Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

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

Book Review: Patience

Patience, by Toby Litt, is told from the point of view of Elliott, a man recounting significant events from his childhood. At the age of six he was placed in an institution run by Catholic nuns in Manchester. His mother needed a break from caring for him. Elliott has two younger and four older siblings. He longs for his mother to return for him but now believes his family may have moved to Canada or America.

Elliott has severely limited movement and spends his days in a wheelchair. He must be fed smooth foods as he could easily choke when swallowing. He is doubly incontinent and suffers the discomfort and lack of dignity this brings. Alongside all of this he cannot speak and is regarded by the nuns as an imbecile. Each day he is parked, often facing a white wall as they believe this helps keep him calm and therefore easier to deal with. Unbeknown to the nuns, Elliott is aware of everything that happens around him – a small world in which he eagerly drinks in every detail.

It took time for him to cultivate a positive outlook but Elliott has come to terms with this way of living. During his years at the institution: he has been punched twenty-seven times by the violent Charlie and had his nose broken twice; he is a little in love with Lise who spends hours on the floor crying while her brother, Kurt, bangs his head against a metal filing cabinet; he has watched several of the children he shares a floor of the building with die, one as he watched, incapable of doing anything; he has stopped believing in the god the nuns venerate as none of his prayers have ever been answered.

And then, after nine Christmases, Elliott’s world shifts. A blind and mute boy, Jim, arrives and brings with him a quiet rebellion. The nuns act swiftly to quash any hint of rule breaking. Elliott sees a chance to make a friend who could prove useful. He has a dream, a daring ambition.

All of this is told through the minutae of day to day happenings on Elliott’s floor of the institution. The author has opted not to use commas so sentences must be read carefully. This slowing down requires patience – an attribute Elliott has in abundance.

Jim brings a timpanic excitement to Elliott’s ordered days. Slowly, they learn to communicate. Having been little more than an overlooked piece of furniture, Elliott begins to be noticed. His daring plan may even become a possibility.

The sheltered nature of Elliott’s upbringing has left him unaware of many aspects of life in the wider world. As this story is being told looking back, what he didn’t know then, can be explained. These asides add humour to what may otherwise be an unrelentingly poignant tale.

“I thought when I was little that the hanging skeleton was from a patient who had died and that in order to become a real doctor you had to have in your office the skeleton of someone you had killed to remind you to try not to kill anyone else”

Elliott has the same emotions as the more able bodied. He wants to: be listened to, perform heroic acts, be regarded as useful in the deeds he undertakes. He recognises that so much is impossible due to the body he has been given. He has the same sadness as many of the other children.

“every orphan is a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle the rest of which is somewhere else”

The small detail of Elliott’s day to day existence did at times cause my attention to slip. Nevertheless, this is as good an evocation of living with profound disability as I have read. The way the children are treated – kept mostly safe but within rigid parameters – is unsettling to read. It is a cry for greater humanity towards those who are different. A powerful and affecting tale.

Patience is published by Galley Beggar Press. 

Monthly Roundup – June 2020

We have now survived over three months of lockdown and the world of man has become a strange place. Talk of easing restrictions is shadowed by measures put in place that make our limited social contact less enjoyable: keep your distance, wear a mask, don’t go out unless necessary. The wider impact of the various rules imposed is becoming more obvious: other health issues ignored and therefore exacerbated (mental and physical), long term economic hardship likely for a great many, disruptions to education affecting the prospects of young people.

With no client work available this month, husband and I continue to fill our days with walks, runs and bike rides in the surrounding countryside. I beat my personal 5k running time – finally getting it to below 30 minutes – and completed my second, lonely half marathon. I am also trying yoga at home, coached by Adrienne via YouTube.

Our children finished their on line exams and we celebrated with a little family party. A few days later we ordered a takeaway for younger son’s birthday. It feels important to create highlights in days that are merging and can quickly grow stale.

On the henkeeping front, we gave a new forever home to four ex-farm rescue chickens who are settling in well. As is always the case, our existing flock has yet to come to terms with this invasion of their enclosure – it is clear where the terms henpecked and pecking order originate.

