Tag Archives: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick: The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Cover imageOne of the many good things about shadow judging this award is that it’s made me review non-fiction. It’s not that I don’t read it but the last book I reviewed that wasn’t fiction was back in May. Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure was already in my sights before the shortlist was announced but if it hadn’t appeared on that I may well not have written about it and so wouldn’t have paid so much attention. Subtitled ‘How Books Restored my Appetite’, it’s about the way in which reading helped her to find a way to eat again.

Freeman was thirteen when she first felt there was something wrong with her body. Drying off in the sun after a swim with just one week of the holidays left before returning to her hated school, she’s seized with a wave of revulsion. So begins a gradual paring back of food until all she can do is stay in bed apart from the weekly outings to her therapist followed by a visit to Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street. Always bookish, Freeman takes refuge in Dickens, consuming almost his entire works. Over the fifteen years between her diagnosis and writing The Reading Cure, Freeman relished descriptions of food, from the resplendent plum pudding of A Christmas Carol which helped her eat her first sliver at the Boxing Day family dinner, to the essays of M. F. K. Fisher whose abandoned delight in eating got her over her potato hump, marking her steps towards recovery in literary milestones. Her journey’s punctuated by stops and starts, including three serious relapses, the third prompted by deluge of strictures from the clean eating brigade. By the end of her memoir, Freeman knows that the clamour in her head isn’t silenced forever but she has a stout defence next time the Jabberwock comes calling.

Freeman weaves her story lightly through her reading so that books are to the fore, describing her illness in plain language that rings with truth. She writes about books beautifully, picking out evocative descriptions of food which have helped her inch towards a less fraught relationship with it. Reading helps clarify her thoughts while walking muffles the voices in her head just as it did for Virginia Woolf as Freeman discovers in Woolf’s diaries. The epilogue is both a lovely testament to the love and help of friends and family, and an expression of hope that her book might help others with whatever ails them.

Freeman’s raw honesty and gentle humour coupled with a delight in books elicit empathy far more effectively than any full on confessional misery memoir. I wanted to cheer her on to the next small mouthful of bubble and squeak – the Nigel Slater recipe – or Cornish saffron bun, inspired by Laurie Lee, but my favourite moment isn’t book related at all. Sitting in a café having just heard the complicated, finicky order of a clean eater, Freeman defiantly orders a boiled egg with buttered soldiers and a proper cup of tea. It might not seem much to you, but it’s a pleasing indication of the many strides made by her.

If you’d like to read two of my fellow shadow judges’ reviews of The Reading Cure, Paul’s is at HalfManHalfBook and Lizzi’s is at These Little Words. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.

The First Thing You See: A sweet meditation on the curse of beauty

Cover imageA couple of years ago I picked up Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires to read on a train on my way to meet a friend. It looked a little fluffy but the synopsis was attractive and I thought it would suit if there were no seats in the quiet carriage. I polished it off between Bath and Birmingham. It had lots to say about sudden wealth and the way in which our fantasies can turn sour once realised unless we treat our good fortune with wisdom, all delivered in a delightfully playful style. Delacourt takes a similar tack with The First Thing You See this time turning his attention to our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire.

Twenty-year-old car mechanic Arthur Drefuss lives alone, spending most evenings quietly watching boxed sets or movies. When he hears a knock on his door he hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure – about which Arthur has a bit of a thing – as she is on screen. She tells him she’s been visiting the Deauville Film Festival. Desperate to escape the glare of the spotlight for a few days, she’s stumbled upon Arthur’s village, hoping to find someone who would take her in. Of course, it’s not Ms Johansson. Jeanine Foucamprez unmasks herself after a day or so and tells Arthur that she’s longed for him since she saw his kindness to a young girl when modelling for a supermarket advertising campaign. These two are wounded souls: Arthur’s family is devastated by the loss of his little sister, his father taking off one day never to be seen again and his mother taking refuge in drink, while Jeanine has been cursed by her beauty since childhood, abused by her stepfather, endlessly slavered over by men and distrusted by women. Over the course of seven days, these two will find a way to love and trust each other, baring their souls and their hearts.

