Tag Archives: Picador

All That’s Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe: Stories within stories

Cover imageAll That’s Left to Tell caught my eye on Twitter – just a few tweets, nothing shouty but it sounded intriguing. Two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. These are the bare bones of Daniel Lowe’s novel which engrosses you utterly, shifting the ground beneath your feet so deftly it’s hard to believe it’s his first.

Marc has come to Pakistan against all advice from his friends and family. He’s been spotted wandering in a slum neighbourhood, wanting to know how poor Pakistanis live as he later tells the woman he comes to know as Josephine. A taxi-driver picks him up, apparently concerned about his welfare, then delivers him into the hands of kidnappers. His guards speak little English although he manages to strike up a relationship with one of them. Every evening they blindfold him before the entrance of Josephine who engages him in conversation, coaxing details about his life from him: the departure of his wife a few months before his arrival in Pakistan; the recent murder of his daughter,Claire. Disoriented and lonely, Marc’s guard begins to drop. He lets slip more information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him of the life Claire might have led until it becomes more real to him than his own predicament. She warns him that time is running out for them both but Marc is desperate to know how Claire’s story ends. This puzzling interrogator with her American accent and her uncanny knowledge spins stories within stories until Marc is entirely caught in her web – as are we.

It’s hard to avoid that tired old cliché ‘unputdownable’ when writing about this novel. Lowe has chosen an extraordinarily ambitious structure which draws you in, leaving you wondering how he will bring Josephine’s storytelling to a conclusion. When it does come, he pulls the rug from under your feet yet again making you reassess all that’s come before. Josephine cleverly unfolds Claire’s story for Marc, amplifying his grief and loneliness by weaving vivid word pictures from the information she gleans from him, leaving him vulnerable and unguarded in his response to her. The apparent intertwining of her own story with Claire and Marc’s further intensifies the intimacy of the strange relationship that has grown between them. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. This is a clever subtle piece of fiction all about storytelling at which Lowe excels, neatly ending his novel with the line ‘Tell me a story’. I’m already wondering how he’s going to follow it.

Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson (transl. Sarah Death): None so blind as those who will not see

Cover imageI already had Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard in my sights but when Charlotte Collins, translator of the excellent A Whole Life, left a comment praising it to the skies on my January paperback preview it zoomed up my list. She called it ‘the cleverest dissection of misguided obsession that I’ve ever read’, a spot on assessment, I’d say. It’s short, but not sweet. Easily read in a few hours but be prepared to squirm.

Ester Nilsson is an intensely cerebral writer, dedicated to forensic enquiry and expression in her work. She’s lived with Per for many years in an agreeable if slightly dull relationship. When she’s commissioned to give a lecture on Hugo Rash, an artist lauded for the ‘moral fervour’ characterising his work, she spends a week researching her subject, becoming captivated by him even before they meet. He’s delighted with what she delivers, taking her out for a celebratory meal at which they discuss a multitude of issues, or rather she puts forward well thought out arguments while he replies with a rather disappointingly clichéd set of aphorisms. You’d think that would be the end of this mismatch but Ester is seized by a passion the like of which she’s never known, throwing over poor Per and embarking on a relationship based on midnight texts and long meals spent talking, all of which Ester sees as leading to an inevitable conclusion: a full-blown romantic relationship. There’s also a lot of hanging around outside Hugo’s studio, engineering meetings on the street and parties where his face falls with increasing regularity as he spots her.

Wilful Disregard manages to be both bitingly funny and excruciating discomfiting. It’s clear from the start that this is a hopelessly mismatched couple. Ester is obsessed to the point of derangement, gleaning hope from the barest slivers of encouragement, while Hugo is a man addicted to approbation, not much of a thought in his head in contrast with Ester’s endless over-analysing. Andersson nails this dysfunctional relationship beautifully in a single sentence: ‘Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him’. The ‘girlfriend chorus’ is wonderfully comic touch with their endless, patient litany of consolation, advice and gentle criticism which Ester never fails to interpret as evidence that she’s on the right track with Hugo. As the book progresses, Ester’s inability to accept the truth becomes more and more painful but it’s compulsive – I had to keep reading to see just how far she’d go and what would finally make her see sense. A smart, funny novella best read if you’re feeling happy in your relationship.