I reviewed 8 books in June – 6 fiction (1 translated), 1 poetry, 1 non fiction. My reading rate has been affected by lockdown and associated concerns. To counter this I took on an intern, explaining my reasons in my first post of the month – Something is changing on the blog. I hope readers have enjoyed Robyn’s reviews. This month they included 3 fantasy fiction books and 1 non fiction. I have offered her additional slots on the blog over the coming months.

Click on the title below to read the review, and on the cover to find out more about each book.

 

Fiction

 
Death & Other Happy Endings by Melanie Cantor, published by Black Swan
The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, published by Century

 
Broken Angels by Beth Webb and Mark Hutchinson (soon to be available from the abbey bookshop)
Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch, published by Sagging Miniscus

 

For Bookmunch – and my book of the month


The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes, published by Oneworld

 

Translated fiction


Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), published by Charco Press

 

Poetry


Depth Charge by Chris Emery (limited edition, privately published)

 

Non fiction


Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian, published by Elliott & Thompson

 

Robyn Reviews

Fantasy Fiction

 
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, published by Orbit
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, published by Gollancz


We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson, published by Orbit

 

Non fiction


Sway by Pragya Agarwal, published by Bloomsbury

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She is also an avid collector of eye-catching fantasy fiction and has recently been receiving as much book post as me.

Happily, I have taken delivery of a greater number of books this month than has been typical during these lockdown months.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles 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 appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health, speedy recovery from any illness, and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Book Review: The Wild Laughter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Wild Laughter is one of the most complete and satisfying works of fiction I have encountered. The author’s dexterity with language alone makes it worth a reader’s time and attention. There is also a compelling plot presented with humour and flair. None of this is to deny that certain elements of the story are discomfiting. Its central subject is how the complex relationships within family burn as often as balm. It is a fierce yet poignant evocation of love in a time of impending death.

The narrator is Doharty Black, known as Hart. He is the younger son of Manus and Nóra who have one other child – Cormac. Hart has the looks and Cormac the brains. Neither wishes to take on the family farm in rural Roscommon which Manus has worked since he was sixteen. The 2008 recession sweeps away this option due to debts incurred by boom time investments. The family’s woes are compounded by Manus’s terminal illness.

Hart had wanted to travel but puts such desires on hold to stay on the farm and help out until his father’s death. He idolises Manus – the Chief. There is little love lost between Hart and Nóra. Cormac visits only occasionally yet his influence remains quietly insidious. He guards his independence while expecting all to bend to his will.

Short chapters take the reader through key events over the course of a decade. There is a disturbing attempt at revenge when the teenage brothers blame a neighbouring farmer for their father’s financial difficulties. Later, there is an actress who both brothers are drawn to – yet another example of their lifelong emotional combativeness. All this builds to the dilemma the family face when Manus’s condition deteriorates. He lets it be known that he would prefer his suffering curtailed.

Ireland, with its religious and wider family pressures, is skilfully rendered. The voices captured for the varied cast of characters provide a strong sense of time and place. Depth is built through nuance – scene building and dialogue both sharp and affecting. Cruelties are at times shocking but in context add weight.

Characters are developed through carefully crafted detail. Nóra attempting to tidy up the seaweed on a beach offered a view of her pain that Hart’s antipathy masked. Cormac reworking shared memories gave insight into his desire to control the family story as understood by outsiders. The priest, although rarely present, added layers – subtly shading.

The brevity and wit in the author’s writing deserve to be savoured. In many ways this is a dark tale but tempered by the credence of the representation. There is no pulling back from the realities of a failing body – the emotional pain and physical repugnance endured as a loved one approaches death. Yet this is just one strand of the tapestry Hart weaves as he depicts the years around his father’s death. Life is lived through more than one event, however key.

Any Cop?: Told as a recollection, the reader knows Hart survives. The author’s handling of his tale ensures we care. The prose is never heavy but its impact remains profound. Much fine writing has come out of Ireland in recent years. This story can comfortably sit alongside the best.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Into the Tangled Bank

“Honestly, there are times when nature seems to be taking the piss.
‘Here you go – have something of unfathomable beauty. Here’s another. And another. Careful not to faint.'”

