Robyn Reviews: Gallant

VE Schwab is a prolific writer of fantasy across age groups and subgenres. Her adult fantasy The Invisible Life of Addie Larue remains one of my all-time favourites, and her City of Ghosts trilogy is a wonderful fantasy adventure for the 8-14 age group. Her latest offering, Gallant, is targeted at a teenage or YA audience, but makes a great easy read for adults too. It’s an atmospheric, slow build read with elements of Neil Gaiman. The ending isn’t quite as satisfying as I might have liked, but otherwise this is another solid entry to Schwab’s shelves that any fan of fantasy mysteries or the haunted house genre should enjoy.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Prior can barely remember a time when she wasn’t alone. Her parents have vanished, and almost no-one at Merilance School for Orphaned Girls has bothered to learn how to communicate with a girl with no voice. When she receives a mysterious letter from an uncle she’s never met, inviting her to join him at his estate of Gallant, it seems like a dream come true, aside from one thing: A note in her mother’s old journal, the only piece of her she has left. ‘You will be safe as long as you stay away from Gallant’. Her options few, Olivia arrives at Gallant – but her welcome isn’t what she expected, and she soon finds herself surrounded by a family secret that might just spell her end.

The biggest strength of the book is Schwab’s writing. Atmospheric and haunting, it paints lingering images of Merilance, of Gallant, and of its inhabitants – both living and dead. It’s perhaps pitched a little young – Olivia is sixteen, but this is probably aimed at the 12+ age group, and she reads younger than she is – but nonetheless, the writing effectively builds tension without ever being age inappropriate.

Gallant pitches itself as ‘The Secret Garden’ meets ‘Stardust’, and certainly much of the imagery is clearly Gaiman inspired. However, even with the clear inspiration from other works and use of fantasy tropes, Gallant still stands out as its own work without feeling too reliant on or too similar to predecessors. It helps that Olivia feels very much like a Schwab protagonist – a feisty, adventurous girl fond of sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong and leaping into action before thinking about the consequences.

I liked the disability representation in the form of Olivia’s mutism, although a disabled reviewed would be better placed to vouch as to its accuracy.

The plot starts slowly, letting us get to know and sympathise with Olivia, revealing more and more secrets and unspooling at a greater and greater pace. The ending is fast-paced and almost over too quickly, with one final twist which is very clever but a certain lack of satisfaction. It would be helped by an extra thirty to fifty pages allowing the finale more time and impact – it almost feels like there’s a page limit as this is a YA not adult novel. Still, there’s enough there to hold it together and make it feel like a complete and enjoyable story. There is one trope in the ending which personally felt unncessary, but that’s a personal quibble that others may disagree with.

Overall, Gallant is an atmospheric YA fantasy novel perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman, haunted house stories, and family secrets.

Published by Titan Books
Hardback: 8th March 2022

Robyn Reviews: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Becky Chambers is an innovator of the sci-fi genre, known for writing beautiful, cosy, heartwarming books superficially about aliens and space travel, but really more about human psychology and relationships. After the success of her wonderful Wayfarers quartet and standalone novellas, she’s returned with a new series of novellas closer to the ground in a post-utopian setting. Chambers is one of my favourite authors, but unfortunately, whilst this has much to like, it didn’t quite work for me.

In Panga, the robots downed tools centuries ago, vanishing into the wildnerness. These days, no-one is quite sure if the days of robotic servants existed at all.

Sibling Dex is a tea monk – a traveller who provides a listening ear and a soothing cup of tea to all who need it. They’ve honed their craft – but after years on the road, they can’t help but yearn for something more. Feeling lost, they set out in search of answers. However, their peaceful pilgrimage is interrupted by the arrival of someone quite unexpected: a robot, there to honour the centuries old promise of checking in. The robot cannot leave until it’s answered the question of what humanity needs. As Dex and the robot fall into uneasy companionship, the question looms. How do you define what is a want, and what is a need?

Sibling Dex makes an excellent protagonist. A dreamer, they feel constantly unfulfilled despite their life looking wonderful to outsiders looking in. They’re always searching for something more – something that, this time, will bring them lasting peace. Dex is a kind, caring soul, but often so busy caring for others they forget to care for themselves. They’re very relatable and easy to like. They’re also non-binary, something which is never questioned or used against them, and it’s lovely to see a world where people are just accepted for who they are.