Delacourt uses a lighthearted, mischievous style to deliver quite a punch with his fable-like novel. Jeanine and ‘Ryan-Gosling-only-better-looking’ Arthur are both emotional casualties. She’s a prisoner of the voluptuous beauty which no one seems capable of seeing beyond but has brave hopes for Arthur. Everyone wants her to be their fantasy, sexual, or otherwise, but she longs to be loved for herself. Delacourt’s characterisation is affectionate and funny – PP, Arthur’s boss, likes to look at well-rounded ladies on the internet but is thrilled by the prospect of Arthur finding true love. Both Arthur and Jeanine’s stories are poignantly told but Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness. It’s a powerful message which begins with the novel’s title – a meditation on our obsession with beauty, celebrity and the consequences for those lumbered with one or both, delivered in a deceptively simple package stuffed full of filmic references and peppered with poetic quotations. It’s a little gem and it’s been a long time in the offing in translation. Shortly after I wrote this review the Guardian enlightened me as to just why: Ms Johansson was not amused, apparently.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: The three faces of Eva and Jim

cover imageDespite the uncertainty of the weather here in the UK I seem to have veered off into summer reading territory this week with the previous post on The Sunlit Night and now this one. Laura Barnett’s new novel stands out a mile in the publishing schedules as that precious thing: a strong commercial novel, cleverly put together with an intriguing structure and a cast of nicely rounded characters. It explores that old Sliding Doors idea of the role chance plays in out lives unfolding three different versions of the possible lives led by Eva and Jim who meet – or don’t meet – in Cambridge, aged nineteen.

Eva cycles along the Backs early one morning in 1958. She’s in a tearing hurry, late for a supervision, when she swerves to avoid a small dog. A young man walking in the opposite direction stops to help with the ensuing puncture/sprained ankle/registers her wobble as she collects herself having successfully avoided the dog. From each of these three possibilities, Barnett spins a story with varying degrees of involvement between Eva and Jim. Marriages, children, friends, lovers, work, joy and sorrow – all vary in their permutations throughout the three versions but the connection between Eva and Jim remains a constant in one form or another as we follow them from that morning in 1958 to 2014 when the novel ends with another much more significant event that pulls together all three narratives.

It’s a daring structure for any novel let alone a debut and could easily have turned into a clunky exercise in creative writing but Barnett manages to keep all her plates spinning nicely. The chapters are short, clearly labelled with the version and date which you’ll need to keep track. At first it felt too much like hard work but once you let go of that straining after what was said and who was who in each version’s instalment it becomes thoroughly engrossing, exerting an insistent pull to see what happens next in each interpretation of Eva and Jim’s stories. There are constants threaded through – Jim’s artistic talent, fulfilled or frustrated as is Eva’s writing; Jim’s mother’s bipolarity; overlapping friendships and acquaintances – but other than that it’s the bumpy ride of life and its many side routes that Barnett explores with insight and compassion. The whole concept is beautifully illustrated by Jim’s eponymous triptych which shows small variations on the same theme dismissed by his partner as ‘Like a Spot the Difference’ but for him it’s about ‘the many roads not taken, the many lives not lived’. Those of us who accept the randomness of chance have all had our ‘what if’ moments and I’m sure it must have been explored before in fiction but I can’t think of anything quite like The Versions of Us off the top of my head. Do let me know if any occur to you.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark: ‘A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’

The Life and Death of Sophie StarkI wasn’t at all sure that I would include a review of Anna North’s new novel here: it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but it’s published exclusively as an ebook. I’m still wedded to paper, I’m afraid, and it seemed unfair to include a book that I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t been sent a proof but it’s just too good to ignore. And for those of you yet to succumb to the joys of an ereader, there will be a paperback edition early in 2016, apparently. As the title suggests, this is the story of one woman but told by five people on whose lives she had an indelible effect.

Sophie Stark, née Emily Buckley, was a filmmaker. An outcast at school, mocked for her oddness, she reinvents herself using her misfit status to her advantage. She watches others, listens to their stories, claiming that the only way she can make sense of people is from behind a camera. Her films catch the critics’ attention – they’re the stuff of cult followings – but often those close to her find their own lives reflected back to them, some painfully so. Eventually she makes an uncharacteristic choice – a film written by someone else – and her reputation looks set to wane. These are the bare bones of Sophie’s story as told to us by her brother, Robbie; Allison, the young woman she turns into an actor and with whom she has an uncompromising affair; her husband, Jacob, whose story when retold on film is not quite what he’d expected; George, the Hollywood producer on the slide she turns to when ideas run dry, and Ben Martin, the critic, once in thrall to Sophie, who becomes disenchanted by her move into the mainstream. Sophie’s end, when it comes, is no real surprise to anyone but what she leaves behind is.

In telling Sophie’s story, each of North’s characters reveal far more about themselves than they do about her. It’s a structure that works well: Sophie is an enigma and remains one, hence the Churchillian quote heading this review. She says she doesn’t understand people but she’s astute and has a way of getting them to tell their rawest stories which she then translates on to film.  She gives nothing of herself away but her occasional flashes of vulnerability disarm those around her. At one point she says of herself ‘I think I’m like one of those crabs, where it builds itself out of parts of other animals’. North’s book leaves you wondering what Sophie was really like while posing the much bigger question: is the use of other people’s most private memories in an apparent attempt to understand them an act of artistic integrity or downright exploitation? It’s an unusual, thought-provoking and arresting book – I found it quite riveting. Many apologies to any committed paper book reader I’ve irritated by reviewing it: keep your eyes peeled in early 2016 and with luck you’ll spot the paperback edition.