The Ladies of the House: A book that perfectly fits its cover

cover imageRegular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and how they so often do not fit the book in question. It’s long been a bugbear of mine. If the jacket’s eye-catching, attractive and reflects the book’s contents chances are the readers it’s aimed at will pick it up. Get the jacket wrong and you do both readers and writer a disservice. This particular jacket, however, fits its book like a glove. The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged women, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. Marie has never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise.

Marie lives with her Italian mother in Kettering. Every day she sets off for her job at the Linen Cupboard, returning in the evening to a beautifully cooked supper and a meticulously tidied house. Every day when she’s out, her mother gently rifles through her belongings, wondering why Marie has such a plethora of expensive face creams, putting everything back precisely in order. Marie rarely saw her father who spent his working week in London, leaving his wife and daughter to their own devices. They’ve always been well looked after, their material needs adequately, if not luxuriously, satisfied although not their emotional ones. Nothing has changed since Arthur died; Mr Wye makes sure of that. Marie would like to take her mother back to Italy before she dies and when she enquires at the bank if they have enough money to cover such a trip, she gets a shock. There are millions in the account left untouched under Mr Wye’s instructions. Reluctantly, the sleazy old solicitor finally discloses Arthur’s twenty brothels spread across the more salubrious London boroughs. It seems, however, that Arthur had a soft heart – his ageing employees continue to live in their homes, happily occupying expensive real-estate. The rest of Molly McGrann’s highly entertaining novel is the story of one such brothel run by Sal, Arthur’s beloved mistress, mother of his (unacknowledged) son Joseph and madam to Rita and Annetta – girls ‘for the gods’ as Arthur called them.

McGrann’s narrative shifts smoothly from past to present and back again, unfolding the stories of Rita, the gorgeous girl from Widnes plucked from a bus stop by Arthur out scouting for talent, Annetta, once an ethereal beauty now demented and given to stripping herself naked, and Joseph, who sees life through the window of London buses. It’s also the story of Marie and Flavia, the loving wife unaware of what it was Arthur got up to. McGrann has a sharp eye for characterisation coupled with a wry humour – ‘Yes, it was true, the politicians said, jumping out of the brothels and into the scrum’ in response to the tabloids’ moral outrage about the goings-on in Soho. Her descriptions are arrestingly vivid – an uncle has ‘an unwashed smell on him that crossed the room’, indulging himself in ‘strip-mining the jolliest bits of a fruit loaf’. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling which at times reminded me of Sarah Waters, or Lesley Glaister’s novels with their cast of eccentric old ladies. What’s surprising, given that McGrann is American, is the novel’s strikingly authentic English voice. The ending, though, is pure Southern Gothic.

The Vacationers: An intelligent beach read

Cover imageAt first glance The Vacationers didn’t appeal – beach reads aren’t my kind of thing – but it’s published by Picador (one of my favourite imprints), Naomi at The Writes of Women tweeted approvingly about it and annethology also seemed keen so I quit prevaricating and started reading. It seems they were right: Emma Straub’s novel is a very smart piece of commercial fiction – entertaining, peopled with entirely believable characters and, best of all, written with a sharp wit and acute observation.

Jim and Franny are scrambling to finish their packing before racing off to the airport with their daughter Sylvia. They’re flying to Mallorca for a two-week holiday in the stone villa they’ve rented just far enough from the coast to lift them up above the hoi-polloi. It’s soon clear that they’re taking rather more baggage than the cases they’re packing – Jim has lost his job after an affair with an intern, Franny can hardly contain her fury and Sylvia is preoccupied by the Facebook photos of her drunkenly snogging her classmates. When they arrive at the villa they’re jet-lagged and fractious. Into this walks their son Bobby; Carmen, the girlfriend for whom Franny can barely mask her contempt; Charles, her dearest friend and his husband Lawrence. There’s a great deal of angst, someone stomps off never to be seen again, people misbehave, someone gets punched, hopes are met and dashed – much like real life really – all served up with a slyly wicked humour. No one leaves unchanged.

The joy of this book is largely in its characters. Jim is suitably hangdog but having difficulty in banishing thoughts of his intern; Fran is a seething cauldron of resentment but determined that everyone will enjoy themselves; Sylvia picks away at her Facebook shame while nurturing hopes of her gorgeous Spanish tutor; Bobby and Carmen obsessively exercise; Charles frets about whether he can overcome his child-rearing anxieties while Lawrence can hardly contain his excitement when an email arrives from the adoption agency. Straub’s deft portrayals are a delight and her wit sharp as a tack. It’s an indulgent pleasure – an intelligent piece of fiction with enough bite to lift it far above the usual slick beach read.