Mosscap, their robot companion, is an intriguing contrast. Rather than a dreamer, Mosscap is a questioner: endlessly curious and fulfilled by their quest for knowledge. They’re comfortable with who they are and excited to be on an adventure to reconnect with humanity. Mosscap provides a lovely optimism when Dex’s introspection becomes too heavy, and an intriguing psychological contrast – something Chambers excels at in all her books.

The worldbuilding is simple but solid. Humanity advanced to a phase of AI and robots assisting in an incredibly advanced society – but as their intelligence and self-awareness increased, they rebelled at simply being treated as humanity’s slaves, instead of equals. Eventually, the robots left, leaving humanity to pick up the pieces and fend for themselves. These days, humans live simpler lives, with the age of robotics consigned to urban legend. Its a simple but peaceful world, absent of the conflict which drives so much of the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

It’s difficult to unpick exactly where this falls down for me compared to Chambers’ other works. I think the primary issue is Chambers books, lacking conflict as an interest point, need to fully convince the reader to immerse in their story in order to have any lasting impact, and this one just lacks the pull factor. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the characters, world, or plot, it just isn’t as engaging as it should be. For those looking for a calm, peaceful, introspective story it’s a pleasant and enjoyable read, but not one that lingers past the final page.

Overall, this is a solid novella with an intriguing premise and well-rounded characters, but it lacks the emotional punch of Chambers’ other work. Recommended for fans of human psychology, explorations of post-utopian society, and anyone looking for a quiet read – but maybe try one of her other works first.

Published by Tordotcom
Hardback & eBook: 13th July 2021

The sequel, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, published on 12th July 2022

Book Review: blue hour

Blue Hour, by Sarah Schmidt, is a searing story of three generations of females unable to escape the fallout from mistakes made by their mothers. It opens in 1973 with Eleanor, an abused wife, mother to baby Amy, leaving her home in small-town Wintonvale to try to reach the Blue Mountains. She has happy memories of this place from multiple visits with her father. Many of her memories are not so positive.

The timeline jumps back to 1940. Eleanor’s mother, Kitty, is a young nurse at Wintonvale Repatriation Hospital. Three years previously she had moved away from her parents’ home in Melbourne to take this job. They did not approve of her desire for independence. Growing up it had been drummed into her that keeping up appearances mattered, and that she must never do anything that could embarrass her family.

Kitty meets George, a farm-boy, just a few weeks before he leaves to fight in the war. By the time he returns he has been altered by the experience – physically and mentally. Despite misgivings, Kitty agrees to marry him.

“How can you be sure love is enough? It had been easy to love him before. I could make this work.”

From here the timeline of the story moves back and forth, revealing episodes from Kitty’s marriage and Eleanor’s childhood. Kitty is trying to be a good wife and mother but struggles with the challenges her life throws at her. George suffers horrific nightmares, is in and out of hospital. Kitty longs for the man he was before the war.

Eleanor is desperate for her mother to love her but carries with her all the cruel words spoken. When Amy is born and she finds herself struggling, her biggest fear is that she will act as Kitty did towards her. Eleanor’s husband, Leon, is away fighting in Vietnam. She fears not that he will die there but will return.

There is also Badger, Eleanor’s brother, who Kitty loved to show off to her neighbours when he was little. Kitty’s legacy from her parents is that she must always be seen to be the perfect housewife and mother. She garners sympathy for having a husband who struggles. What goes on behind closed doors matters little unless it becomes known.

Eleanor tried hard to break the cycle of behaviour, going away to university and applying to study further, abroad. When Leon arrives in her life it is Kitty who encourages their union. He wants a child – and feels entitled to anything he wants.

There is a great deal of foreshadowing throughout the book but the various reveals are still viscerally shocking. By the time it was reached I had guessed an element of the ending, but the detail proved a gut punch.

I could have done without the graphically described sexual activities, but understand why some were included. Kitty in particular is a complex character. Leon is a charismatic brute but all too realistic.

As with Schmidt’s previous novel, See What I Have Done, the writing is taut and evocative. The shifting points of view enable the reader to empathise with key characters, to understand why they act as they do even when behaving badly.  It is somewhat disheartening to consider how well meaning parents can still damage their offspring and that this then progresses down generations. The multiple layers of grief and familial love are skilfully portrayed.

