Tag Archives: Sceptre Books

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers: ‘Death where is thy sting’

Cover imageI’m not one for dystopian fiction but Body Tourists caught my eye because of its author. I’ve enjoyed several of Jane Rogers’ novels, including her last one, Conrad and Eleanor, which neatly reversed gender roles in the story of a long marriage. Her new novel is set in a near future where scientists have developed a way of transferring the memories of the dead into the brains of fit young people.

In 2045, Gudrun is giving an account of her nephew’s research and its consequences, research funded by her from her private Caribbean island. Intellectually sharp but lacking in empathy, Luke’s more interested in science than wealth but Gudrun sees an opportunity for money to be made. The massive northern estates set up to house the unemployed – jobless thanks to the advent of bots – are stuffed with the impoverished. Most are drugged by virtual reality but there are young people looking for a way out, prepared to ‘volunteer’ for medical research for a hefty fee. All they need to do is give up their bodies for two weeks, a fortnight which they will spend unconscious. Ryan jumps at the chance, persuading his girlfriend to volunteer with him but while Paula’s body plays host to a woman who leaves her a grateful note, Ryan’s fails to return. Paula is appalled. Swallowing Luke’s explanation and gagged by a confidentiality agreement, she turns her back on what’s happened but soon Luke is asking for more volunteers and Paula needs the money. Eventually, tragedy strikes and Body Tourism is blown apart.

This is such a clever idea, depicting a world where death is the last frontier the rich have failed to overcome until Luke unveils his research to his avaricious aunt, safely ensconced in her tax haven. Rogers explores her theme from a variety of perspectives, narrating her novel through several different voices. Paula is the host lured by the promise of a better life but whose conscience is deeply troubled. Richard is the ageing rock star, eager to pay to show his doubting deceased father his success but getting more than he bargained for. Elsa, whose partner died in a terrorist attack, has the only positive experience in the single instance where the rich are not involved. It’s chillingly believable, even down to Gudrun’s cynical conclusion. I can’t say that I’m a convert to dystopian fiction but if, like me, you tend to shy away from it, this one’s well worth considering.

Sceptre: London 2019 9781529392951 240 pages Hardback

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: You might as well live

Cover imageRowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, was one of my books of 2016. I loved it for its poignancy leavened with wry humour, and for the striking images shining brightly from its pages. That same deft writing is evident in Starling Days which follows Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction from what ails her.

Mina is picked up by a patrol car, gazing over the edge of the George Washington Bridge in New York. Her husband comes to collect her, his mind full of memories of her overdose on their wedding night. Mina and Oscar have been together for over ten years but married for just six months. He has never known her well. Her childhood was filled with the sadness of loss, not least of the grandmother who brought her up. Now nearly thirty, her academic career is chequered and her idea for a monograph on women survivors stalled. Oscar’s father offers an opportunity to get Mina away, asking him to oversee the renovation of a set of apartments in London. Oscar works for his father importing sake and exotic beers to the States but their relationship is scratchy. Oscar was brought up by his mother in Britain, the product of a one-night stand. Oscar and Mina try to settle in: Oscar consumed with worry about Mina, she at a loss to know how to occupy herself. Called back to the States on the pretext of business, Oscar is presented with a series of revelations that turns his relationship with his father on its head. Back in London, alone and desperate, Mina turns to the sister of Oscar’s oldest friend for solace. Each, it seems, has decided their future lies elsewhere.

Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, switching perspectives between Mina and Oscar. It lays bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Similar themes run through Buchanan’s debut but her new novel is infused with a deeper melancholy and there are moments of aching sadness:

And she saw herself as if from a great height – this small tattooed woman with the bleached hair crying for her husband’s affection. This small woman dressed to look like a rebel just begging to be held.

Unlike Harmless Like You, there are no slapstick moments such as the hairless therapy cat in its ‘festive jumper’ – although I did think the lovely Benson would make an excellent therapy dog – but the same wry, dark humour brightens the tone:

 There was no word for the woman whose husband your mother had borrowed

Given the nature of its story, this was bound to be a more sombre novel than Buchanan’s first, made all the more so by the heartfelt note at its end in which she addresses readers dealing with their own difficulties:

Every day you try again is an act of bravery. Although this is worthy of pride, you may not feel able to be proud of yourself. But I would like to wish you congratulations on being here today

Amen to that.

