance, The Cellist of Sarajevo, and ending with Alias Grace. The prisoners’ observations are intelligent, perceptive and often enlightening. So successful was the initiative that when Walmsley met a couple of inmates after their release, they were busy setting up their own groups. If you’re wondering, my initial scepticism was prompted by both Carol and Walmsley’s comfortable lives – both are clearly well-off – which made me think that this was simply a rich person’s pet project. I was, of course, completely wrong. Both are openly appreciative of what they learn from the prisoners who in turn find reading a solace and an enlightenment. It’s a wonderful idea and Walmsley’s courage in overcoming her anxiety at being surrounded by the kind of people who damaged her so badly can only be saluted.

That’s it for July’s roundup of books read but not reviewed. I hope you’ve managed to find a few gems hidden in the old TBR.