A story of disappointed expectation – of the difficulty of being true to one’s self when this clashes with other’s needs. A dark but compelling story I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Constellations of Eve

constellations

“There were things Eve and Liam had both surrendered to achieve tranquillity, but it was easy to give up petty desires, dreams of the spotlight that wouldn’t be possible if everything else wasn’t flooded in darkness.”

Constellations of Eve, by Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood, is a story of love and the blindness this creates. In darkly measured prose it explores the thin borders that exist between love and hate. The protagonists have unsated needs, including the desire for possession of another. Certain relationships develop into obsessions that lead to deaths.

The novel is structured in four parts, each depicting the lives of Eve and Liam across differing trajectories. Secondary characters include Pari, Eve’s muse, and Blue, a much loved child. There are tragedies in both what happens and what could have been had different choices been made.

Eve is an artist trying to capture the beauty she sees in Pari. This flattering attention affects the way the latter starts to regard herself. Liam is drawn to Eve but she struggles to accept his loyalty will last. Her eye for perfection leads to a belief in the shallowness of emotional bonding, that the more beautiful people are a light that moths cannot resist.

“The curse of being cast with such a spell is that these creatures hover above their own life instead of living it. Everything beyond their own reflection is a total disappointment.”

The varying life stories capture the complex nuances of trying to weave two lives into one without losing whatever it was that each first fell in love with. Threads are shadowed by a pervasive savagery that can prove insidious. The arrival of a child can detract from attention once basked in. The needs of a friend can upset a valued equilibrium.

The writing is uncompromising but also lyrical. Scenes depicted are often graphic yet feel necessary for progression. Imagery hovers between the brutal and ethereal. As tension rises the author reveals paths this reader was not expecting, raising the tale to new levels.

A remarkable feat of imagination that is both disturbing and riveting. A story offering much to ponder beyond the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Platypus Press.

Book Review: Never Mind, Comrade

never mind comrade

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I don’t understand how all this works, how some things are possible in this country, where it’s only about praise and punishment, miracles and catastrophes, but nothing in between.”

Claudia Bierschenk was born near East Berlin and grew up in Thuringia, a village in the GDR. It was surrounded by hills, valleys and thick forests through which the Iron Curtain ran like a scar. The Fence, as it is referred to, was mostly avoided. Locals surreptitiously watched the illegal West German TV channels. They were subjected to regular surveillance and a lack of basic supplies. Queues outside shops quickly formed when rumours of stock arriving trickled down.

Never Mind, Comrade is a memoir of the author’s childhood. It captures the innocence of a youngster who may question why she is required to live as she does but mostly accepts what is imposed – as children must. She comes to realise that joining ‘voluntary’ youth organisations is the only viable way forward. She dreams of travel to the exotic places she reads of but cannot imagine it ever being allowed.

Many of the author’s wider family fled to the West before the newly erected border was closed. They sent regular ‘care parcels’ filled with goods unavailable in Thuringia. Claudia’s clothes were mostly their hand-me-downs. The parcels contained luxury items such as coffee, fruit and fruit juice – if not taken by border guards.

“The whole world talks about the Berlin Wall, and about Berlin, the divided city. And I don’t know what the fuss is about … In East Berlin, the shop shelves are fully stocked, I saw it myself when we went there for a visit. They have more than two flavours of yogurt. In East Berlin they have bananas and cornflakes, and nothing is rationed.”

The book opens on Claudia’s first day at school, a place she comes to dislike despite her obvious intelligence. Under communist rule pupils were expected to be practical and sporty rather than curious and book loving. She is scared by the anger of the teachers and struggles with rules, questioning their logic. Pupils are taught that those in the West aren’t as lucky as them, that America is a warmonger eager to bring forward the Third World War. The children practice throwing disarmed hand grenades in preparation for this coming conflict.

“There are no Nazis in East Germany, only in West Germany”

“murder is something exclusively reserved for capitalist countries”

What comes across is the family life enjoyed despite deprivations and oppressive undercurrents. Claudia’s parents long to leave the GDR but this cannot be openly acknowledged. When the borders are eventually unbarred, despite her parents’ joy, Claudia is fearful of the changes given the propaganda she has been taught.

