Tag Archives: Ron Rash

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey: Loose lips sink ships

Cover imageDonna Morrissey’s new novel comes with a hearty endorsement from one of my favourite authors, Ron Rash, who’s dubbed it ‘one of the very best novels I have read in years’. It had caught my eye even before I’d seen the press release but after reading that how could I resist? Attentive readers may have noticed that this is the second Rash endorsement I’ve fallen for recently. He was pretty keen on The Barrowfields too. Set in Newfoundland, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation.

Kyle Now is not at all sure what he’ll do with his future. He has a university place but is unwilling to turn his back on his family, still reeling from the loss of his brother in an accident on the oil rigs. His father spends much of his time in a drunken stupor, his sister has taken off backpacking in Africa and his mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Kyle is shouldering this heavy burden when Clar Gillard’s body is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed. This is a community where nothing goes unnoticed or undiscussed. Soon the village is rife with gossip about possible culprits, fingers pointing every which way from Clar’s wife, who he frequently abused, to Kyle’s father, known to detest Clar, to Kyle, himself, beaten by Clar the night of his killing. Over the next few days, Kyle finds himself questioned by the police, stumbling over evidence and trying to keep his father’s head above water as they both face his mother’s operation. Kyle has his suspicions about the identity of the murderer but unlike the rest of the village he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. Secrets are plentiful and well-guarded. I guessed the perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.  The Now family’s desperate grief is palpable in Morrissey’s depictions of a father unable to talk about his son’s death and a mother patiently working her way through her pain alone. Caught in the middle, Kyle’s angry struggle to protect both parents is both poignant and compellingly convincing. The portrayal of one half of a community unable to keep its mouth shut while the other seems incapable of keeping anything but shtum might seem too convenient in another setting but here in a remote village where ‘everyone was your brother or aunt or cousin or neighbour and they knew your dead like they knew their own’ it seems entirely plausible. Morrissey’s writing is admirable clipped yet vividly evocative of its setting: the landscape and weather are punishing, spoken of as if each were a person with a fickle power over the inhabitants. If The Fortunate Brother is anything to go by, Morrissey and Rash are a fine match: if you like one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like the other.

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I’m a keen Ron Rash fan. His pared to the bone writing laced with lyrical descriptions of the Appalachians is right up my alley. I’m not sure the beautifully jacketed The World Made Straight, originally published in 2006, has made an appearance here in the UK before now or if it has, how I managed to miss it. It’s set in the 1970s but the Civil War, fought over a century before, throws a long shadow for some living near Shelton Laurel, the site of an appalling atrocity.

Trying to find a way to make money after losing his job at the local supermarket, seventeen-year-old Travis Shelton is fishing when he stumbles on a field of marijuana plants. He knows they belong to the Toomeys who are not to be tangled with but he steals some anyway and heads off to see Leonard, the local dealer. On his third visit, Travis walks into a bear trap, landing himself in hospital. When his father all but chucks him out he turns up at Leonard’s door and is reluctantly taken in. Leonard has his own demons to fight. Dismissed when a pupil framed him for possession, furious at being found cheating, he’s a teacher whose ex-wife and young daughter are living in Australia. A relationship grows between these two: Travis is a smart kid, curious about the world; Leonard can’t resist feeding that curiosity, finding Travis books to read and encouraging him to go to college. Running through the novel is the memory of the Civil War and the massacre at Shelton Laurel. The ancestors of both Travis and Leonard played a part in that bloody conflict, along with those of the Toomeys. As the novel edges towards its tense conclusion it’s clear that the sides taken have not been forgotten.

The most striking aspect of Rash’s fiction for me is his use of language. His writing is spare –  ‘he rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money’ – yet his descriptions of the natural world are often quite lyrical – ‘the leaves of the trees thinned out enough that the sun laid a scattered brightness on the water’. He’s clearly a fisherman: gorgeously vivid descriptions of the river run throughout this novel, always with an eye to fishing opportunities. The novel’s characters are astutely observed and convincing – both Travis and Leonard are flawed yet redeemable. Rash weaves the Civil War deftly through his story, prefacing each chapter with an entry from the local doctor’s ledger in the years leading up to and during the conflict whose implications become clear as Travis immerses himself in the region’s history. It’s an engrossing read with a gripping climax which ends in a brutal redemption. What a treat to be presented with an unread Rash novel so soon after last year’s Above the Waterfall.  Wikipedia tells me that there are two novels preceding this one. I hope Canongate are on the case.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2017: Part One

Cover imageA plethora of paperbacks to look out for this March – enough to justify two posts – beginning with John Wray’s ambitious sounding The Lost Time Accidents. Waldemar Tolliver wakes up one day to find himself out of time – the world is still turning but he’s not turning with it. Wray’s novel ‘takes us from turn-of-the-century Viennese salons buzzing with rumours about Einstein’s radical new theory to the death camps of the Second World War, from the golden age of post-war pulp science fiction to a startling discovery in a modern-day Manhattan apartment packed to the ceiling with artefacts of contemporary life’ says the publisher which sounds intriguing, although that time slippage may take a bit of swallowing.

Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching also wanders around the twentieth century. A New York setting is usually enough to guarantee any novel a place on my list but this one sounds particularly attractive, apparently featuring the city itself as the main protagonist. From Walt Whitman in 1891 to Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, from Robert Moses in 1922 to Edmund White in 2013, Bradbury’s novel is about the artists and writers who have made New York a city that captures the imagination. ‘Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future’ according to the publisher which suggests it Cover imagecould either be a great sprawling mess of a novel or a resounding success. We’ll see.

New York is the setting for Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 which begins on New Year’s Eve in 1979 when parties are being held all over the city. Connections will be set up at two of these which play out through the rest of this entertaining and absorbing novel: one thrown by the doyenne of the New York art world; the other much more uproarious, held at an artists’ squat. Prentiss tosses a few well-aimed barbs at the art market and its ever-increasing prices – even the most raggle taggle squatters succumb to the lure of money once it’s on offer, no matter how hard they justify their excesses.

Prentiss’ New York art scene is a world away from Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker but they do share the theme of creativity. A sculptor of exquisite wooden dolls and the mother of five children, Gertie has a modest ambition to own a small farm in the Kentucky hills but the family is forced to move to Detroit. Freedom and art are sacrificed to a grinding need for money in what the New York Times described as “A masterwork…A superb book of unforgettable strength and glowing richness”. Billed by the publishers that brought you Stoner and The Power of the Dog as a rediscovered American classic, Arnow’s novel sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageMy last choice shares a rural setting with The Dollmaker – this time the Appalachians from where Ron Rash hails and the backdrop against which he sets his award-winning novels. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff approaching retirement who is faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. Beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties, Rash’s novel is utterly convincing.

That’s it for March’s first batch of paperbacks. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with March’s new titles they’re here and here. Part two shortly…

Books of the Year 2016: Part Three

Cover imageJust one July favourite this year although August brought an embarrassment of riches with five splendid novels. July’s title was Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor, a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she is a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he is supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage . It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel. Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution.

There’s a kind of resolution in Marie Sizun’s painfully autobiographical Her Father’s Daughter, written from the point of view of the titular daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, who is just over four years old when the it opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war her mother’s focus shifts and the daughter must learn to live in an entirely different world, deprived of affection and often violent. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and utterly engrossing.

The pain and puzzlement suffered by daughters is a theme in Sara Taylor’s second novel The Lauras, much anticipated after her excellent debut The Shore. Like The Shore, The Lauras is stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they crisscross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises Cover imagefulfilled and debts repaid. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness.

The theme of mother/child relationships also runs through Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s very fine debut, Harmless Like You. After his father dies, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son. Buchanan’s writing is often very striking, her images vibrantly colourful. She underpins the book’s poignancy with a wry humour, neatly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Let’s hope there’s a second novel in the works.

One of my favourite writers, Ron Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. His latest novel, Above the Waterfall, is about Les Clary, the local sheriff whose final case sees him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

Cover imageAltogether more gentle, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this charming novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for. Just what was needed after the multitude of barbs that 2016 seems to have hurled at so many of us and a very satisfying book with which to bring July and August to a close.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review and if you’ve missed the first two posts they’re here and here. Nothing much of note for me in September so the fourth and final post for my books of 2016 will leap ahead to cover October and November.

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: Seeing the world in shades of grey

Cover imageEven if Ron Rash wasn’t one of my favourite writers I’d have picked this one out of a crowd: its jacket is a thing of beauty, enticing you to pick it up. Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. He’s also a poet, more evident in this new novel than in previous books I’ve read by him. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff approaching retirement who finds himself faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion.

Les has a few weeks before he hands over his badge to his young colleague. He’s lived all his life in the mountains, most of them as a sheriff. He’s an accomplished watercolourist, written off as sissy by all but one of his schoolmates and bullied for it. C. J. had also been the butt of a good deal of abuse but seemed to shrug it off effortlessly, heading off to college, marrying and building a career for himself. Now he’s back, working for the local resort and intent on providing the future for his sons that his own parents failed to provide for him. When the river is poisoned with kerosene, killing the trout stock provided for the resort’s guests, the finger is pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land. Becky, the park ranger, with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Faced with what seems to be cast iron evidence, Les is inclined to accept Gerald’s guilt but his instinct tells him otherwise. Far from winding down, it seems that Les must solve a case which will tax his moral framework, reminding him of his past before he can take himself off to his mountain cabin.

