Tag Archives: With a Zero at its Heart

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert: Adult fairy tale, horror story or dystopian fiction?

Cover imageBack in 2014 I fell in love with Charles Lambert’s autobiographical novel, With a Zero at its Heart. Made up of 24 themed chapters, each of which has 10 paragraphs of 120 words, it was a triumph of disciplined structure, much of it beautifully written. Naturally when I heard about his new novel I was interested to see how he’d chosen to follow it. Nothing conventional seemed likely and The Children’s Home certainly can’t be accused of that. Impossible to fit it neatly into a genre – dystopian fiction, horror story, adult fairy story – it’s one of the most unusual books I’ve read and I’m still puzzling over it.

Morgan Fletcher lives behind a high wall on a large estate. Horribly disfigured, he was once a beautiful young man now hiding himself from the flinching gaze of the outside world. His housekeeper, Engel, appeared one day, apparently knowing all about him, sent – he assumes – by his sister who takes care of the family business doing Morgan knows not what. One day a child arrives, then another, and another. Soon the house is full of children and babies all of whom are accepting of Morgan’s disfigurement. Doctor Crane is brought in to attend the children, later becoming Morgan’s friend. The house is stuffed with treasures collected by Morgan’s grandfather which the children and Crane happily sift through. When they find a wax model of a pregnant woman, the children seem entranced and are later found keening in a circle around it. All seems well – if a little strange – until government agents appear, taking away one of the children with them when they leave. Moira must be found, and David, who has become the children’s leader, knows where to look insisting that Morgan must come with him. What Morgan discovers shocks him utterly but leads to a form of liberation for all.

That little summary barely does justice to the strangeness of some of the imaginative flights Lambert takes in this novella. It’s a book in which there’s a great deal about motherhood and children, and the way in which children are treated by society – there are echoes of the Second World War with mentions of children taken to camps in the East and gassed. There’s also the matter of Morgan’s complicity in whatever it is that his sister oversees at the factory – something far worse than he (or we) could ever have imagined but he has always known that it was to do with ‘power’ and all that implies. All this is expressed in plain, straightforward language, a world away from the lyrical beauty of With a Zero at its Heart. It’s a fascinating book, not one which lends itself to easy analysis. I think I’ll be scratching my head over it for some time to come.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

Books of the Year 2014: Part 2

Cover imageLooking back over the year for these three posts it seems that many of my favourite reads were crammed into the first two months of the year. March, however, saw only one, Shot gun Lovesongs, but that may well turn out to be my book of the year. Nickolas Butler’s American smalltown gem is a gorgeous, tender novel which retains enough grittiness to steer well clear of the sentimental while wringing your heart. I hope there’ll be another Butler on the horizon soon.

After the remarkable Burnt Shadows I had been looking forward to April’s A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie as soon as I spotted it in the publishing schedules and it didn’t disappoint. Shamsie takes complex universal themes and humanises them through the lives, loves and passions of her characters. It’s a towering achievement as is Look Who’s Back in an entirely different way. Timur Vermes’ very funny satire sees Hitler waking up with a terrible headache in August 2011, more than a little bemused but soon all too plausibly back in the frame. Satire can go horribly wrong but Vermes is right on the button. Not surprisingly, it caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published, storming up the bestseller charts and staying there for seventy weeks.

Having started this with a prime candidate for my book of the year, I spotted another inWith a Zero at its Heart May’s posts. With its unusual thematic structure Charles Lambert’s With A Zero at its Heart could have been too tricksy for its own good but instead it turned out to be one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Its beauty lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Also in May was Louisa Young’s sequel to the heartrending My Dear I Wanted to Tell YouThe Heroes’ Welcome. Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you immediately into this powerful novel which looks at the aftermath of war, deftly avoiding all sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t.

cover imageNothing in June or July but in August I was reminded of my bookselling days by Andy Miller who I’d worked with briefly at Waterstone’s head office many years ago when the apostrophe was present and correct. The Year of Reading Dangerously in which Andy gets his reading mojo back is touching, honest and very funny indeed. Lots of sniggering in this house, and not just me. You might think ‘she would say that wouldn’t she’ but if Twitter’s anything to go by Andy seems to be having a lot of success helping people rediscover their inner reader. I’m going to leave you with another August title: The Miniaturist. Might as well get all my book of the year contenders into one post. Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, it was inspired by. Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum. I’m sure you can’t have failed to notice all the brouhaha around it but believe me, it’s justified. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book indeed. I’ll leave you with that. Third post to follow soon and if you missed the first you can catch up here.

With a Zero at its Heart: A Marmite novel

With a Zero at its HeartIf you’re from the UK, you’ll know exactly what I mean by a Marmite novel: you’ll either love it or hate it. Charles Lambert’s new novel is made up of 24 themed chapters, each of which has 10 paragraphs of 120 words and if you’re already stalking off towards the hate camp thinking ‘how tricksily pretentious’, bear with me – I hope to persuade you to love it. Written in the third person, it’s a book of memories – some playful, others melancholy; some gloriously beautiful, others starkly spare. The themes are many and varied, ranging from sex to fear, death to music, celebration to work, and ending with books. Each is introduced with a single word followed by a phrase picked from within the chapter which I found myself looking forward to, searching out like buried treasure and wondering why that particular one had been chosen. Woven through these 24 themes is a man’s life – sometimes recalled in impressionistic sketches, sometimes in vivid snapshots.

The beauty of this book lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Here are a handful of my favorites but there are many more to savour: as a child ‘Home is the busyness of the kitchen, where what’s left in the mixing bowl is his, and the oven can burn his hand.’; ‘With a rustle like fire, the crack comes running across the ice to greet them.’; in adolescence ‘Each body is strange to him, and frightening, his own most of all.’; in later life ‘A good age is when people you don’t know – movie stars, politicians – die’; ‘If music is the food of love, then canned music is the bolted snack’ on hearing Joni Mitchell’s Ethiopia playing in a supermarket. It’s billed as a work of fiction but it’s clearly autobiographical – in his acknowledgements Lambert thanks all the people who appear in it and there’s a particularly nice touch when the narrator arranges his books by the colour of their spines thinking that one day he would like to be published by Picador, which Lambert is. There’s even a reference to Marmite in the hunger section when, succumbing to an attack of the munchies, the narrator finds a jar five years over its sell-by date thrust to the back of a cupboard and tells his friend ‘You’ll love it or hate it’. His friend replies ‘I’ll love it’. So there it is – a Marmite novel, and I loved it.

This is the third novel written in short paragraphs I’ve read this year – the first was Dept. of Speculation, the second The Wives of Los Alamos. Two seems a coincidence, three makes me wonder if it’s a trend. First World War novels aside, have you noticed any trends in fiction this year?