Structured in short chapters – mostly less than a page in length – episodes from the author’s early life are recounted with a simplicity that belies their depth. Her grandparents, who live in rooms above the family home, tell stories from the war. Claudia observes Russian soldiers on a visit to her other grandmother, fascinated by the strange language she cannot understand. Holidays are taken in ‘brother’ countries, those also under communist rule, although only when permits are granted and checkpoints allow. Family from the West may occasionally visit, bringing with them an aura of wealth known only from TV shows. Neighbours watch all these comings and goings that must be explained and reported.

There are many injections of humour in observations made, and in the author’s childish reactions. Claudia must keep secrets and behave as expected for the safety of all.

The writing is spare yet evocative, offering a snapshot of day to day life in the GDR. Seen through the eyes of a child it is not an overtly political memoir. Claudia longs for the material goods she believes make Western teenagers confident and cool. And yet she cannot entirely set aside fears instilled that capitalists harbour a desire to kill.

Although a memoir of growing up in a closed country, there are many universal themes and truths. We in the West were taught how awful life under communism was, and while there is obviously some truth to this, what Claudia was taught about the West we see now was not entirely inaccurate either.

Any Cop?: This is a pithy and witty account of a childhood coloured by political dogma. A skilfully rendered memoir of living within a country that is now gone.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Operation Moonlight

operation moonlight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Reading the synopsis of Operation Moonlight I was reminded of the Sebastian Faulks novel, Charlotte Gray. This latter work would not be amongst my favourite of the author’s somewhat patchy oeuvre but the events on which it is based – a young woman parachuted into France during the Second World War to complete a mission for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) – remained of interest. I hoped that a female author could do a better job of portraying such a protagonist.

As with so many contemporary novels, the story is told across two timelines. It opens in early 2018 at the home of soon to be centenarian, Betty Shepherd. Betty still lives in a house in Guildford that she once shared with her mother and then her husband. She has a live-in carer, Tali, who left Mauritius to escape a family situation. Betty has recently received word that her son, Leo, is returning to England from Australia. His mother suspects his intentions will not be in her best interests.

The second timeline starts in early 1944. Elisabeth Ridley is travelling to London for an intriguing meeting. Here she is offered training with the SEO and the chance to help the war effort. It is made clear how dangerous this could be, that an agent’s chances of survival may be as low as fifty per cent. Nevertheless, Elisabeth accepts.

What we then get are two separate stories, both nicely told. Betty is clearly Elisabeth so we know she survives. Her somewhat rushed SEO training, the people she meets there, and then her dangerous mission, evoke well the horror and deprivation of life at the time – especially in occupied France. It becomes understandable why so many were willing to risk their lives for differing shades of freedom.

The story in the later timeline focuses on the realty of living into old age. The challenges are almost too much at times, even when well cared for.

“Her knees and shoulders ache. Everything aches. Old age is like a prison.”

Personally I found this more compelling than the wartime story, perhaps because so many novels are set around the war years. Tali is also well developed – the loneliness of life away from all she had previously known, especially in the cold of an English winter.

There is a love story within each of the tales. Elisabeth’s made her appear foolish and naive, this in comparison to the determination she musters to survive under extreme duress. Considering the bravery she showed elsewhere, by ignoring key elements of her training – the advice clearly given – she risked her entire mission and the lives of those who helped her.

For readers who like this sort of thing, there are descriptions of sex acts that I chose to skim read. From the safety of my sofa I was growing irritated as it was clear what would happen next. There is a later element to this episode that offered welcome additional context and depth.

The love story in Betty’s timeline is more nuanced. Again there are sexual descriptions I could have done without – that some readers will likely enjoy – but the characters remained focused, in line with their development.

The cover of the book has a pull quote describing the novel as ‘charming’ which, along with the cover art, would normally put me off such a book. I was therefore pleased to find enough sagacity within these pages to surmount the ‘heart-warming’ elements. I learned more about SEO operations, and the sexism inherent in the system. The depiction of the elderly was excellent.

Certain threads and characters were introduced then not taken forward. They enabled a ratcheting of tension and reminded the reader – as was demonstrated during more recent events – how neighbours can turn on each other when behaviour is deemed renegade. I was not entirely convinced that this purpose warranted their inclusion but then I do admire brevity in written works.

