Tag Archives: Virago Books

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang: ‘What Makes a Home a Home?’

Cover imageC Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold is one of those books about which there’s been a great deal of buzz in my Twitter timeline – not always a good thing, I know. It was the many and varied literary names singing its praises that first snagged my attention – everyone from Emma Donoghue to Garth Greenwell seemed to love it – but what really sold it to me was its unusual premise. Zhang’s debut is set in a reimagined American West in the grips of the Gold Rush, seen through the eyes of two orphans travelling through a land almost mythical in its beauty and promise.

Lucy and Sam are the children of Chinese parents. Born in America, their orphaned father was raised on stories of the West told by those who had lived there long before the arrival of gold-hungry settlers. He was a dreamer, a storyteller and a lover of the glorious landscape ravaged both by coal mining and gold prospecting. Their fiercely ambitious mother was a beauty who arrived from China unable to speak English, mistaking their father for the man in charge rather than the poor boy dragooned into teaching English to the two hundred Chinese hoping to make their fortunes. These two fell in love and begin an itinerant life, their father prospecting and too often gambling away what he found, their mother making a home at each stop. Lucy and Sam take very different paths – Sam accompanying their father to work, dressing as a boy and listening to his stories, Lucy going to school where she shines. First they lose their mother, then their father. Carrying their father with them, they journey through a landscape where buffalo bones lie and tigers are almost but not quite glimpsed until Sam finally accepts a burial ground for him.

Sun sucks them dry. Middle of the dry season, rain by now a distant memory. Their valley is bare dirt, halved by a wriggle of creek

This is such a confident debut, exploring themes of family, home – or the lack of – and otherness through the experience of a Chinese family, three of whom are American but rarely accepted as such. Zhang’s writing is starkly beautiful, describing both the majesty of a landscape steeped in dreams and its despoliation by those intent on wealth. Much of Sam and Lucy’s story is told from Lucy’s perspective, their father’s voice illuminating her understanding of his relationship with her mother and her mother’s part in their story. Both parents share a longing for home but not where or what form that home will take. Both have a dream of America, each very different from the other but neither acceptable to the white men who dismiss them as ‘savages’. Their children’s dreams are equally different but as their father always told them, family comes first and so it proves to be. Worthy of all that starry approbation, Zhang’s novel reworks the tired old Western genre into something thought-provoking, beautiful and original.

Virago Books: London 2020 9780349011462 336 pages Hardback

A Stranger City by Linda Grant: A river runs through it

Cover imageAfter three tries by Linda Grant’s patient and determined publicist, A Stranger City finally arrived through my letter box. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two copies but I hope someone’s enjoying them somewhere and telling all their friends about it. Grant’s novel paints a picture of a post-referendum London through the stories of a set of characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body is pulled from the Thames and who remains unclaimed and unidentified for four years.

Pete Dutton is the detective in charge of the investigation into the identity of DB27, the label given to the woman who is the twenty-seventh corpse retrieved from the river that year. Intrigued by her anonymity, Pete becomes obsessed, his thoughts turned away from his wife who is recovering from cancer at home. He contacts Alan McBride, a film-maker, whose attention has already been caught by a missing person alert on Twitter for the brash young woman he saw crushed by her slick hipster companion’s comment  overheard on his way back from viewing a house with his wife Francesca. Pete wants Alan to make a film about DB27 which Alan broadens to include Chrissie, who turned up alive and well, and Marco, her flatmate who set up the alert, regretting his sharp remark. Chrissie is a nurse who quickly comes to the aid of Rob when he’s caught up in a terrorist attack, forging a friendship with him that will result in the eventual revelation of DB27’s identity. Grant’s novel explores the rich and varied lives of these characters revealing a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it.

This many-layered, vibrant portrait of London encompasses a multitude of themes – privacy and exposure, interconnectedness and isolation, gentrification and poverty – the most prominent of which is the racism and its close relative xenophobia, unleashed since the 2016 referendum.

We won’t hear that in twenty years. If they stay, their kids will speak English as their first language and no new people will be coming. It’ll be a time machine, taking us back to the past

Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry, some of it ragged and frayed, of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Dickensian London is summoned up in a dreamlike episode when Francesca, the quintessential smart West Ender, uncomfortable in her new North London home, is taken to an area known as the Island by two neighbours. Pete’s love of his hometown and the river which runs through it is neatly contrasted with the superficial gloss of Marco’s PR world. It’s a structure that could easily have become bitty and overly-fragmented in less capable hands but Grant is too deft for that. I loved it – a novel with something to say which draws you in and  keeps you rapt to its end. Well worth the wait.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant: The dawn of a new, healthier age

Cover imageLinda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party was one of my favourite books of 2014. It was something of a nostalgic read for me, set around the time I was a student with a cast of all too recognisable characters – excruciatingly so in some cases. The Dark Circle is entirely different. Opening in 1949, it follows a handful of tuberculosis patients in a palatial sanatorium at the dawn of the NHS, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them.

