Tag Archives: The Night Guest

Six Degrees of Separation – from Shopgirl to Shotgun Lovesongs #6Degrees

I’m not one for memes but Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, is one I’ve come to eagerly anticipate on other blogs so I thought I’d stick my toe in the water. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one preceding it.

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This month’s starting point is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which I’ve not read but the Goodreads synopsis tells me that it’s about a lonely young woman selling expensive evening  gloves in a department store who tries to form a relationship with an ageing rich Lothario while shrugging off the attentions of an awkward slacker. Feelings about the book seem to be mixed but it doesn’t sound like the barrel of laughs one might expect from a novel by a comedian.

Like Steve Martin, David Baddiel is known to many as a comic, a familiar face from the ‘90s BBC comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He now channels his writing talent into children’s books but his first novel, Whatever Love Means, which I’ve not read either, was aimed at adults. It’s described by the publisher as ‘part-satire, part-love story, part-whodunnit, and part-meditation on the nature of sex and death’.

Earlier this year Baddiel took part in a documentary about his father’s dementia which leads me to Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a riveting thriller told from the point of view of a demented narrator. McFarlane won the Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of short stories, The High Places last month. I’m a recent short stories convert and my fourth book is one which played a large part in that conversion

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. draws heavily on her own rackety life: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. This collection drew lots of attention when it was published in 2015 but Berlin, who died in 2004, had been quietly writing since the ‘60s so you could describe her stories as rediscovered classics which leads me to John Williams’ Stoner.

First published in 1965 Stoner became that wonderful thing a word-of-mouth bestseller when it was re-issued a few years ago. It’s a lovely elegiac novel about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life, written in quietly graceful prose. Stoner is an academic, the main protagonist of a campus novel which leads me to Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

Russo’s Hank Devereaux is very different from Williams’ Stoner. Slap in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Hank is also caught up in campus politics, trying to cope with a teenage daughter and juggling a complicated love life. Things go horribly and quite hilariously wrong for Hank – there’s one scene in which had me almost crying with laughter.

Russo is known for his American small town novels, another weakness of mine. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years with this sort of backdrop is Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a gorgeous, tender novel about love and friendship, set against in Little Wing, Wisconsin.

So endeth my first but I hope not my last Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from selling gloves in a department store to broken hearts in small town America. I hope I’ve got the hang of it but I’ve a feeling this may get easier with practice. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees.

The High Places by Fiona McFarlane: An inventive, disquieting collection

Cover imageI’m writing this review in March, long before the book’s publication date which is unusual for me but after being struck down by a particularly nasty bug leaving me with a head so stuffed full of cotton wool that I was unable to read for four days I needed a way back in. Short stories seemed to be the answer which led me to Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places. I’d enjoyed her debut, The Night Guest, very much so it seemed just the ticket. Apologies if what follows is a little pedestrian: my critical faculties are somewhat blunted by a brutal hacking cough and not much sleep but I’ll do my best.

The collection comprises thirteen stories written over ten years – eight previously unpublished – and ranges far and wide, both in terms of geography and subject. Some tend towards the slightly surreal while other are more conventional but all are inventive. A small selection should give you a flavour. In ‘Man and Bird’ a vicar seems disconcertingly inseparable from his parrot then it becomes clear he believes the bird to be a messenger from God. The inhabitants of a small town are so stricken when their brief flirtation with the movie world is over that they begin to dress in costume, re-enacting their walk-on parts, in ‘The Movie People’. Reunited in Athens, forty years after they first met, the anxious, happily married Dwyers find themselves overawed by the confident, self-regarding Andersons until, suddenly, it becomes clear they’re not quite as invulnerable as they appear, in ‘Mycenae’. ‘Buttony’ sees a quietly charismatic little boy thwarting his classmates’ passion for their teacher’s afternoon game with frightening results while ‘Those Americans Falling from the Sky’ is a vivid childhood memory of a small town, playing host to American soldiers practicing their parachuting skills and charming the local kids, with a shocking discovery at its end.