Another minor quibble would be Leo’s fate. I can see why the author did this but would have favoured something more complex to chew over afterwards.

I preferred Operation Moonlight to the Faulks novel. It is an easy read – which takes skill to write – but is never simplistic. It shed new light on a time and place – occupied Rouen. There is humour in the contemporary timeline but the elderly characters and their carers are drawn with respect and sensitivity.

Any Cop?: A fine tale of wartime heroism, alongside the courage and resilience needed to face being aged. Add to this the diverse and well drawn secondary characters and we have an enjoyable story offering thoughtful escapism.

Jackie Law

Book Review: After Sappho

after sappho

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“X was not a willing housewife. X remained unmoved by squalling infants, would not wear skirts that swaddled the stride, had no desire to be pursued by the hot breath of young men, failed to enjoy domestic chores, and possessed none of the decorous modesty of maidenhood. Whatever X was, Contarano wrote, it was to be avoided at all costs.”

After Sappho is a reimagining of the lives of a chorus of Sapphic women, many well remembered in their spheres, who lived through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Set mostly in Europe, the warp and weft of the vignettes around which the book is structured focus on the way these women chose to interact and behave. Their lives are presented here as odysseys, performances, with more ordinary aspects rarely warranting a mention. The stories being told are fierce and succinct yet rippling with beautifully observed detail – the voices of the women crying out to be heard.

While seeking to silence such women, it is refreshing to find the men around whom they must exist remain mostly irrelevant within these pages, thereby turning the tables on how men and women are more usually treated. However, it is the rooms full of male law makers who remain the antagonists. Italy in particular was active in attempting to stamp out what its rulers regarded as a perversion, enacting legislation to protect their rights of subjugation, and bloodlines.

“a father … may expunge the crime of rape of his daughter by marrying her off to the man who has raped her, without a dowry. This is called a ‘marriage of reparation’, because it satisfies both men involved.”

Although undoubtedly feminist in tone, the exposition is playful. The women included herein weave in and out of each others’ orbits, coming together at: artistic salons, retreats, and travels around the continent. They revere the ancients, eschewing more modern rules and customs. Several of the women live as husband and wife, dressing as they please and seeking to further their education.

“Eva did not read the books extolling feminine virtues because she was poring over Virgil, Catullus, Ovid.”

There are occasional references to the works of the poet, Sappho. Mention is made of how the fables told to children have girls eaten and lost, or how women in literature are betrayed, raped and murdered. Sappho may have suffered heartbreaks but she wrote of living her own life rather than one imposed on her.

It is this that the women seek, to live and love as they please. Such behaviour goes against what many men can accept as it means they are sidelined. The author, however, avoids polemic. Men are at most bit players in this rendering.

“Virginia Woolf wondered later if perhaps we should have asked the men of Europe why we went to war. Frankly it hadn’t occurred to us that they might produce a coherent answer.”

The Great War, as it was called, marked a turning point. Although not acknowledged to the same extent, many women joined the men in the line of conflict, driving ambulances and treating the wounded. At home they took on jobs in the absence of male workers. They did not revel in the propaganda.

“Was there any beacon still shining amid this mustering of violent fears, this herding of people into common hatred?”

Some things did not change when the war ended. Men still attempted to censor and limit the lives women were permitted to lead. Literature was now more openly exploring narratives previously unacknowledged. The rooms of men agreed that such books should be banned lest women read them and get ideas.

“Noel Pemberton Billing was such a deplorable reader that he could only comprehend books he had invented himself.”

The author puts herself in amongst this chorus of women, offering a first-hand account of their lives, loves and interests. They are an arty lot, including: writers, artists, actresses, dancers. Some marry and have children. Many are wealthy, granting them wider choices. They desire freedoms granted through the accident of birth to the other half of the population.

Each vignette is typically less than a page in length. With such a large cast it takes time to get to know each character presented. Having got off to a storming start, interest waned a little until names and habits became familiar. The perusal was then, once again, fully immersive.

What makes this such a fun and satisfying read is the tone taken. Serious issues are explored but with an entertainingly ironic wit and verve.

Any Cop?: A book unlike any I have previously read in resonance and structure. A fine reminder that women need not conform and submit just because some men want them to.