En route to an Army medical, eighteen-year-old Lenny Lynskey chucks his chopped fish on rye sandwich at a rabble-rousing anti-Semite. Hearing police sirens, his twin sister Miriam, dashes out of the florists’ where she works and recognises her brother, about to be punched on the nose. Niftily, she knocks his attacker off his feet with a bouquet. When we next meet these two, they’re in an ambulance heading for the Gwendo, a rather posh sanatorium in Kent, both diagnosed with TB. Miriam is sent off for bed rest, lying alongside Valerie, freshly graduated from Oxford, outside on the veranda where they stay – quite literally – for months come rain or snow. Lenny is allowed more freedom, even taking himself off into the woods for an ill-advised walk in his Italian shoes and Teddy Boy drape. Both are fed on a rich diet, cautioned against excitement and subjected to a constant regime of temperature taking. Like everyone else in the Gwendo, they succumb to a mind-numbing boredom. Into this stultifying world strides Arthur Persky, with his rock and roll records and his cockiness. When the longed for streptomycin treatment arrives, which only seven patients will receive, Lenny and Arthur take things into their own hands with shocking results. During the year that Lenny and Miriam have spent at the Gwendo, both their lives have changed irrevocably.

A richly satisfying piece of storytelling peopled with vivid, sharply observed characters, The Dark Circle is also a paean of praise to the NHS. Without the newly introduced health service neither Lenny nor Miriam would have had access either to the dubious therapies of the Gwendo, or to the streptomycin which proved to be the cure that virtually stamped out TB in Britain. Grant effectively explores a more subtle subversion of the status quo through Gwendo’s patients, many of whom are in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. Lenny’s mind is broadened by his discussions with Valerie about books, quizzing Hannah about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis reads in the original German. In turn Valerie finds herself reassessing her attitude to this ‘hairy Jewish ape’ who turns out to be far more intelligent than her Edgbaston prejudices might have led her to believe. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel – Persky’s womanising with his ‘special skills’, passed on to future lovers; Miriam and Valerie’s attempts to find common ground – which lifts it out of its sober context. A thoroughly successful novel, then, the basis for which came from a story told to Grant by a TB survivor. Astonishing as it seems, it turns out that being confined to a bed on a veranda for months, despite freezing conditions, really was considered to be beneficial. Who knows, maybe future generations will look back on chemotherapy with the same level of amazement.

Friendship by Emily Gould: Growing up is hard to do

FriendshipFriendship’s a funny old thing: it can last a life time – I’m often envious when my own friends talk about school friends they’re still close to – or it can be short but intense with a multitudes of variations in between. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heartbreaking, and in some cases more so. Emily Gould’s new novel makes no bones about its subject – it’s obvious from the title – but it’s about much more than that. Through the lens of Bev and Amy’s friendship she examines what it’s like to emerge from your twenties in the modern world, still unsure of what to do with your life.

Bev and Amy met when they were both working in publishing – Amy a little defensive of her marginally senor position, Bev determined to make a friend. Bev’s saddled with debt from an unfinished masters degree and an expectation of making a life as a writer, Amy forges ahead writing a gossip blog until a swipe at a celebrity who turns out to be close to her boss brings her own fame and fortune tumbling down. When the novel opens, Bev’s temping and Amy’s working at Yidster, a website whose superrich owners play at running a company. Amy has an artist boyfriend about whose commitment she’s increasingly uncertain while Bev is single. They console each other, messaging constantly through the day keeping each other up to date on the minutiae of their lives and meet frequently. Then everything changes: Bev becomes pregnant after a half-hearted one-night stand with a particularly obnoxious colleague. Decisions must be made – the dynamics of their friendship change irrevocably.

Bev and Amy are immensely appealing and believable characters. Gould writes about them with great affection as they struggle to deal with the enormous change which threatens to engulf the friendship that has been the only sure thing they’ve had to hang on to as they navigated their way through their uncertain twenties. Vignettes woven through their present day travails make clear the closeness of their bond but this is a novel about growing up as much as friendship encapsulated smartly in Bev’s reply when asked if her friends have children: ‘They’re still more in the… behaving like infants themselves stage’. Gould has a talent for nailing the more vacuous aspects of modern life in pithy one-liners coupled with a fine line in sharp social observations – the childless Sally spots ‘a rosy perfect baby from the rosy perfect baby dispensary in central Brooklyn, where responsible thirty-three-year-old women went to be issued babies from some sort of giant bin’ . It’s a smart, funny book with something serious to say, and it has a lovely ending. Altogether, a thoroughly enjoyable way of brightening up what turned out to be a traditional wet and windy British late summer Bank Holiday Monday – sorry Scotland but I gather you had a lovely day even if you did have to work through it.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant: Familar territory for some of us