The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson: Lord Lucan – the nanny’s story

Cover imageI’m a fan of Jill Dawson’s writing. Her last novel, The Crime Writer, was a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction, a perverse love letter to Patricia Highsmith. However, when I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair I dismissed it. I’m old enough to have seen far too much in the way of tawdry media coverage of that. Then I spotted a publishers’ giveaway on Twitter and decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did. Far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s novel reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective.

Mandy and Rosy meet at a psychiatric hospital: Mandy is recovering from a breakdown but Rosy suffers occasional psychotic episodes. Each is the other’s first real friend. Rosy goes on to pursue her studies in child development, becoming a Norland nanny. When she hears of a vacancy with the Morverns, she recommends Mandy. Katharine Morvern is desperate for help with her quiet, eager-to-please son, James, and Pammie, the baby Mandy hears squalling when Katharine opens her front door. Katharine is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce from her husband who is given to frequent silent phone calls and posting private detectives outside the house. The apparently charming, urbane Dickie has weaponised the children against his wife in a bitter custody battle. Katharine unburdens herself to Mandy, sharing her gorgeous clothes and the grubby secrets of her marriage with both Mandy and Rosy on their Thursday evenings off. While Mandy voices her concerns about Dickie’s behaviour, the violent streak Katherine has talked of and his unpredictability, Rosy is seduced by the attention he pays her, unheeding of his manipulation. One night, breaking their usual routine, it’s Mandy rather than Katherine who goes downstairs to make a pot of tea.

Touchingly, Dawson has dedicated her novel to Sandra Rivett, the nanny who spent a scant ten weeks in the Lucan household. Readers of a certain age will remember the incessant, prurient coverage of her murder, and of Lucan’s subsequent disappearance. Dawson turns this coverage on its head, telling her story from Mandy’s perspective interwoven with Rosy’s occasional reflections. Both are complex and convincing characters – Rosy a little immature and caught up in the glamour of the circles she finds herself attached to while Mandy’s complicated past is slowly revealed. Through these two, Dawson reveals a society still deferring to and obsessed by its upper echelons who farm out the care of their children, seemingly incapable of looking after them themselves. Violence against women is a constant undercurrent, culminating in Mandy’s murder and the attack on Katherine. By telling the story from the nanny’s perspective, Dawson’s careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours her memory, tipping the balance away from a media obsessed with Lucan which reduced Sandra Rivett to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best.

That’s it from me for a few weeks. H and I are off on our travels again, no doubt taking a book or ten with us. I’ll be back to tell you all about it in July.

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: ‘One story has become another’

Cover imageIf you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a Siri Hustvedt fan. Sixteen years after I first read it,  What I Loved remains one of my favourite contemporary novels. It’s more accessible than the complex, intensely cerebral The Blazing World, her last novel published five years ago. Memories of the Future tends more towards the former than the latter. A writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version of that year remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account.

S. H. discovers her long missing diary while packing up her mother’s belongings. At first she’s amused by this record of a bright young woman’s experience in a city she’s long dreamed of inhabiting. S. H. arrives knowing no one, having negotiated a deferment of her Columbia fellowship. She finds a tiny, sparsely furnished apartment and sets about writing her novel. Three weeks pass before she has a conversation. Friends are not as easily come by as she might have hoped. She hears strange declamations from her neighbour through the walls which sets her imagination racing. Is her neighbour mad, or perhaps rehearsing a play? She meets a woman at a poetry reading who becomes her friend and soon she’s part of a small circle. Then she meets a man at a party who insists on coming home with her, refusing to take no for an answer, from whom Lucy, her mysterious neighbour, rescues her. Lucy’s story turns out to be even stranger than S. H. had imagined while her own has taken a turn that leaves her questioning the way in which men relate to women who refuse to be quiet. The older S. H. reflects on all this, interpreting and reinterpreting her twenty-three-year-old self within the context of 2017.