The disquieting quality of much of this collection is evident right from the get go with the opening story’s first line: ‘My wife was driving on the night they hit Mr Ronald’. These are not horror stories but they’re distinctly unsettling, often exploring the odder areas of human behaviour. McFarlane’s writing is as striking as I remembered it from The Night Guest. ‘Ellie was pretty in such a sensible way, but Kath required adjustments’ thinks Henry of the well-turned out young woman he’s selected for his wife over the lover he’s being spending his Sunday nights with for years, in ‘Art Appreciation’. In ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ a couple ‘changed their clothes and it felt to Sarah, briefly, as if it had been David’s suit and her dress that had married each other earlier in the day’. Not all the stories worked for me – ‘Violet, Violet’ about an introverted young PhD student whose half-cleaned room leads him into very odd territory seemed to fizzle out, as if McFarlane wasn’t sure what to do with it next. That said, there’s enough here to please readers who enjoyed The Night Guest, all served up with an appealingly wry humour.

Well-worn themes

Cover imageA few years ago when I was running the reviews section of a magazine which included children’s books, YA novels were awash with vampires. Then suddenly dystopian fiction seemed to be the thing – as if teens don’t have enough to angst about. It seems that publishers find bandwagons hard to get off, no matter how overcrowded they become. Two current well-trodden paths in adult fiction are post apocalypse (closely related to dystopian) and the demented protagonist.

The first has a long history – lots of it around in the Cold War years, for instance, including what’s now come to be a classic of the genre: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seemed to spark off a new post apocalyptic trend with the likes of  Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse not far behind and now we have Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both longlisted for the Baileys. Cover image

The first example I can remember of the dementia theme is Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Then there’s Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness, and more recently Sue Peeble’s Snake Road,  Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, Fiona MacFarlanes’s The Night Guest, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves.

Not hard to see what’s triggered either of these trends – climate change and the financial crash seem to have contributed to the first while we’re all terrified of the dementia spectre – but they feel a little over-exposed to me. I’m sure you can think of other well-worn themes, not to mention many books I’ve failed to include. Let me know what your pet likes or dislikes are.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 1

It’s that time of the year again – best of this and that all over the place. When I did this last year I’d only been blogging for a few months and, foolishly, thought I’d restrict myself to a top six. It didn’t work and the so-called six spilled over into just under twenty so this year I’m spreading things out a bit starting at the beginning of my reading year which got off to a stonking start.

Paperback cover imageBy January 8th I’d already got one very fine read notched up: Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 and is the story of a marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. The following week it was Fiona Macfarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, which opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. Ruth as we soon realise, is demented – a theme which seemed hard to avoid in 2014’s fiction but with its subtle incremental use of suspense McFarlane’s novel stands out for me as one of the better ways of exploring it, and clearly the Guardian First Book Award judges agreed. Unsurprisingly given its centenary year, the First World War provided the backdrop for a plethora of novels from which Helen Dunmore’s The Lie stood out for me. Dunmore, as regular readers may have noticed given that I regularly bang on about her, is one of my favourite writers, sadly underrated. Still in January, Katherine Grant’s Sedition was a treat: a bawdy, rollicking tale, set in 1794 about the subversion of male authority. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature.

Four picks already, and I’ve only just reached February – a short month and not usually aCover image very exciting one in the publishing schedules or the UK winter, come to that. Louise Levine’s The Following Girls cheered me up with its pitch-perfect satire on adolescent schoolgirl life in the 1970s, replete with period detail and smartarse one-liners but with a nicely honed dark edge. Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed The People in the Photo also took me back to the ‘70s with its newspaper cutting from which two people try to trace their history. In this detective story without a detective, Gestern painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are pieced together. Finally, at least for this post, but still in February the wonderfully imaginative Helen Oyeyemi gave us Boy, Snow, Bird, a fabulous tale of race and identity with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

That’s my first seven picks of 2014. I’ve come up with twenty-one in all so two more posts in the offing, although it’s only early December: still time for additions.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey: leavened with some much needed humour

Cover imageThere’s been a great deal of buzz about this book, stretching as far back as the beginning of the year I seem to remember. I always think about the author when that happens. Such a whipping up of anticipation must feel like a great deal of pressure, particularly when you’re a young writer and it’s your first novel as this one is – a mixture of delight and trepidation, I imagine. All seems to be going well for Emma Healey, I’m glad to report, highly starred ratings in all the places that matter. Narrated by Maud, an 82-year-old sliding into dementia, Elizabeth is Missing has two strands – one set in the present in which Maud anxiously tries to find her dear friend Elizabeth, the other in 1946 in which her sister, married to the local spiv, has disappeared.

