Tag Archives: Nicci Cloke

Lay Me Down: A tale of two lovers and one city

Cover imageGiven that it’s the time of year when you just want to curl up with an absorbing, untaxing read every so often and forget about the weather, not to mention the ceaseless barrage of pre-electionioneering that’s already battering us here in the UK and will be for months to come, Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down seemed an appealing choice. Two things attracted me to it: one was its San Francisco location, the other was its structure, exploring the lives and relationships of two lovers before they got together.

Jack and Elsa meet in a London bar on New Year’s Eve. Within nine months, Jack has been offered his dream job working on a maintenance team on the Golden Gate Bridge and Elsa has thrown up everything to join him. A little rash, you might think, but they’re in love. Jack settles in, becoming part of the team and making friends with Alex but there’s one part of the job he finds hard: all the ironworkers are expected to volunteer to talk potential suicides down from the bridge. It’s tough, and Jack finds it particularly so. Meanwhile Elsa explores the city, riding the buses and seeing the sights only managing to make one friend: her next door neighbour Pearl who often looks after her granddaughter’s children. As Jack’s after work beers with Alex become more frequent and prolonged so Elsa becomes more depressed and lonely. Threaded through the San Francisco narrative are snapshots of  Jack and Elsa’s past, gradually revealing how they’ve come to be the people they are.

Cloke’s descriptions of San Francisco are beguiling. It’s a city I love although it’s a long time since I visited it and she summoned it up beautifully for me. Jack and Elsa are sympathetically portrayed, both battered and bruised in some way or another but hoping for tenderness and a future together. Just one reservation: the structure which was one of its initial attractions proved to be somewhat fragmentary and a little over complicated. Short flashbacks to the years preceding Jack and Elsa’s relationship frequently interrupt the San Francisco sections, breaking the flow a little too much for me. That said it’s an absorbing, entertaining read: one that will see you nicely through a few long dark evenings.

Books to Look Out For in February 2015

A Spool of Blue ThreadFebruary is my least favourite month: dank, drizzly weather here in the UK; little or no colour in the garden; countryside bedraggled and grubby looking – ugh, I hate it. It’s not always a sparkling month in the publishing schedules, either, although given all the above there’s plenty of encouragement to stay indoors reading. This year, however, there’s a huge treat in store: Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth. Abby and Red Whitshank live in the house Red’s father built in the 1930s. It’s where they brought up their four children, all of whom have assembled to help decide what Abby and Red  will do in old age, and what will happen to their beloved family home. Secrets, rivalries and tensions – all the bagage of family life – come into play as Tyler unfolds their story. If previous Tylers are anything to go by this will be a beautifully nuanced, acutely observed piece of fiction. And what a brilliant jacket.

Nicci Cloke’s Lay Me Down is about a very different stage of life. Eight months after their first kiss Jack and Elsa have moved to San Francisco from London after Jack secures his dream job working on the Golden Gate Bridge but he finds himself obsessed with thoughts of the Jumpers, suicides who make their leap from the bridge. Cloke’s narrative explores both Jack and Elsa’s past before they met – their failed relationships and mistakes – asking the question is their relationship strong enough to withstand their regrets. Handled well, this could be an absorbing read, and it’s a paperback original – always a plus.

Richard Bausch’s Before, During and After is also set in relationship territory, this time against the backdrop of 9/11. Michael and Natasha are apart when the Towers come down – Natasha in Jamaica where she suffers her own trauma and Michael in New York. Bausch explores the effect of both events on their love affair and whether it can survive. The tragedy that struck New York in 2001 seems an irresistible theme for a multitude of novelists and I might well have dismissed this one as just another 9/11 novel but I enjoyed Bausch’s Peace so much that I’m prepared to give it a go. For my money, the best novel written about 9/11 is Amy Waldman’s The Submission in which a woman, widowed in the attack, fiercely defends the architect picked to design its memorial when his Muslim identity is revealed. Let’s see if Bausch can better that.

Several years on from 2001, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations sees Anne, once a documentary photographer, meet her beloved grandson, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers and fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Both have secrets which begin to emerge, taking them on a journey back to the old Blackpool guesthouse where Anne once had a room. I haven’t read an O’Hagan for some time but this one sounds interesting.

Last year I read John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which explored the human need to make sense of coincidence through a sweet love story. There were a few ‘here’s the science’ moments but I enjoyed it enough to try Not Forgetting the Whale in which a young man is washed up at St Piran in Cornwall, stark naked and convinced that his computer program, which is predicting an oil crisis, a virulent disease and a Middle East conflict, is about to plunge the world into a banking collapse – some of which sounds horribly familiar. Not entirely convinced but we’ll see.

I’m also a little unsure about Laird Hunt’s Neverhome but apparently Paul Auster’s a big fan so who am I to be sceptical. It follows the fortunes of Gallant Ash, American Civil War soldier, leader of men, legendary figure – and a woman, secretly, of course. Sounds intriguing.Our Endless Numbered Days

One of my weekly treats is Claire Fuller’s post at her flash fiction site where she uses a photograph as a starting point for the shortest of short stories. They’re often thought-provoking, occasionally funny and have sometimes fed into her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, apparently. It’s set in 1976 when Peggy Hillcoat is eight and happy. Her survivalist father takes her from London to a remote cabin in a wood somewhere in Europe and tells her the world has disappeared. I have great hopes for this one.

That’s it for February which I hope will be brighter than my doomy expectations. If you want a fuller synopsis of any of these titles a click will take you to Waterstones website.