Hustvedt weaves her present day narrative through the 1978 diary and the comic detective story which was to have become S.H.’s first novel, exploring themes of memory, storytelling, interpretation and gender while frequently reminding us of the unreliability of her role as a narrator. She’s not the person she once was; memory becomes both flexible and down right slippery with age. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages, taking a darker turn after the younger S. H. is assaulted. Her experience leads her to examine all her relationships with men, even with her beloved father who seemed incapable of imagining his daughter’s interest in his work as a doctor resulting in anything but a career as a nurse. Other men are more forthright in their resolve to keep women silent, determined in their sense of entitlement and superiority. Written in Trump’s America in the wake of the infamous pussy-grabbing tapes and the sickening misogynistic chanting of his election campaign, this is an intensely political, fiercely intelligent novel which manages to be both deeply serious and very funny at times. Another Hustvedt triumph.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin: Raising a glass or five

Cover imageit was the structure of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said that first caught my eye and when I realised she’d been a bookseller with Waterstones it went straight on my list. John Boyne’s name sits proudly on the back of my proof under a glowing puff, another Waterstones alumni. Spanning a single night, most of which is spent in the bar of the Rainsford House Hotel, Griffin’s debut tells the story of eighty-four-year-old Maurice Hannigan as he makes five toasts.

Widowed two years ago, Maurice has decided he can no longer bear to be without his beloved Sadie. He’s put his affairs in order, dressed himself smartly and settled in at the bar. Over the course of the evening he raises his glass five times: once to his beloved brother Tony, long ago lost to tuberculosis; once to his longed for daughter, Molly, who arrived stillborn; once to his sister-in-law, Noreen, a constant presence in his and Sadie’s life; once to his son Kevin, openly adored by his mother but barely acknowledged by Maurice and lastly to Sadie, much missed but so often overlooked. As Maurice drinks each toast, kindling memories of these five, we learn how his life became intertwined with the Dollards whose farm he went to work on aged ten, now the hotel in which he sits, and the far-reaching repercussions of small split-second decision. Maurice addresses his thoughts to Kevin, confessing his many misdemeanours, not least his inability to express his love and admiration for the son who makes his living from words while his father can barely read. Maurice has made himself one of the wealthiest men in the county but he’s neglected those dearest to him and his vengefulness towards the Dollards has caused them a great deal of misery. Now that he’s sealed his own fate, it might be time for a little redemption.

This is such a clever structure. Griffin tells us story of Maurice’s life through his recollections of the people most important to him, and to some extent the story of rural Ireland over the past century along with it. He’s an expertly drawn character, every inch the jovial old man at first but soon revealing both the sadnesses that have shadowed his life and his inability to open himself to love and joy, his eye fixed on accumulating property and the righting of the wrongs done to his family by the Dollards. Maurice is the master of the colourfully turned phrase, captured well in Griffin’s use of vernacular. His cocky exterior hides a well of grief and not a little guilt but there’s a good deal of comedy amongst the tragedy. A thoroughly enjoyable, smartly turned out piece of fiction inspired, apparently, by a man Griffin met in a hotel who told her he’d worked there as a boy and wouldn’t see the morning.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war

Cover imageI have a history with Andrew Miller’s writing: I loved Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second. It’s not that his other novels haven’t been enjoyable but Ingenious Pain was so inventive in its premise and so beautifully executed that I’ve been left mildly disappointed by them. Having read Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction. This novel about a cavalry officer invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War who finds himself unable to return to it sees Miller on top form.

Captain John Lacroix is delivered, unconscious, to his Somerset home in the winter of 1809. Nursed back to physical health by Nell, the servant who has known him all his life and to whom he occasionally blurts brief descriptions of the horrors he’s seen, he arranges a passage to Scotland through his brother-in-law. Assaulted and robbed of his money and his boots in Glasgow, Lacroix finds his way onto a supply boat heading for the Hebrides, putting ashore somewhat ignominiously astride the back of a cow. There he meets the veteran of another war and is taken in by three English siblings awaiting the leader of their utopian community. Cornelius prattles on, combing the peat bogs for relics while his sisters attend to more practical matters. Lacroix finds himself drawn to Emily whose sight is failing, accompanying her to Glasgow for the risky surgery she’s determined to undergo. Meanwhile, a ferocious English corporal accompanied by a Spanish officer edge ever closer to their goal: executing orders to dispatch the man Calley has told the authorities is responsible for a dreadful atrocity.