Ridley Road: Fascism and anti-fascism in the ‘60s East End

Ridley RoadCarnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. In what I like to think of as our more enlightened times it’s easy to forget that casual anti-Semitism was rife in British society but there it was in all its ugliness. Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road explores this theme through an area of history I knew nothing about – the 62 Group, which grew out of the Jewish East End, set up to combat Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement.

During the summer of 1962 twenty-year-old Vivien decides to leave Manchester heading south in search of the man she knows as Jack Fox, a writer who spent time closeted with her political activist father just before he died. She’s lonely and bereft, wanting to change her life and convinced that what she and Jack shared might lead to love. She soon finds a job with a Soho hairdresser and becomes a favourite with its colourful clientele. Her search for Jack proves fruitless but she finds herself drawn into an anti-fascist group, attending a National Social Movement rally in the hope of finding him there. What she sees shocks her – swastikas, anti-Semitic banners, racism of every persuasion, and violence. Then she spots Jack but can hardly believe her eyes: he appears to be a fascist. What follows is an exploration of a fascinating slice of British history all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.

Bloom handles the tensions within her story well but what lifts her book above the crowd is its context. Her novel grew out of a lift given to an elderly man she’d met at a funeral she’d attended. Listening to her father and Monty talking about their memories of the 62 Group, she became fascinated by what they were saying, researching it for several years before writing Ridley Road. It’s a tribute to Bloom’s lightness of touch that her story is so absorbing – sometimes research can sit rather clunkily in a novel. Her portrayal of life as an infiltrator is particularly convincing. It’s a chilling read at times but lest we become too complacent, comfortably reminding ourselves that Ridley Road is historical fiction, let’s remember the mood music currently played by all our political parties and that one of them has recently gained two seats in Parliament based on an anti-immigration platform. Sounds like a warning bell to me.

The Fair Fight: Definitely comes up to scratch

The Fair FightYou’ve probably heard about this book by now. Even John Humphries sounded interested in it when he interviewed Anna Freeman on a Saturday edition of the Today programme and he hardly seems a fiction fan – that’s more Jim Naughtie’s territory. The hook is an eighteenth-century female pugilist – not something I think I’ve ever come across in a novel before – but what drew me to it was its setting in Bristol, just down the road from me. The eye-catching Sarah Waters puff adorning the jacket didn’t influence me but I bet it delighted Freeman – who wouldn’t want one of those on the front of your first novel. And it’s good, too.

The female fighter in question is Ruth, the ugly daughter of a madam whose brothel is frequented by the gentry. Dora, her other daughter, is a luscious if sharp-tongued prize sold dear and soon finds herself a ‘fancy man’ whose exclusive property she becomes. Or at least that’s what he thinks. The son of a local merchant, Granville Dryer has his eye on Ruth as well as Dora although for an altogether different reason. He portrays himself as a patron of the ‘noble sport’ as boxing is known but he’s really in it for the money: ringside betting is a lucrative business as his dissolute friend, George, knows only too well. George also frequents the brothel but is just as happy in bed with his old school chum, Perry, whisked away from school when his family is struck by the small-pox that leaves his surviving sibling, Charlotte, badly scarred. When their parents die, these two are left alone grief-stricken but still sniping at each other until George arrives to take over the duties of the estate. After Ruth’s young man steps in to deflect the punishing blows of a male bruiser at St James’ Fair, Dryer turns his attentions from her to him, grooming Tom to become the Champion of all England. Always with an eye to the main chance, George sees the opportunity to make his fortune. All is set for glory.

Freeman narrates her story through the voices of Ruth, George and Charlotte, getting things off to a stonking start with Ruth’s declaration of her passion for the ring and following it with colourful descriptions of life in an eighteenth-century brothel. Hard to follow such a strong, distinctive voice with a different narrator and the next two scene-setting sections from George and Charlotte almost inevitably seem a little slow in comparison. Once Dryer takes up Tom the novel hits its stride and you can’t help but root for Ruth and Tom in the hope that they will lift themselves out of squalor. Ruth’s narrative is strikingly vivid – ‘fart-catcher’, ’pug’, and ‘noddy’ are all useful additions to my vocabulary – and when Charlotte manages to belt out ‘”dumb-glutton scut”’…the closest I could come to running around unclothed’ – it makes you want to cheer. Freeman is particularly deft at conveying the material divisions between rich and poor: while Charlotte views The Ridings as a gloomy, down-at-heel establishment, for Ruth its gatehouse is the grandest thing she’s ever seen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the added bonus for me was envisaging Queens Square teeming with visitors for St James’ Fair. It’s one of the few areas of Bristol that escaped the bombing of the Second World War then the Brutalist redevelopment of the 1960s. I’ll be remembering Ruth next time I cut through from the station on my way to Park Street.

