Tag Archives: If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go

Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler: A rare short stories review

Cover imageI think this may be the first short story collection I’ve reviewed here. There’ve been a few linked sets – Judy Chicurel’s If I’d known You were Going to Be This Beautiful… springs to mind as does Sara Taylor’s The Shore – but Nickolas Butler’s is the only one I can think of filled with standalone pieces. I know many readers will tell me I’m missing out – and I have tried – but my natural inclination is for a longer piece of work. I do make exceptions for the likes of Helen Dunmore, and Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs was such a fine piece of writing that Beneath the Bonfire just had to be read.

It’s made up of ten stories – some a mere few pages others lengthier, all firmly rooted in smalltown America. In ‘Rainwater’ a grandfather remembers how to help his grandson discover the world when it seems the boy’s wild mother may not return. ‘Morels’ reunites three old friends, one of whom has a smart new life in the city, but things go horribly wrong. In ‘Leftovers’ a man watches his wife clear out his dead mother’s fridge and comes to a momentous conclusion. ‘Sweet Light Crude’ sees an ageing environmentalist take an oil man hostage, knowing that it will be his last hurrah. A friendship is tested to breaking point in ‘Sven and Lily’. These five brief outlines give a flavour of the terrain covered by Butler’s collection which ranges far and wide through the universalities of life.

Many of Butler’s themes will be familiar to readers of his novel: male friendship, nature and our sometimes troubled relationship with it, chance, the compromises and collusions of smalltown life, and, of course, love. His writing is often striking, polished phrases are slipped in with ease: ‘his sunburn now a suit of pain’; ’Her face had been made into a jigsaw puzzle’; ‘His viciousness and kindness meshed together to form their own cage’ – are a smattering of the ones that stood out for me. There’s a wonderful image describing a couple grown apart when the husband imagines calling his wife from a payphone, listening to her answering then hearing her walking away without hanging up, leaving him there until he grows old in his callbox. Another gorgeous example comes from the eponymous story as a young woman swimming underneath a frozen lake sees the bonfire of Christmas trees above, unsure if she can trust the man she’s come to love. It’s as fine a collection as fans of Shotgun Lovesongs could hope for. If I had to pick a favourite it would be ‘Apples’ about a happily married couple, together for many years, but I’m a hopeless romantic.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in June 2015

The Paying GuestsI’ve reviewed all but two of the June paperbacks that have caught my eye so forgive me if I cram the lot into a single post and let the reviews speak for themselves. I’ll start with one that I haven’t got around to reading although I’ve had a copy for some time: Sarah Waters’ Baileys shortlisted The Paying Guests. I’m a big fan of Waters’ earlier novels but not so much her last two. In this one, she’s shifted her gaze from the 1940s to the ‘20s, setting her book in Camberwell where Frances and her widowed mother have fallen on hard times and are taking in lodgers. The arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, neither as genteel as the Wrays, shakes up the household in what Waters has called a love story ‘in which the love is forbidden, in all sorts of ways; it’s a story in which the love is dangerous’.

My second unreviewed title is Peter Buwalda’s much lauded Bonita Avenue, described as ‘a darkly hilarious tale’ in which a vulnerable young man finds himself embraced by his girlfriend’s family headed by the multi-talented Professor Sigerius. Things go horribly wrong, apparently, with all sorts of shenanigans from an explosion in a firework factory to a forgotten murderer turning up. Translated from the Dutch, it sounds as if it’s from the same school as Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Esther Gerritsen’s Craving.

There are two other translated titles on this month’s list, both by German authors, each very different from the other. Hard to choose which is my favourite but if pushed I’d plump for Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, although it’s a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Erpenbeck adroitly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout her complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track as she views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly re-imagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life. I thought it was excellent, but I’m a Marmite fan.

Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections crisscrossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that Daniel Kehlmann’s F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully, following Arthur Friedland and his two sons whose visit to a hypnotist when they boys are children has unforeseen consequences that will reverberate through all their lives.

Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is the first of two novels I enjoyed so much that I included Cover imagethem on my Baileys Prize wish list although the judges disagreed. Impoverished and homeless, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artist wife Margaret spent the first year of the First World War on the Suffolk coast at Walberswick. Freud tells their story from the point of view of Thomas Maggs, the thirteen-year-old son of a local publican with whom the Mackintoshs strike up a friendship. Such a shame to see that the beautiful hardback jacket has been swapped for a rather prosaic image.

