Tag Archives: Fourth Estate

Women by Chloe Caldwell: The anatomy of an affair

Cover imageChloe Caldwell’s debut first caught my eye on Twitter, not with a storm of insistent shoutyness but a definite buzz. I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm in the face of unbridled Twitter delight but Women’s synopsis put me in mind of Sylvia Brownrigg’s riveting Pages for You which was followed last year by the slightly disappointing Pages for Her. Caldwell’s novella charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began.

Our unnamed straight narrator is living in her childhood home with her mother when she first meets Finn at a reading in the city. Both women are highly literary: our narrator is a successful young writer while Finn is a librarian, nineteen years her senior and long settled into a relationship. Three months later, our narrator moves to the city, determined to wean herself off her opiate habit, and begins a friendship with Finn which develops into an intense affair. Their time together is spent in each other’s beds while time apart is punctuated by a constant stream of texts and emails. Both are obsessed but Finn has much to lose. Our narrator slips into a self-destructive pattern which encompasses bouts of mania, tantrums and obsession. When Finn begins to extract herself from this relationship which has consumed them both our narrator becomes paralysed with grief until, just a year after Finn left a message on her Facebook page, she returns home.

Women is a short novella, a mere 130 pages – fewer if you consider its fragmented structure, some pages taken up with just a short paragraph. It could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I had expected. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. Her stripped down, plain writing emphasises the toxic passion of this affair which threatens to rip both women apart. We’re left wondering if this is love or simply the frisson of dabbling in a world about which our narrator knows nothing. Finn, it seems, is in no doubt, answering emphatically man when asked if she thinks our narrator will end up with a man or a woman. We know that our narrator is of the unreliable variety very early on: given the novella’s autobiographical element, let’s hope that means Finn is in heavy disguise.

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser: In the bleak mid-winter…

Cover imageTravis Mulhauser’s novel first caught my eye on Twitter last year thanks to a quote from Ron Rash who seemed to think it well worth a read. Rash belongs to that stripped-down school of writers whose names always snag my attention. Set in blizzard-swept Michigan, Sweetgirl certainly lived up to his ‘gritty, compelling’ billing but what I hadn’t expected was a hefty dollop of black comedy.

Sixteen-year-old Percy’s mother has been missing for nine days. Percy has an idea where she might be, and heads off through the snow in her pick-up for Shelton Potter’s farmhouse where he cooks up methamphetamine for the locals. There she finds Shelton and a woman passed out on the floor, the place stinking and dishevelled. Creeping around the farmhouse looking for Carletta she stumbles upon a baby, her face lightly covered in snow from an open window. Percy instinctively picks her up, calming the child’s distress and taking her off to the only safe place she knows: Portis Dale’s, the closest to a father she’s ever had. When Shelton comes to, the first thing on his mind is to persuade the unconscious Kayla to get rid of his beloved dog’s corpse and clean up the house. Once upstairs he discovers the baby has gone. What to do? Far from the sharpest tool in the box, Shelton flounders about coming up with ever more ludicrous explanations for Jenna’s disappearance before ringing his Uncle Rick’s henchmen and dangling a reward in front of them then setting off to search for her, taking the time to admire himself in his new snowmobile outfit before he does so. What follows is a suitably nail-biting race against time and the long forecast blizzard as Percy and Portis try to get Jenna to the hospital with Shelton and co. on their trail.

I finished off my last review hoping for an Ang Lee adaptation of Thomas Savage’s cinematic The Power of the Dog. Sweetgirl is equally ripe for a screenplay but this time it feels like Shelton and his motley, clownish crew have walked straight out of a Coen brothers’ movie. Shelton could easily have become a caricature, if ridiculous, villain but Mulhauser keeps him human, allowing him a few shreds of decency as he does with Carletta who loves both Percy and her older sister but is rarely sober enough to have been a mother to them. The hilarity of Shelton and his sidekicks with their casual, backfiring violence may be almost slapstick but the novel’s deadly serious theme is clear as Percy tries to save Jenna from the same trap she’s found herself in.  Not quite what I was expecting, then, but well worth reading and the ending’s everything you could hope for.