The most striking element of Rash’s writing for me is his use of language which seems even more evident in this novel than his others. He punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Les, his tentative relationship with Becky is a ‘wary out-of-step dance’; ‘A man entering his coffin’ he thinks as the freshly meth-addicted Darby walks into his darkened house. In contrast Becky holds ‘sunspill like rain’ in the palm of her hand, sees a slug’s body as ‘a slimy slow lugging’ and admires ‘a black snake’s cast-off stocking’ caught in a tree. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. The Appalachians may be idyllically beautiful but they’re far from untouched by the challenges of modern life: Les and his crew regularly raid houses for the meth that’s decimating the population while Becky struggles with memories of the school massacre that tore apart her childhood, seeking healing in nature. Les’ long experience has taught him to see humanity in shades of grey rather than the black and white that his young successor perceives but Rash leaves us to draw our own conclusions, allowing space for redemption to step in. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

Books to Look Out For in August 2016: Part 1

Cover imageAugust is yet another month with a strong showing for American fiction, kicking off with The Lauras by Sara Taylor whose wonderful debut, The Shore, was longlisted for the Baileys last year. A mother bundles her thirteen-year-old daughter into the car in the middle of the night and sets off on a journey towards a new life. Just like all thirteen-year-olds, the daughter thinks of her mother as just that, with no aspirations to be anything else, but as their route takes them away from Virginia, she learns more about her mother’s life and secrets. The Shore was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m hoping from great things, fuelled further by the publisher’s description of ‘an extraordinary story of a life; a stunning exploration of identity and an authentic study of the relationship between a mother and her child’.

For some reason I never got around to reading Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl which was raved about by all and sundry when it was published back in 2007. There’s been nothing from him since but The Fortunes sounds well worth the wait. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read.Cover image

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, also explores how it feels to be an outsider, following Yuki Oyama as she tries to forge a career as an artist in the 1960s after her parents have returned to Japan leaving her alone in America. Running alongside Yuki’s story is that of the son she abandoned when he was only two so that she could pursue her art. Buchanan’s novel encompasses New York, Berlin and Connecticut – two of my favourite settings in there which alone would guarantee it a place in this preview but the premise sounds excellent, too.

Hide, Matthew Griffin’s debut,  looks at the plight of the outsider from another point of view. Wendell and Frank meet after the Second World War in a depressed textile town in the American South. They decide to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, well aware of the dangers their relationship poses. Decades later, when Wendell finds Frank collapsed outside it seems that the carefully constructed face they present to the world may fracture. Wendell attempts to maintain the façade as Frank continues to deteriorate but ‘faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived – and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had’ say the publishers. This sounds like a heart-wrenching novel, a story that’s to be hoped will play out less and less in real life.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, for me, at least, is Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall. I’ve long been an admirer of Rash’s pared back, spare writing. I first came across him when I read Serena his reinterpretation of Macbeth which I very nearly passed over, sporting, as it did at the time, a somewhat overblown romantic jacket. This new novel follows Sheriff Les Cary as he embarks on his last case in a small town riddled with violence and drug addiction in which someone has poisoned the local trout stream. ‘Poetic and haunting’ say the publishers which aptly describes Rash’s writing for me, and no complaints whatsoever about that gorgeous jacket.

That’s it for the first batch of August goodies. The second will extend far outside of the USA, you may be pleased to hear. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if you’d like to read more.

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.

What’s in a genre? A reprise

Catching the train home after Philip French’s fascinating Fifty Years as a Film Critic talk on Cover imageSaturday we had ten minutes to spare at the station. I walked into W H Smiths and H gave a barely audible sigh. Now that I’m no longer a reviews editor I think he’d got it into his head that I might get the TBR pile under control.  Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay caught my eye immediately. How could I not know about a new novel from Mr Rash? The Cove was one of the best things I read last year. Along with Kent Haruf, Rash’s pared down, spare prose is right up my alley. I grabbed a copy along with M L Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, paid and headed for the train. Once ensconced, I took a closer look at the book and the penny dropped – it’s a collection of short stories. My turn to sigh this time. I know that there are many readers out there who think that the short story is a superior form to the novel and in terms of skill I can see their point but I struggle to work up the same kind of eager anticipation that I have for a favourite author’s novel. Perhaps it’s because I read too fast so that the stories tend to blur into one another, then I forget them. Or perhaps it’s because I like to be drawn into a narrative and dislike being dumped at the end of ten pages. Whatever it is, I realise it’s my loss, and I have read some excellent collections – Annie Proulx’s Close Range comes to mind as does Polly Sampson’s Perfect Lives. Anyway, the Rash is now on the TBR shelves.

The Forgotten WaltzYesterday I finished The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, no slouch herself when it comes to short stories. It’s about an affair between a young woman and an older man set in Dublin just before and after the 2008 crash.  The affair follows the usual trajectory – flirtation, passion, living together, disenchantment – which makes it sound like tens of other books you may have read before but Enright’s style is such that Gina Moynihan’s recollection of how she and Seán Valleley came together and apart engages absolutely. She catches the Dublin lilt perfectly so that Gina’s voice sings out. Even the chapter headings are slightly cheesy song titles giving the whole thing a nicely wry, self mocking tone. Wonderful stuff!