Into the Tangled Bank, by Lev Parikian, follows the author as he contemplates the natural world around him as it gets on with its business of living, everywhere. He starts on the pavement outside his home in South London. Alongside the traffic and urban debris are: plants, butterflies, birds and other creatures. The reader is reminded that they too are part of nature and it is not necessary to visit a specialist reserve to observe the wonder of ecosystems.

Later in the book such reserves are visited. The author also journeys to the homes and gardens (some covering many acres) of key figures from history who shared observations of their surroundings – local and further afield – with the wider public through scientific and artistic endeavours.

First though, what is alive – and not always welcome – within homes is investigated. Efforts may be made to eradicate supposed invaders such as flies, wasps or spiders but it is pointed out that they serve a useful purpose. They are also amazing when form and habits are closely observed.

The author’s garden and local woodland are explored. The author contemplates a Perfectly Normal Tree. He also muses on how others experience place and its features.

“When we see someone looking at a tree, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they’re silently composing poetry; perhaps they’re wondering if they left the iron on; or they might just be thinking about the deliciousness of really good chips. It is, and should remain, a mystery. But sometimes the Thomas Bewicks and John Clares of the world see fit to record their reaction in the form of art, and that in turn affects people in different and unknowable ways.”

Encounters with people are included in contemplations. Some are chatty; others appear unmoved by what is around them. One lady, on a boat trip to view eagles, is loud and excitable – an irritation to others or a reminder that what is being observed is worth getting excited about? This is better, perhaps, than the parents hurrying children away from their encounters with the creatures they were brought to observe, enjoy, and now wish to linger with.

The text is informative but also personal with many footnotes offering elucidation along with self-deprecating humour. Birds are of particular interest and the reader is reminded that it is not just the unusual that should be sought for admiration. One anecdote shared is when bird-watchers in China rushed to view a visiting robin – a rarity there.

“a vivid reminder not to take commonplace for granted, to look at normal more closely, to appreciate the magic of the everyday.”

The author does not consider himself an expert, pointing out that information can be readily gleaned from books and the myriad of online resources available. What he urges is that readers take time to observe, wherever they may be.

Towards the end of the book Parikian turns his gaze upwards. He visits a Dark Skies observatory and is overwhelmed by the vastness of outer space. What this does offer, though, is perspective.

There are cautions against man’s habit of anthropomorphising – attributing reactions to how we would feel. The author also advises against expecting the constant action depicted in televised nature programmes. Nature does not perform for man’s benefit but rather as is necessary for continued survival.

This is a gently structured, affable study that takes the reader ‘from the kitchen sink to the cosmic void’ via museums, zoos and what now passes as wilderness. It provides a reminder that all are connected and everyday actions are truly fascinating. Informative, well written and interesting – an entertaining and uplifting read.

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

Book Review: Lake of Urine

It is rare in the book world to find a story that is truly original while also being eminently engaging. I’ll resist describing Lake of Urine as experimental because the tale told may be tall but it is droll and never difficult. The author plays with many precepts and conceits, inverting accepted behaviours. Ideas and turns of phrase add richness to a landscape reeling in the bizarre yet woven to plausibility within the world created.

Divided into four parts, each focuses on a different key character. The first is Willem Seiler, a man besotted by Noranbole Wakeling. She is the the overlooked sister of the titular Urine. Their mother – the many times married Emma – favours Urine and treats Noranbole as their scullery maid. Unfortunately for Willem, Noranbole has no interest in him while Urine willingly complies with any and all of his requests.

Willem likes to measure things with string. For example, the depth of winter is determined by the distance that may be travelled safely from home before the cold or wolves become too much of a risk. The depth of a creek may be measured by tying a weight to one end of the string. There is a lake near to Tiny Village – where Seiler and the Wakelings live – and Willem feels compelled to measure its depth. Despite several attempts, which do not go as planned, he persists, leading to a tragedy.

Except within this story tragedies are largely accepted with equanimity. Reader be warned, scattered throughout are acts of violence and other abhorrent behaviour towards people and innocent creatures. Normally this would upset me. Here they are surreal, as are many other elements.

The second part of the book focuses on Noranbole, who has moved to Big City with her boyfriend, Bernard. This section takes a delicious dig at the corporate world and how celebrity, particularly in sport, is venerated. Noranbole is now head of Terra Forma, a company so powerful that it has the ear of the country’s president.