A Reunion of Ghosts: The sins of the fathers…

Cover imageLest you should think I’ve given up my rants about book jackets – it’s quite some time since the last one – I’m going to start this post by pointing you to another review of Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel from Tanya at 52 Books or Bust illustrated with the North American cover. Pop over and have a look, then compare it with the one to the left. Enough said, at least I think so. The novel is the story of the Alter family written in the form of a memoir which is to be the suicide note of the remaining Alters: three sisters, all in their forties, all resolved to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Lady, Vee and Delph have grown up imbued with the knowledge of the family curse. Their great-grandfather Lenz – friend to Einstein and philandering husband of Iris – was the chemist who first synthesised chlorine gas used to devastating effect in the First World War, then again as a constituent of Zyclon B, piped into the infamous gas chambers of the Second World War. Lenz was a fiercely patriotic German willing to convert from Judaism to Lutheranism to remain in government employ. Both he and Iris committed suicide, as did their son Richard unable to live with the misery of guilt by association. Then came the third generation: Rose, Violet and Dahlie – all of whom continued the family tradition. Now it’s the turn of the fourth, each sister convinced that the sins of their ancestor have been handed down as the Bible prophesies: Delph even has the quotation tattooed on her leg. The time seems right: Lady has tried several times before and feels ready to try again; Vee has been diagnosed with cancer for a third time; and Delph elects to join them. Then something entirely unexpected happens, throwing a different light on the Alter family history.

The sisters begin with their own stories: the constant drip, drip of the family legacy fed to them by their mother, their abandonment by their father, their unhappy adult lives – divorce for Lady, early widowhood and cancer for Vee, and thwarted love for Delph. Threaded through are the stories of the previous three generations, beginning with the sexually incontinent Lenz and Iris, frustrated scientist whose reluctant foray into marriage was supposed to deliver teamwork not housework. Feminism, anti-Semitism and science are three of the many themes running through this big, sprawling novel peopled with familiar names from history. It’s heavily laced with a dark sardonic humour: ‘In the tradition of Jews in the hour before Cossacks arrive, she spent the rest of the day cleaning her apartment and packing her things’; ‘As Bismarck passes, the crowd heaves like an unfettered bosom in a bodice ripper’; men are ‘an entire gender of dented soup cans, all damaged and marked down’, says Lady to which Delph replies ‘I’ll take the salad’ – is just a tiny smattering of the smart wit on offer here. At one point I thought Mitchell might fall for a softer landing but I’m pleased to say she didn’t. Not to everyone’s taste, then, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, irreverent novel and will be seeking out Mitchell’s first: The Last Day of War.

That’s it from me for a week or so. I’m off to Majorca in search of a little warm sunshine and an escape from electioneering. Happy reading!

We Are Not Ourselves: A richly textured portrait of a marriage

Cover imageI have to confess that my heart sank when this novel thudded onto the doormat. I’d been looking forward to it very much but it weighs in at just over 600 pages which for a first novel, or any novel come to that, is quite an undertaking. It’s just the kind of book that appeals to me, though, one which reflects and refracts society through the experiences of a single family. In this case it’s a small one – Eileen and Ed Leary, and their son Connell – beginning in 1951 with ten-year-old Eileen and ending in 2011 with thirty-four-year old Connell inhabiting an entirely different world. In between, Matthew Thomas tells their story in such a quiet, considered yet compelling manner that you find yourself completely immersed in it.

Eileen is the daughter of Big Mike who holds court in the bar every night gently putting young men right but gambling the family money away, and Bridget who deals with the fallout, taking to drink herself when a miscarriage puts an end to all hope of more children. She’s bright, restless and determined to get away, becoming a nurse rather than joining the secretarial pool along with so many of her contemporaries. On New Year’s Eve 1965 she meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Passionate about his neurological research, Ed turns down dazzling offers from Merck and NYU deciding instead to teach under privileged kids. These two build a life together – establishing their separate careers, eventually having a child after many years of trying – until Ed’s behaviour begins to change in puzzling ways. Eileen explains it away to herself until it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong. The consultation they both attend reveals that Ed has early onset Alzheimer’s. The rest of the novel charts Ed’s slow diminishment, Eileen’s painful acceptance and Connell’s inability to do so. Not a cheery read, then, but a very fine one that I found hard to put down no matter how wrenching Thomas’s descriptions of Ed’s decline.

Much of the beauty of this novel lies in Thomas’s compassionate characterisation: Eileen’s restless discontent, her constant need for betterment are in counterpoint to Ed’s quietly idealistic dedication to his work, subtly conveying the tensions running through what is essentially a fine marriage. Connell’s adolescent self-absorption and denial in the face of his father’s illness is entirely credible. The social change that rips through the latter half of the American twentieth century is mirrored both in the lives of the Leary family and in the changes in their neighbourhood. Thomas is a master of ‘show not tell’, quietly drawing his readers into his story. If I have one complaint it would be the inclusion of the epilogue. The beautifully crafted ending with its family meal, emblematic of so much of what has come before, seemed to me the perfect conclusion to this richly textured, ambitious novel.