Cover imageThere’s a very clear, concise disclaimer at the beginning of Linda Grant’s new novel – ‘This novel is inspired by a particular time in my own life, but the characters and the events are the product of my imagination.’ Whether under instructions from the legal department or because of her own concerns she reiterates it in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, and I’m not surprised. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Narrated by Adele Ginsberg, it begins with her chequered history. Adele is the spoiled daughter of an exuberant charmer who robbed, conned and embezzled to give her everything she wanted and a mother who looks grimly on while finding solace in her friends, united in their stoic acceptance of their men and all their faults. When one of his schemes backfires, her father hangs himself and Adele’s life changes: no more promise of a glittering future. Then she hatches a scheme worthy of her father – she and her mother send a copy of her prize-winning poem to every Ginsberg they know, including Allen from whom she receives a postcard addressing her as ‘cousin’. She sends a copy to a northern university (Grant went to York – see what I mean about the legal department) in the hope that they will ignore her dodgy A-Levels and admit her, which they do. Cue snort from H, my very own in-house academic – but this was the ’70s. Set in what might as well be the middle of nowhere, the university leaves its students to their own devices – none of this loco in parentis stuff as Adele discovers later. Soon a group of friends forms: Gillian, the innocent ripe for radicalisation; Dora, the fiercely idealistic Marxist bent on revolution; Rose, quietly well-connected but determinedly socialist; Bobby, gay and equally determinedly decadent; while Adele remains the enigmatic outsider – a little hard-nosed – who never reveals her own past. Early on she encounters the androgynous Evie/Stevie and becomes fascinated with the ethereally beautiful Evie apparently in thrall to her dominating male counterpart who has an opinion on everything. What lies behind the pivotal event that takes place at Adele’s twentieth birthday party and the mystery of Evie/Stevie is finally unravelled forty years later when their relationship is revealed as very much more complex than it first appeared.

The structure of Grant’s novel is one which I find perennially appealing – a group of young people form intense friendships then we follow them through their lives into adulthood as they deal with vicissitudes of life. Meg Wolitzer did this beautifully last year in The Interestings. Here, Adele and her fascination with Evie is the constant while other characters flit in and out of her life. Towards the end, the surviving members of her group are brought together satisfyingly at a university reunion although Brian seemed a little out of place to me, perhaps brought into make a few points. The characterisation is spot on – readers of a certain age are likely to find themselves both smiling and cringing in recognition – and there’s a nicely wry wit running through it all. As she did in We Had it So Good, Grant has things to say about the boomers and takes the odd swipe at modern life too. It’s a very satisfying read – I wonder what she’ll have in her sights next.

This isn’t the first  novel which made me come over all nostalgic this year. Louise Levene’s excellent The Following Girls took me back to my school days in February. Are there any novels that resonated with your own childhood or youth recently, and if so, would you like to share them with me?

The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby: A love affair with style

The Pink SuitI’ve never been the girly type and would’ve been first in the booksellers’ queue muttering did we really need another book about the Kennedys – although mercifully with no mention of Marilyn Monroe – so my attraction to The Pink Suit may seem a little odd but I’d enjoyed Nicole Mary Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter so much that it tickled my fancy. By telling her fictionalised story of the infamous suit through Kate, a back room girl at Chez Ninon, Kelby niftily avoids the well-trodden Kennedy path with its apparently endless power to fascinate.

Run by two ageing, somewhat tyrannical but charming old dears, Chez Ninon has stepped into the breach opened up by the political furore over the Wife’s (as she’s known) penchant for French couture. The Garment Workers’ union has been up in arms and must be appeased as must the milliners who are affronted that neither Kennedy wears a hat. The Wife has sketched a suit to be made in pink bouclè, a Chanel suit which will have to be tailored under license from Coco herself. Kate, unsung yet supremely talented, is to make it. She adores her work, incapable of imagining life without the touch of gorgeous fabric, a luxury enjoyed second-hand and sometimes first when there are remnants to liberate. On the fringes of privilege, she’s an invisible observer whose work is barely acknowledged, unaware of how she’s thought of in her rundown neighbourhood until she’s forced to reconsider her friendship with Patrick whose beloved mother recommended her for her job.

Through Kate, Kelby explores the world of high fashion, lightly weaving strands of social history through her lovely descriptions of fabric and the machinations of Maison Blanche as those in control of the Wife’s wardrobe are dubbed at Chez Ninon. There’s a nice little scene in which Kate admires a group of black subway riders musing that many of the Harlem tailors learnt their trade in Italy. It becomes clear that one of the riders is Dr Martin Luther King whose tie she compliments, distancing herself from the nasty piece of casual racism which comes before. The political significance of the suit is cleverly portrayed, from the message it’s to convey on its first wearing – it was worn several times before November 22nd 1963 – to the nit-picking analysis with which it will be met by a media looking for any signs of excess or lack of patriotism, let alone style. Subtle parallels are drawn between the Wife and Kate, both beautiful women from an Irish immigrant background one dedicated to the other who remains in complete ignorance of her. The only foot put wrong for me was towards the end when Kate wears her own replica of the suit but that’s a small quibble in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Hard not to read it without thinking about the intense scrutiny suffered by politicians’ or celebrities’ partners which is infinitely worse now than it was fifty years ago. Coping with the lacerating tabloid observations regularly meted out must be bad enough if you’ve chosen to be in the public eye but seem wholly undeserved if you haven’t.