Set on the Norfolk coast, not so very far from Walberswick, Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood was another surprising omission from the Baileys longlist. Its premise is enticing enough and it’s beautifully written, too. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heatwave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name.

The last two are by American authors, the first of which has a title that I’m sure has been mangled constantly up and down the land: Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies. It’s an episodic novel which draws you in nicely.

Lucky UsFinally, Amy Bloom’s much more manageably titled Lucky Us follows Eva whose mother dumps her unceremoniously on her father’s doorstep. Beginning in 1939, it’s a story of tangled relationships stretching over a decade. Lucky Us has an empathetic quality which makes its many flawed characters both attractive and believable.

That’s it for June paperbacks, a rather longer post than I’d intended but too short to spread over two. A click on first two titles will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis; the rest are reviewed on this blog. If you want to see which June hardbacks I’m eagerly anticipating, they’re here and here.

The Shore by Sara Taylor: The whole being greater than its parts

The ShoreI’ve had my eyes on Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut for some time now. It’s not just the gorgeous jacket that attracted me, it’s also the novel’s structure: a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage.

It begins in 1995 with a story narrated by thirteen-year-old Chloe – the end of which will take your breath away – then crisscrosses through time from the founding of the families in 1876, ending in 2143. Much of the narrative takes place in the twentieth century as the islands slide into decline, the only source of work the chicken slaughterhouse with its all-pervasive stink. It becomes the kind of place where shacks ‘could be toolsheds or could be meth labs, you can’t tell until one blows up’. Fortunes are made and lost, children born, marriages made, blind eyes are turned – people leave but despite its disadvantages the Shore lures many back with its beauty and a sense of belonging. Rather like Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, these stories are so closely interlinked that despite its determinedly non-linear narrative the book is very much a novel rather than a collection.

It’s an ambitious structure for a debut, but Taylor keeps the many strands of her narrative pleasingly under control so that what could have been a baggy, rambling mishmash gels nicely. You need to keep your wits about you: characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again. You’ll find yourself frequently consulting the family tree that prefaces the novel but Taylor is careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. There’s a good deal of violence – some of it graphic – and much of it against women but these are strong, resilient women who find ways to deal with what is meted out to them. It’s also about decline, the way in which communities dwindle when economic hardship hits and young people are drawn out of them. If this all sounds a little hard-going, a little worthy – it’s not: Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. I would have preferred that the novel had remained bookended by Chloe’s narrative but others may feel that the final chapter is part of the point. Either way, The Shore is thoroughly deserving of its place on the Baileys longlist. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it shortlisted.

If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go: Novel or short stories, and does it matter?

Cover imageNow there’s a title certain to be mangled in bookshops throughout the land and a brave one for a debut. I wonder if Judy Chicurel’s publishers tried to talk her out of it. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies.

Already long past its glory days as a glamorous Long Island resort, Elephant Beach – like the rest of America – is in the grips of recession. Times are hard, money is tight and the Vietnam War still rages. Besotted with the reclusive Luke, back from the war and grappling with the aftermath, Katie waits for life to happen to her while watching it pick up her friends and shake them around: Marcel has taken off with her boyfriend, fleeing her parents’ unhappiness; Liz and Nanny take up with useless men – one a chancer, the other a stoner; Georgie gets beaten up because he’s gay despite the protection of the ferocious Feeney sisters. She talks to Mitch, the Purple Heart whose leg was shot to pieces in Vietnam, hoping to find a way to Luke but making a friend instead. All through the long summer after graduation, Katie longs for Luke, holds her friends hands through their troubles, quarrels with her mother, hangs out at the Starlight Lounge and drinks chocolate egg creams at Eddy’s. By the end of it she finally comes into herself.

At first I was a little disappointed at what I took to be Chicurel’s bitty style. Marketed as a novel in this country, it’s described as a ‘debut collection’ on her website however ‘episodic’ best fits it for me particularly as it’s strikingly cinematic at times, ripe for adaptation by HBO or the like. Chicurel has a nice feel for characterisation – the larger than life Feeney sisters, aka the Hitters, are nicely balanced by the likes of Mitch, coolly sage yet self-destructive. The intensity of Katie’s passion for Luke is thoroughly convincing in all its romantic teenage naïveté. Elephant Beach is grungy in a ‘seen better days’ kind of way while the effects of the Vietnam War and its cast aside blue-collar vets, left to cope the best they can, are well drawn. What ever you choose to call it – linked short stories or novel – the small-town American setting with its tight-knit group of characters at its core drew me in and kept me engrossed to the end.