Tag Archives: The Wind is Not a River

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2015

The MiniaturistSurprisingly, all but one of the paperbacks that catch my eye this January have already been reviewed here which gives my credit card a welcome break, if nothing else. I’ll start with one of my books of 2014: Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, much-hyped before, during and after its publication but deservedly so. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. A love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface, it’s the perfect winter read.

Set two centuries on, Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light is very much about women making their way in the world and the challenges – sometimes mortal danger – that they faced in doing so. It’s the story of Ally and May whose mother, intent on helping the Manchester poor, has little time and no inclination to indulge them. In her desperate effort to please her mother Ally finds her vocation while May takes a more rebellious route. It’s impossible not to cheer Ally on as she grows from a fragile young woman into a feminist unafraid to speak her mind.

Next is Anna Hope’s Wake, still with the same gorgeous jacket as the hardback edition. Set in 1920, it shows us awake battered Britain through the eyes of Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, deftly conveying the complicated mess and aching loss of the war’s aftermath. It’s an accomplished, often very moving, piece of work which ends on a note of hope.

Harriet Lane’s Her couldn’t be more different. A fine psychological thriller – hard to avoid those tired old clichés like ‘gripping’ and ‘riveting’ – it’s the story of Nina and Emma told in their alternating voices. Nina recognises the harassed, ragged toddler-toting Emma from her past but Emma fails to make the connection. What follows is a tale of revenge in which Lane expertly handles the tension between Nina and Emma’s narratives.

Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman is a thriller of a very different stripe (sorry). Suffice to say that there’s a flying superhero tiger and another who purrs like an avalanche; a sergeant, wise in the ways of war, longing for a child; a comic-book obsessed, internet-mad boy who seems not to have a family; a volcanic island poisoned by chemical waste on the verge of being blown up to purge it from bacteria; a bomb made of custard powder; good guys, bad guys and a few in between – with a superb twist at the end.

I remember Brian Payton’s The Wind is Not a River most for its beautiful writing but it’s also an intriguing story. Set in 1943, it’s narrated by John Easley – marooned on the Aleutian island of Attu after his plane has gone down – and his wife, Helen, so convinced that he’s still alive that she sets out to find him no matter how hard the journey.

What Was PromisedFinally, the one that I haven’t yet read: Tobias Hill’s What Was Promised which begins in London just after the Second World War and follows three immigrant families across forty years, charting the changes in both their lives and the life of the city. I remember Tobias Hill’s brilliant thriller  Underground  and The Love of Stones which followed three lives linked by one jewel, both of which I enjoyed very much but his later novels have not appealed. The framework of What Was Promised is an immensely appealing one for me and I’m hoping for a return to form.

That’s it for January – a click will reveal a full review on this blog on all but What Was Promised which will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis, and in case you’re interested, here are January’s hardbacks. This will be my last post for a week or so – H and I are off to Hamburg to see what we can see. Best wishes for an enjoyable break to all, and particularly to those working in retail or catering – I hope you get some rest.

The Wind is Not a River: a love that knows no bounds

Cover imageThis is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of excited chatter in my neck of the Twitter woods so I approached it with a degree of caution not helped by the title which seemed a tad overblown (sorry!) but turned out to have a perfectly good explanation. A few chapters in and any concerns that it might have been overhyped were quashed. It opens in 1943. John Easley finds himself marooned on the Aleutian island of Attu after his plane has gone down. One of the crew, a young man barely out of his teens, has survived with him. Conditions on the island are atrocious – dangerously cold, little or no shelter or food besides a cave and what they can forage. Easley is a journalist who has finagled his way round the news blackout surrounding the Japanese-occupied islands, donning his brother’s Canadian Air Force uniform and assuming his identity. Young Karl makes clear his resentment but realises that a better chance of survival lies in unity of purpose. Meanwhile, Helen who parted with Easley on bad terms, is desperate to find the whereabouts of her husband, conceiving a plan to travel to the Aleutians to look for him despite many obstacles put in her way. Their stories are told in alternating narratives as Easley grapples with loneliness, starvation and a brutal environment while dodging the Japanese forces just a stone’s throw away, and Helen makes her way from Seattle to Alaska, posing as an entertainer performing for the troops, casting around for clues, never giving up.

I’m a huge fan of the dual narrative. Well managed it’s a clever device for instilling suspense but it’s all too easy for it to fall flat on its face. Brian Payton deftly avoids this, balancing Easley and Helen’s very different stories beautifully while slowly inching them together. The writing is restrained, a little clipped and largely unadorned which suits his subject well, yet there are phrases that shine out – plovers ‘dutifully march along like businessmen late for a meeting’, ‘the ache in his jaw bullies all memory’ when Easley tries to distract himself from his rotten molar. Both their plights are intensely moving: Easley finds previously unthinkable ways to survive, both physically and emotionally, while Helen steadfastly believes her husband is alive, despite all evidence to the contrary, remaining heroically determined to find him no matter what it takes. There is a coincidence at the end – which, of course, I’m not going to reveal – that feels like a step too far but given all that has gone before it’s easy to forgive.

So, I’ve read another war novel despite saying that I wouldn’t for some months although itAttu has to be said that the intensity of Easley and Helen’s stories are such that the war becomes something of a side-show until the novel nears its end. I knew little or nothing about the Aleutians, their part in the war or otherwise, I’m sorry to say but I learnt that the indigenous people were treated shamefully, interned in the same way as the Japanese Americans memorably portrayed in Maureen Lindley’s A Girl Like You. Who says fiction doesn’t teach you anything?