Maud has been forgetful for a little while. Her house is festooned with notes telling her not to cook, not to eat any more bread and not to go shopping. Carers attend to her basic needs, one seemingly convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handcart taking all old people with it first, and her daughter Helen visits every day. Maud frets about Elizabeth: visiting her house and finding it emptied; digging up her garden; reporting her missing to the police and placing an advertisement in the local paper. No one takes her seriously but she can’t stop worrying and remembering the events of 1946 when Sukey disappeared without trace, events clearer to her than what happened this morning. It was an odd time when women who contracted hasty war marriages frequently walked away from them, so frequently that the local paper ran a feature headlined ‘Women Come Home’. Frank, Sukey’s husband, had his finger in a number of dodgy pies. Some of his neighbours thought him a fine man, others were a little less forthcoming and three months in prison for coupon fraud didn’t improve Maud’s dad’s opinion. Then there’s Douglas, the young lodger whose house had been bombed and to whom Sukey has been kind arousing Frank’s jealousy. A woman driven mad by the death of her daughter looms particularly large in Maud’s memory. As dementia takes hold, events from the past blur into the present leaving Maud horribly confused yet determined to find Elizabeth.

It’s a brave move to write a first novel from the point of view of a demented narrator. Maud’s War Crimes for the Homenarrative is often heartrending – her cupboards are overflowing with cans of peach slices, a childhood treat,  she collects rubbish in the hope of finding clues and eventually fails to recognise her daughter – yet Healey neatly avoids sentimentality, injecting some much needed black humour into her writing. As Maud declines there are more gaps in the narrative, gaps which are some times a little confusing echoing her own bewilderment. Against this, the second strand stands out vividly – its resolution, when it comes, is nicely ambiguous. It’s an impressive first novel but, for me, not quite a match for Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest which was published earlier in the year, or Liz Jensen’s War Crimes in the Home which features the magnificent Gloria, railing against the world.

If you want to read about how Emma Healey came to write Elizabeth is Missing JacquiWine’s Journal has an excellent account of an evening with her at Waterstones Piccadilly.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane: Tiger, tiger burning in the night

The Night GuestOld women are not a particularly common subject for contemporary fiction. They’ve been memorably portrayed in several books I’ve read by established authors – Helen Dunmore’s Enid in Burning Bright, Liz Jensen’s Gloria in War Crimes for the Home and Lesley Glaister’s Trixie in The Private Parts of Women for instance, and Angela Carter’s sassy twins, Dora and Nora Chance in Wise Children were a delight – but it’s not a description which captures agents’ or publishers’ commercial attention, I suspect, although it’s surely an interesting area to explore. A brave move then to make a seventy-five-year-old widow the main protagonist of your debut, but Fiona McFarlane carries it off brilliantly in The Night Guest.

It opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. She senses him, smells him – her cats are disturbed, clearly frightened. Struggling out of sleep, she’s more curious than afraid, waking her bemused son in New Zealand to tell him about it. With both sons working abroad, Ruth lives alone in the holiday home to which her late husband Harry wanted them to retire. How convenient when a young woman arrives – first seen struggling over the sand dunes with her suitcase, then appearing without it – sent by the government as a carer for Ruth. Frida assesses Ruth’s needs, suggesting that an hour a day will suffice for now. Her sons are relieved, accepting the situation on the barest of information. Slowly, Frida takes more chores upon herself – the shopping, the cooking even the banking – dropped off and picked up by the mysterious George. To reveal much more would be to spoil the plot but suffice to say that McFarlane’s use of suspense is subtle, increasing incrementally and unsettlingly rather than bludgeoning her readers with white knuckle stuff. Much of my enjoyment lay in the way that McFarlane builds Ruth’s character: her childhood on Fiji, the daughter of missionaries; her teenage passion for her parents’ assistant Richard and their delight in each other when he visits after more than fifty years. The vividness of these memories make her increasingly confused state and her attempts to make sense of it all the more poignant. Frida is also deftly drawn, the contradictions of her small cruelties and kindnesses adding to the unsettling tension and doubt. For me, The Night Guest is what is so often called an ‘assured debut’, my second of the year after last week’s outstanding Ghost Moth. I can’t finish this without mentioning The Night Guest’s stunning jacket. So often books are let down by their covers but this one is strikingly vivid: it makes you want to pick it up and start reading immediately. Which is surely the point.