“…we were not lost souls. We had been fighting for decades, sometimes desperately, for the rights to our own lives”

Jackie Law

Monthly Roundup – July 2022

july

As anticipated in last month’s roundup, this has been a fairly quiet month on my blog. Reading focus has been on books accepted for review on other sites, and on shorter works from my TBR pile. There were a couple of exceptions, although I only managed to finish one of these in a timely manner. My ability to read for lengthy periods as I once could appears to have evaporated.

Life has also been mostly quiet – no trips away or even nights out. I continue to run several times a week, visit the gym for strength training and to swim in the pool there. Other than these activities it feels as though little has been happening. The heatwave affected me badly while it lasted. I ponder how much of this was down to media scaremongering.

Something a little different from book blogging was a collaboration I agreed to with Chummys Bakery. This led to my first ever food review – you may read it here.

My intrepid teddy bear, Edward, has not had an ‘Explore’ post written about him this month but he did feature in my writeup of the adventures of three of my oldest bears – you may read it here.

I posted reviews for seven books, including the three latest releases from Ration Books. These pocket sized gems provide exactly the sort of writing I enjoy.

As is customary in my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

badger  on photography
The Badger by Jenn Ashworth, published by Ration Books
On Photography by Wendy Erskine, published by Ration Books

Bartie Bristle The Beginning  wan
The Beginning by Julie Tatchell (illustrated by Jill Fry)
Wan by Dawn Promislow, published by Freehand Books

Translated fiction

day didn't happen
The day that didn’t happen by Gerd Kvanvig (translated by Wendy H. Gabrielsen), published by naked eye

Poetry

sprig of yarrowA Sprig of Yarrow by Jim Ghedi, published by Ration Books

Non fiction

Dont Turn AwayDon’t Turn Away: Stories of Troubled Minds in Fractured Times by Penelope Campling, published by Elliott & Thompson

Sourcing the books

I received a pleasing pile of book post, although am still limiting the number of titles accepted as I attempt to catch up with other commitments.

books received july 2022

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms – your continuing support is always much appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and the ability to pause and enjoy all that is still beautiful in our world and lives. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Book Review: Don’t Turn Away

Dont Turn Away

“It is easy to cast a critical eye back over history; much harder to face up to it in the present.”

Don’t Turn Away, by Penelope Campling, offers a searing account of the traumas encountered by the author during her work in psychiatry and psychotherapy over the past forty years. She started her training in one of the large Victorian asylums that were earmarked for closure. She has experienced first hand the changes in mental health treatment from then through to the fallout from the Covid pandemic.

Having recently moved from the NHS to private practice, Campling can now be entirely honest in her assessment of where patients are failed by the systems imposed on frontline staff. As a young and inexperienced doctor she was expected to follow procedures without question, the consultants at the time revered. These days consultants are also facing mental breakdown, the pressures under which they are required to work often proving too great. It is no wonder there are severe staff shortages, exacerbating the problems caused by rising numbers of acute cases in need of treatment.

Following the closure of the asylums, there was great hope that moving patients into the community would remove some of the stigma attached to many mental health issues. While this appeared to be improving for a time, changes to funding and therefore staffing levels diluted the impact of what is necessarily a building of trust in the therapeutic relationship. Joined up medical care becomes problematic when departments are competing for dwindling resources. Outsourcing to companies looking to make a profit further diminishes the quality of day to day care. Patient need cannot be properly met when criteria for accessing treatment admits only the most desperate, and even they may have to wait months for any sort of limited consultation.

The book is structured around patients Campling has encountered during her long career. The problems they live with are shocking, stemming as many of them do from horrific abuse, especially in childhood. These triggers can be difficult for the patient to acknowledge, often leading to substance abuse and sometimes criminal behaviour. Self harm is common, the risk of suicide real. The author writes of the importance of granting agency to the mentally unwell, offering support alongside non-judgemental discussion, paying attention to cues offered that too many dismiss with platitudes. Prescribed drugs can be helpful but core issues need to be recognised if progress is to be made.

Chapters focus on some of the problems that can aggravate mental health patients’ afflictions. In the asylums bad practice could occur in what was a closed community that few outside wished to even think about. These days failings are more common because those in need are locked out by gatekeepers whose job is to decide who qualifies for available treatment.