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes: A beautifully expressed debut

Cover imageOnly four books into the year and two have already aroused strong feelings. David Vann’s Dirt was not a happy experience nor, I’m sure, was it meant to be given that it’s a study in what happens when parents smother their children in controlling affection, but the final section in which the mother gets her comeuppance ground on and on until I felt like I’d been hit over the head. In contrast, Ghost Moth, Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, handles love, loss and silence with a delicate, nuanced touch.

Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 with the striking image of a woman transfixed with fear at the sudden appearance of a seal alongside her and her realisation that she’s swum far too far out to sea. The woman is Katherine Bedford and Ghost Moth is the story of her marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. In 1949 Katherine becomes engaged to George, an engineer who is also in the fire service, solid, reliable and deeply in love with her. Beautiful, with a fine singing voice, Katherine is playing Carmen in an amateur dramatics production. She and Tom, the tailor fitting her for her costume, embark on a passionate affair, beginning on the evening of Katherine’s engagement to George. As the novel unfolds, snapshots of Katherine’s affair alternate with scenes from married life with George and her four children until both strands are brought together in an understanding of how the silence surrounding the events of 1949 has permeated the marriage, becoming almost a third-party in it. All this may sound a little run of the mill domestic novel but it’s very much more than that. It’s also about the coming of the Troubles which ripped through Northern Ireland in the 1970s: the Bedfords are Catholics – George, a convert – living in Protestant Belfast, something which has its little difficulties in 1949 but is enough to get rotten eggs thrown at you in 1969, and far, far worse shortly after that. By playing events through the Bedfords’ lives at the very beginning of the violence rather than putting it centre stage, Forbes makes them all the more chilling in their prefiguring of what is to come.

From its striking opening sequence to its heartrending closing passage, Forbes’ novel is beautifully expressed, so accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it’s her first. She has a knack for arresting images – the seal of the opening sequence, the white ‘ghost moth’ collectors of dead souls, a lie sitting ‘like another presence in the room, expecting to be fed’ – and her use of language is often painterly: the sun makes the family ‘all look like their faces have been buttered’. Very early days, I know, but I would love to see this on a shortlist later in the year – Forbes has already won awards for her short stories. And if the name Michèle Forbes’ seems familiar you may know her from either TV or the stage where she’s been acting since 1983.

The Coincidence Authority: Everything happens for a reason. Or does it?

Cover imageHumans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of J. W. Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority.

Thomas Post is a philosopher, an academic dubbed ‘the coincidence authority’ because he sets about debunking the phenomenon using mathematical reasoning. One day he tumbles into a heap of people at the bottom of an escalator. He and Azalea suffer minor injuries, exchanging a few words before going their separate ways. Weeks later, Azalea walks into Thomas’s office. Having led a life beset by coincidence she wants to consult the expert. When they recognise each other from the escalator debacle, she sees it as coincidence – he sees it as a random event. Ironmonger explores the ways in which we make sense of what happens to us through the relationship between these two. Azalea’s life is one of extraordinary synchronicity and because of this she has come to believe that she may die on 21st June 2012 – her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her mother and her stepmother have all died on Midsummer’s Day convincing her that she will meet the same fate. As Thomas and she fall slowly, almost reluctantly, in love, he tries to rationalise her belief. The novel criss-crosses the decades following Azalea’s life from her apparent abandonment at a fair in 1982 to Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army run rampant, counting her missionary stepmother amongst its victims in 1992, and where she meets one of the two blind men who claim to be her father, to her relationship with Thomas in 2012.

It’s a sweet love story made intriguing by Azalea’s extraordinary string of coincidences, each weighed up and diffused by her Tim Harford of a boyfriend who loves her enough to still have a sneaking worry about her looming deadline. The philosophical dichotomy that Thomas and Azalea personify is clearly one that fascinates Ironmonger although at times the structure he’s chosen to explore it becomes a little strained: there’s a passage when Thomas explains determinism to Azalea which has a distinctly ‘here’s the science’ feel to it. That said, it’s a thought-provoking as well as entertaining novel.  And who knows, perhaps it was meant to be that the signalling failure on the London line was so bad that I gave up trying to get to Oxford and came home to write this post instead.