Miller’s novel is a consummate piece of storytelling, pulling the thread of suspense nicely taut by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with Calley and Medina’s chase. Themes of war and culpability are woven through the novel, explored in eloquent yet understated prose. Lacroix’s part in the events in Spain is quietly unfolded so that our sympathy has been engaged before we learn the extent of his involvement. There are many pleasing details to enjoy, sometimes laced with a surprising gentle humour, from Nell’s soft spot for Tom, which may well be reciprocated but will never be revealed, to Medina’s joy at finding a band of naked men cavorting in a river contrasted neatly with Calley’s sourness. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing novel, neatly avoiding the trite in its ambivalent ending. I was sorry not to see it on the Man Booker longlist.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it

Cover imageThis may sound obvious to seasoned readers of literature in translation but one of the things I’ve learned to look out for is the name of the translator as well as the author. The penny dropped when I noticed how many of the translations I’d enjoyed were by the late Carol Brown Janeway. Now I’d point to Jamie Bulloch and Anthea Bell as favourites but top of my list is Charlotte Collins for her beautiful translations of A Whole Life and The Tobacconist. That said, the premise of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, which follows three children into adulthood after an accident leaves them orphaned, was always going to attract me. Collins’ name was the icing on the cake.

The novel opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life, much of which has been spent daydreaming about how things might have been. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. The children were sent to a state boarding school where they were immediately separated. Jules is the youngest of the three each of whom deal with their loss in very different ways. Liz, the oldest, takes to promiscuity and drugs long into adult life. Already a misfit, Marty loses himself in study, finding solace in a lifelong friendship and a lover who understands him. No longer the fearless seven-year-old he was before his parents died, Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything, always yearning for Alva, his fellow pupil who seems to understand his pain but carries her own and disappears from his life. When these two eventually find each other again it seems that all is set for a happy resolution.

Wells narrates his novel through Jules’ voice, unfolding the family’s story through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Jules’ loneliness and pain is sensitively portrayed, the happiness of his early childhood tempered by the adult knowledge of his father’s depression and his retreat into fantasy and daydream painfully real. His writing vividly evokes loneliness and grief – And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play – but Wells neatly avoids the maudlin. As Marty tells Jules: From the moment we’re born we’re on the Titanic. Death cannot be ducked; it’s what we choose to do with that knowledge that helps shape our lives, along with chance and circumstance. All this may sound somewhat gloomy but it’s not: The End of Loneliness may well explore what many of us would rather not think about but the clue’s in the title.

Before Everything by Victoria Redel: A gorgeous paean of praise to friendship

Cover imageEvery now and then a book comes along about which it’s hard not to gush. Victoria’s Redel’s lovely Before Everything fits that bill for me. I was very much attracted by its premise – five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying – but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing.

Anna’s cancer has recurred. She’s been in remission several times but is done with invasive surgery, debilitating chemotherapy and the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. She’s the lodestar of the Old Friends, the name the five adopted when they were eleven. Beautiful, clever and vivid, Anna can also be selfish, manipulative and bossy. They all know that but they love her, regardless, as do the many others that Anna has drawn into her orbit over the two decades she’s lived in her neighbourhood. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the never-ending conversation the five of them share, taking her out on an ill-advised outing, stepping a little carelessly on the toes of the women they think of as her new friends and struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Each of them has their own lives, troubled and otherwise, but Anna has always been at the centre. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband continues with the hard graft of caring for his dying wife despite their estrangement.

Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – smoothly switching perspective between Anna, her friends and her husband. These are women who have seen each other through joy and misery, difficulty and triumphs, for decades. None of them can envisage a world in which they won’t rush to tell Anna of their news, fashioning the latest mishap into a story, confiding a fear or a hope. Redel neatly avoids the saccharine, portraying the women with all their flaws and capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a beautifully crafted novel. There are a multitude of quotes I could pull out but here’s a smattering to give you a flavour: ‘They have done so much laughing, these five, they’d managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable’; ‘Fear was always there, a gauze between her and the vivid rest of her life’; ’She imagined her dresses flouncing through town, a flutter of hems waiting at a crosswalk, an A-line flare pressing a code at an ATM’ and perhaps my favourite ‘We are here. And then we’re not. For a little while, we are a story’. A gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin, Before Everything is the first of Redel’s books to be published in the UK. I hope that Sceptre have plans for her other four.