Life Drawing by Robin Black: A study in relationships

Cover imageRight from the start of Robin Black’s powerful first novel we know that Owen, our narrator’s husband, is dead and that it was not a natural death. Refugees from urban life thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Gus and Owen live in an isolated farmhouse in which she paints and he writes, or tries to. Owen is blocked, their marriage stumbling a little as Gus becomes increasingly involved in her series of paintings based on the First World War soldiers’ obituaries unearthed during their house renovations. This is not the first time their relationship has faltered. Gus’s affair with Bill six years ago, shortly after the death of her beloved sister coupled with the news that she and Owen were unable to have children delivered a double blow, undermined its solidity but they have almost recovered. When Alison moves into the only house within sight an uncharacteristically intimate friendship grows between the two women. Into this walks Nora, the twenty-two-year-old daughter whom Alison has fiercely protected from her violent father and whose infatuation with Owen shifts the dynamics of their delicately balanced relationships.

You could be forgiven for thinking of Life Drawing as a thriller, albeit a literary one, given the nice little edge of suspense that runs through it thanks to the announcement of Owen’s death in its very first sentence setting us up to question how that will come about but although it becomes a dark, twisting novel it’s much more about relationships, both familial and otherwise, and the ways in which they shape us. As Gus unfolds her story it becomes increasingly clear that the loss of her mother when she was a toddler and of her sister several years ago are the defining events of her life. She and Owen shared a bond so deep it seemed unassailable – ‘Owen was me. I was Owen’  – and they have worked hard to rebuild it but she finds herself confiding intensely private details of her affair and its aftermath in Alison, a second betrayal. Owen’s death – and the person responsible for it – comes as a shock despite the forewarning so effectively has Black drawn us into this slightly claustrophobic world thrown off-kilter. It had me gripped, and reminded me a little of Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me, a wonderfully taut novel about a relationship knocked off-balance when a third person insinuates themselves into it.

Mateship with Birds: An absolute joy but not for the prudish, apparently

Not to beat about the bush – there’s a lot of sex in Carrie Tiffany’s novel and most of it not ornithological. I only mention it as the reviewer I commissioned to write about it when it came out in hardback emailed me to say that it was all too much for her. I was too busy to check it out but now that I’ve read the book I’m mystified. There is one aberrant incident but it hardly comes as a surprise and is treated with such gentle black humour as to be inoffensive. Well, to me, anyway, but you have been warned. Now let’s get on with the book

Set in a small Australian settlement in the 50s, Mateship with Birds is a tender portrayal of Harry, aCover image dairy farmer who’s lived alone since his wife left him many years ago, fed up with their uneventful life. He lives next door to Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Everyone quietly gets on with their lives which are mostly mundane with the occasional event rippling through, much like many of our own. It opens with a list of Harry’s cows’ names. He’s firm but affectionate with them, imagining them to be a ‘troupe’ of stars on tour and he their manager. He has a timid little whippet to herd them, fully aware that many farmers would laugh at him for it. He’s a birdwatcher who records his observations in a dairy account book. Next door Betty brings up her children, quietly letting assumptions that her husband died in the war stand. She gets on with her job as an aide in an old people’s nursing home, performing the most menial tasks with loving care and attention. These two lonely middle aged people, quietly losing whatever physical charms they once possessed but still yearning for sexual love, are so affectionately portrayed that you find yourself desperate for someone to make the first move.

What marks this fine novel out is its richly vibrant language and acutely observed characterisation. Both Harry and Betty are kind, sensitive and thoughtful: Harry is concerned about Michael’s fledgling relationship with Dora and what they may be getting up to so he sets about Michael’s sexual education, sensitive to the potential for embarrassment; Betty knowing that an old man in her nursing home is lonely changes her clothes at lunch time and re-enters the home to visit him as his ‘wife’. Harry’s bird observations look like poetry in the narrow confines of his dairy ledger book, and become it when he uses words like ‘bandit-dandy’. Sunlight ‘shines ginger through [the cows’] ears’. Characters are quietly accepting of their fate. Even when Mues, Harry’s reprobate neighbour, lures Little Hazel into his shed with promises of a Shetland pony only to expose himself she merely reflects wryly that you never really get what you want: ‘Adults are part of [the] pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another’. All of these elements combine to make this novel a complete delight: funny, beautifully expressed and written with huge affection for ordinary unglamorous people which means most of us. The last line made me laugh out loud from sheer joy.