A week in the land of cream teas and alpacas plus a few books

20140918_162333H and I have spent the past week being entertained by the boys at Popham Farm – that’s what the owners call the breeding male alpacas who were munching away in the field just below Lynher Cottage where we were staying. I’m not sure how they managed to keep us occupied for so many hours: it’s not as if they do much besides mince about, lift a leg to scratch delicately –20140918_175810 fleas seem to be a bit of a problem – then stride purposefully off before stopping for a steady nibble at an identical bit of grass to the one they’ve just abandoned. Perhaps it’s because they look so endearingly silly – a cuddly toy of an animal, some with a topknot  left over from shearing, others more llama-like with longer coats. Tracy, who looks after the herd of around 150, introduced us to a couple of young ones who had been bottle-fed – very friendly with amazingly soft fleeces. Hard not to come away with one or two but our ancient cat and suburban garden wouldn’t accommodate them.

Other than alpaca-watching, we explored Launceston and Tavistock – both attractive, thriving market towns stuffed with real shops – healthy survivors of the dreaded out-of-town supermarket developments that have destroyed so many other British towns and the livelihoods that depend on them. Naturally, cream teas were consumed – a couple of particularly fine ones Cover imageat the Edgecumbe on the Cothele estate – and a few books read, the best of which for me was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. It’s taken me ages to get around to this novel and I’m not sure why. It’s a very fine piece of writing which explores the Nigerian immigrant experience in both the States and the UK through Ifemelu and Obinze, two lovers who pursue separate and very different lives. My three other holiday reads were Rosie Garland’s imaginative nineteenth-century circus fantasy The Palace of Curiosities, Araminta Hall’s Dot which is about what happens when the truth is withheld, however kindly, and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs about which I’m still cogitating. I remember much being said when it was published in the UK about an interviewer who asked Messud why her narrator was so unlikeable. Messud gave a somewhat waspish response – and who can blame her? How tedious fiction would be if every character was nice. That was my week – how about you? What was yours like?

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How one man got his mojo back

cover imageThis is a book I would have read anyway – it’s a book about books after all – but many years ago I worked very briefly with Andy Miller at Waterstones head office, when it was in full possession of an apostrophe, so there’s an added interest for me. Having spotted my blog, Andy remembered the connection, contacted me through Twitter and even managed to recall my last name. There’s more than a tinge of envy in my admiration for his excellent memory. I remembered him – he’s a very funny and thoroughly nice chap – but I can’t for the life of me remember what we worked on, or when it was.

Andy’s book is about rediscovering reading. Mid-way through his thirties his life had become a little humdrum, a bit ho-hum, with every second accounted for and he was exhausted. It wasn’t a bad life – he’s happily married, loves his son and worked as a commissioning editor – but something was missing. He wasn’t reading, or at least not reading with attention. Not only that but he’d spent much of his life pretending he’d read books he hadn’t, even to himself. So when he starts reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita it’s a glorious revelation. He decides to tackle more and, with his wife Tina, draws up The List of Betterment, eventually extending it to fifty titles ranging from Anna Karenina to Lord of the Flies to The Handmaid’s Tale with The Da Vinci Code thrown in as number fifty-one. There are a few bumps in the road – Of Human Bondage and Pride and Prejudice remain unfinished (lucky him, I had to plough through OHB for A-Level) and Beckett’s The Unnameable proves a bit of a strugglebut he makes it to the end and it’s a thoroughly entertaining journey. In between his reading, there are a multitude of digressions many in footnotes with which I was just about to become irritated when he apologised (in a footnote). He’s often very funny – it’s one of those books which has you sniggering and chortling in a way guaranteed to annoy anyone else in the room (sorry, H, but it’ll be your turn when you read it)  – and he’s admirably honest about his reading shortcomings, particularly for a man who’s spent his working life in the book world, or perhaps that’s the problem. In between the hilarity there are some serious points to be made about the way we read today and the distractions at every turn – literary festivals, bookshop events, radio shows, not to mention Twitter and bloggers… It’s a thoroughly entertaining read and I’m glad to have made Andy’s acquaintance again.

Andy’s clearly convinced that we all lie about reading books we haven’t read but I don’t. I have however, nodded my way knowledgeably through many conversations about books I have read but remember absolutely nothing about, then made a panicky search on the internet for a synopsis. Even books I read a few weeks ago. And reviewed. What about you, do you sometimes tell people you’ve read what you haven’t or are you like me, afflicted by memory-wipe?

Why we need independent publishers

Quercus logoLast week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent  started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent

I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.

I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with theCorsair logo literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.