“She was settling into the routines of her new position, having risen to it from the post room in a mere eighteen months and a series of fortuitous events so highly improbable as to defy description here.”

Working alongside her to rewrite the company strategy manifesto is Vacuity Blanc, head of corporate branding. As the board of directors struggles to deal with – or at least discuss in unintelligible jargon – crisis upon crisis, Noranbole gives precedence to concerns of the manager at the Noodle & Burger Emporium where Bernard works, washing dishes. He is eager to move to noodle cooking, promotion the manager claims cannot be rushed.

Bernard’s voice is only understood by Noranbole. I have no idea if the dialogue included as his language, before she translates, has any meaning.

The third section takes the reader through Emma Wakeling’s life, framed by each of her marriages – in reverse order – and the rooms in her house. The setting is timeless – transport by horse and cart but mention of internet. As with the rest of the tale, these upendings of expectation are made to work well.

Emma’s father is a pastor with a particular interest in ‘fallen women’. He educates his daughter from: the bible, his many sermons, tales of those in their locale he ministers to. He is aided by the family’s stern housekeeper. Emma is the only girl attending her small school. All this may go some way towards explaining certain choices she makes in her behaviour.

The final section brings the protagonists back together and is titled Urine. The mayor of Big City visits Tiny Village to see for himself a situation that neighbouring communities have complained of. Rubbish has become a valued commodity. The smell is unpleasant. Prominent villagers proudly take the mayor to admire the art in a valued exhibition.

“”What do you mean, in what way? It’s rubbish. We are literally falling over this stuff in Big City. People complain about it.”
Chuckles from the next table. Bunbury smirks and shakes his head.
“So we understand, sire,” he says with an air of indulgence. “Sometimes folks just don’t know what they’ve got.””

Meanwhile, Seiler is still distracted by the lake. The Wakelings’ lives are about to be affected once again.

It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the story but after this the pace remained pleasingly expeditious. The short chapters and plays on language entertained with understated witticisms. It is certainly not a ‘nice’ love story – there is too much masturbation and violence for that. Nevertheless, it pokes fun at aspects of life taken much too seriously while presenting serious issues lightly but as worthy of consideration.

I thought the author brave to go with a title I found off-putting. Had he not sold me on the synopsis I would not have accepted the book for review. Having read it, I’m very glad I did. Satire can be difficult to maintain in storytelling without appearing pretentious. The author has achieved a fine balance between: dark, quirky, humorous, and engrossing. This is a singular and satisfying read.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus Press

Book Review: Holiday Heart

“By this point, Lucía knew that her argument was falling apart, that the things she was saying were only distantly connected to what she’d read. She simply wanted to say them, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do so.”

Holiday Heart, by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), is the story of a crumbling marriage. It opens on Miami beach where Lucía and her young children – twins, Rosa and Tomás – are watching the Fourth of July fireworks. They arrived earlier in the day to spend a fortnight at Lucía’s parents’ holiday apartment where they will be looked after by Cindy, an American of Cuban descent. Lucía and her husband, Pablo, are Columbian immigrants – educated and financially successful but hankering after an elusive satisfaction in the life they lead.

Pablo has recently suffered heart issues which brought to light his infidelities. He remains at their home in New Haven, recuperating. His actions, though, are secondary to resentments that have been bubbling to the surface for years. Pablo and Lucía goad each other with both their silences and conversation. They try to be good parents but neither of them truly enjoys being with their children.

“She wondered if giving birth to a child and just abandoning it to its fate – whether as the decision of a Spartan parent or out of necessity or tradition – would hurt less than giving birth to it only to neurotically monitor the area surrounding it every day: that diminutive, infinite space filled with dreadful and uncontrollable dangers.”

Pablo, a teacher, is writing a novel. Having read through the manuscript, Lucía accuses him of yearning for his homeland – something she regards with derision. The reader is offered snapshots of his past through interactions with his wider family. For them, making a life in America is regarded as a success in itself.