Some of the most harrowing cases detailed were encountered in a more successful unit that offered in-patient counselling led by supervised peers. As a lay reader it is hard to see how such damaged minds can ever be rehabilitated. It is no wonder psychiatrists are affected by their work given the experiences they must listen to and counsel. Patients will not always engage however much effort is made. Cases can haunt a doctor’s mind for years.

Not a book, then, for the faint-hearted but one that opens up a section of society that is too often ignored or condemned without consideration. A well written and engaging memoir that lays bare the failings of our healthcare system, the toll this takes on overworked staff, and on the patients it should be existing to help.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Wan

wan

This review was written for and first published by Berfrois.

“And then the officer said, be grateful we keep you safe in your house, meneer, don’t worry about the other people. You said she’s a young lady, this Black? She probably ran off with someone, what d’you expect. Probably doing something she shouldn’t be”

South Africa in the 1970s was a country moving towards change. Those in power were fiercely opposing this through intimidation and with outright violence. The black population was required to live and work as their white overlords permitted. Although many of the privileged settlers felt disquiet at the situation, few would risk their lifestyle to make waves. Those who did so were punished severely.

Wan is narrated by Jacqueline Kline, a talented artist married to Howard, a corporate lawyer. The couple have two children, Helena and Stephen. When the story opens, Jacqueline is living in New York, recalling an interview she once had with a journalist who failed to capture anything of depth. Jacqueline has a story to tell, one she has never shared with anyone. What follows is her attempt to get across the nuances and fallout of a life altering mistake.

In 1972, the Kline family were living in the suburbs of Johannesburg. They owned a comfortable house with a large garden containing several separately built stone rooms. Some were used by the black servants, routinely employed to help with domestic chores and general upkeep. In a more secluded spot was Jacqueline’s studio where she painted. Near to this was a room used for storage that would be cleared at Howard’s behest to house a white activist, Joseph, whose presence upended Jacqueline’s calm and careful routine.

Jacqueline was born and raised in Villiers, a small town situated on the banks of the Vaal River in the Orange Free State. Her parents continued to live there until their deaths. The wider family were close at this time, exchanging regular phone calls and visits. The necessary secrecy surrounding the housing of Joseph added a stressful dimension to the relationship.

Although enjoying the benefits of her position, Jacqueline is aware of South Africa’s history – although the schools did not teach this to the children. She dislikes gold and diamonds, repelled by their connotations. She reads of the regular deaths of black miners – numbers rather than names. She still resents Joseph’s presence due to the potential dangers it brings. Her gradually changing feelings towards him cause a further unsettling.

The evocation of time and place is exquisite. Dawn Promislow’s story is told in spare, yet layered, prose that while precise is also sensuous. Unfolding events are recounted with care, the narrator seeking honesty in her mining of memories. Tension is built through a moving timeline – the now and the then – readers made aware of changes before key details are shared. Although a common frame around which an author may build, here it works seamlessly, adding a further dimension.

Side threads offer a wider perspective of life in 1970s South Africa, for both the black and white populations. A new maid causes concern when she is beaten by her boyfriend and then disappears. Another maid has a ‘drink problem’ and the reader learns she imbibes methylated spirits – cheap and easily obtainable. There are regular police raids on servants’ quarters as workers without the correct passes are sought for persecution. White residents may share their homes with black servants, entrusting them with the care of their children, but pay little heed to their wider needs or concerns.

In amongst the growing turmoil, Jacqueline seeks peace in her painting, something that stalled when Joseph moved into their garden room. Prior to this her days had been carefully structured, with periods of rest and creativity – obviously easier when others do the work. She comes across as insipid on the surface, yet with barely acknowledged depth of feeling that she keeps carefully in check. As on the Vaal River, avoiding dangerous currents could be lifesaving, for her family at least.

What emerges is a tapestry depicting the complex ripples created by small acts and omissions. However sympathetic she may have been, Jacqueline was still complicit. Eventually she had the choice to leave South Africa, but not the effects of her behaviour.

The author may be commended for her incisive acuity, offered without sacrificing detail. The history, character development and shades of familial relationships are skilfully rendered, but it is the subtle artistry in the use of language that makes this book such a joy to read.

An impressively compelling, sensitively contoured and beautifully told tale.