It came as no surprise to find that Redel is a poet which often turns out to be the case when I’ve particularly enjoyed a novelist’s writing, the most obvious example being Helen Dunmore. It may be a little presumptuous but I like to think that she would have loved this novel as much as I do.

Blasts from the Past: The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Jake Arnott was featured in a documentary on the trials and tribulations of getting your first novel published back in 1999. The Long Firm later became a bestseller, dramatized by the BBC several years later. I’ve often wondered how the other writers felt about this personable, camera-friendly literary star in the making whose success was contrasted with their increasingly desperate efforts as they waded their way through their well-thumbed copies of The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook looking for an agent. Arnott’s debut is the first of three novels set in the gangster world of the ’60s East End. Sadly, the other two didn’t quite match its brilliance although I’m pleased to say that his new novel, The Fatal Tree, is every bit as good.

Narrated by five very different characters, The Long Firm follows the career of Harry Starks, a gangland boss with a weakness for stardom and a yearning for respectability. Each narrator tells the story of their dealings with Harry: Terry is Harry’s pretty suburban kept boy; Teddy is the corrupt peer who finds himself out of his league; Jack the Hat is a freelancer who flits dangerously between Harry and the Kray twins; Ruby is a fading Rank starlet and Lenny is a criminologist whose relationship with Harry leads him into the dark realities of the criminal underworld. Set in mid-60s London amidst enormous social change and written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, Arnott’s novel explores the dark underbelly of a period often recalled as vibrant and exciting, expertly blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. Not only can Arnott write but my contemporary historian partner assures me that the period detail is spot-on – high praise indeed.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (transl. Henning Koch): A grief observed and endured

Cover imageAcclaimed poet Tom Malmquist’s book comes labelled by the publisher as a piece of ‘auto-fiction’ – a novel based on the author’s life rather than a memoir. Already garlanded with prizes in the author’s native Sweden, it’s the story of Tom whose partner Karin dies a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school.

Struggling for breath, Karin is rushed to the intensive care unit of a Stockholm hospital, six weeks before she’s due to give birth. At first it seems she may have pneumonia but several tests later she’s diagnosed with a case of acute leukemia. Her baby is healthy but needs to be delivered before Karin deteriorates beyond saving. Tom finds himself in a frantic daze of shock, desperately trying to grasp the situation, attempting to master it by gleaning every detail he can from Karin’s medical team and spreading the news to family and friends with whose shock and horror he must cope as well as his own. What feels like a few hours after Karin was admitted, their daughter Livia is thrust into his arms then taken quickly to the neonatal ward. For the next few weeks, Tom travels from one ward to the other, impotently watching his partner’s decline while his daughter begins to thrive. Soon he must take Livia home alone, then a bureaucratic nightmare is unleashed. Tom and Karin weren’t married: he has to prove he is Livia’s father to keep her. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom devotes himself to Livia. Four months after her birth his father is admitted into palliative care. Malmquist’s heart-wrenching novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter.

This is an intensely immersive book. The choice to write it as fiction rather than autobiography allows Malmquist to play with form and language making it much more immediate. There are five sections but no chapters within them, only the occasional break. The first section is taken up with Tom’s experiences in the hospital; its breathless tone conveys the confusion, shock and panic of the situation much more powerfully than a tidy linear account. It’s a strange disorienting time when trivial concerns such as Tom’s worries about whether the hob has been left on at home and the whereabouts of a puffer jacket throw up a screen as if to shield him from the horror of what is happening. In the following section, vivid memories of Tom’s relationship with Karin punctuate his new life spent wrestling with Social Services, arranging Karin’s funeral and anxiously learning how to be a parent. Poignant details leap out from the often matter-of-fact narrative – Tom’s repeated calls to Karin’s phone to hear her voice, his singing of Here Comes the Sun to Livia. It’s an extraordinarily powerful book, impossible not to be moved by it. I hope Malmquist found some sort of catharsis in writing his novel.