Lucía writes a column for a magazine in which she is highly critical of her husband, claiming artistic licence when Pablo complains. He feels that he lost her when the twins were born and Lucía took the reins in how they would be raised. On holiday at Miami Beach, the children have more fun with Cindy than they do with their mother. She views the friendly young woman as trashy but is jealous of her easy affinity with the youngsters, especially Rosa. Both Pablo and Lucía are critical of many aspects of demeanour they observe in other immigrants.

“His shirt is tucked in and he wears a blue suit jacket that screams cheap. Bad taste in clothes is the last sign of an impoverished background to disappear. Sometimes it never leaves. Almost all of the high school teachers are of Latino descent: they are the sons and daughters of technicians, plumbers, maids, supermarket cashiers. Getting an education, unlike their parents, doesn’t make them any less rough around the edges, if anything the contrary.”

The key lives portrayed are brimming with dissatisfaction making this a rather bleak tale to engage with. The writing style is taut and flowing but neither Pablo nor Lucía elicit sympathy – their actions appearing foolish and weak. I was left curious as to the veracity in terms of the immigrant experience: if assimilation creates a disconnect, if expectations can ever be met. Pablo ponders the life his unmarried aunt, Lety, has chosen for herself, unable to understand how she can be content when her job is running a launderette. It is, perhaps, because neither Pablo nor Lucía can find the joy in what they already have that I struggled to empathise.

A well structured and written tale but not one I especially enjoyed reading. Maybe the insular and stifling reflections of the privileged characters were not the best choice for me given current lockdown economic concerns and restrictions.

Holiday Heart is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Broken Angels

The following was my intriguing introduction to Broken Angels, an account of morally dubious happenings at Glastonbury Abbey in the 15th Century.

“Broken Angels is a true story. 

‘True’ in the sense that by the early C15, Glastonbury Abbey, one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries in Britain, had become a hotbed of gossip and rumour. There were tales of internal feuds and lax discipline, illicit sex, and several questionable ‘business’ deals. Even worse, there were numerous complaints about the abbot, John Chinnock.  

At last, King Henry IV and the Church hierarchy decided to act. In September 1408, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, visited Glastonbury with an entourage of influential men to resolve the situation.

The Archbishop’s visitation report still exists, but for the most part, it’s a list of punishments meted out, not the actual crimes. ‘Broken Angels’ uses that report and many of the people mentioned in it to imagine what was going on. Our story will take you back six hundred years to a time that’s often over-spiritualised and romanticised, but in reality was cruel and brutal, especially for the ordinary working people. “

The book is a short novella, written by Beth Webb and Mark Hutchinson, that brings to life the people who lived in, and worked around, Glastonbury Abbey during the late medieval period. It offers an evocative account of the times. 

Told from the point of view of Brother Bernard, an idealistic but still ambitious young Oxford graduate whose new master, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tasks him with seeking out those responsible for the degeneracy at Glastonbury Abbey. Despite personal misgivings, Brother Bernard is ordered to visit taverns and kitchens, to converse with those he encounters. He is to be his master’s spy and report back on findings.

The story brings to the fore the differences in circumstances of those born into privilege and those who struggle to survive. From differences in lighting – wax candles rather than rush lights – to fine food and wine, the abbey is shown to look after its own before serving the wider community. It was a time when tithes were demanded of the local population and the best produce taken. The poor could seek alms but were given the dregs.

“most abbeys – not just this one – are filled with greedy men who like to live comfortably and help themselves to the best of everything”

Brother Bernard is unhappy to discover that many of the monks habitually use women for sex. The offering of such ‘favours’ is necessary for survival, especially when husbands die.

“Most of us are good girls, we don’t want to sin, but what’re we to do? We all got babies and grannies at home, all wailing for food and firewood.” 

Some of these women are treated well by the monks they service; others are taken advantage of and then discarded. 

The abbey hierarchy turns a blind eye, benefiting from the deals that are done alongside the carnal goings on. When someone from within Glastonbury speaks out, leading to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit and investigation, they are more eager to weed out whoever has broken ranks than to put a stop to the iniquitous activity.

It is interesting to note that there were similar visitations to other abbeys. In considering the much vaunted social support that was lost due to the dissolution of the monasteries, it is worth remembering that religious orders are not immune to the corruption of power and desire for personal comforts. 

The writing is styled to appeal to those with an interest in the history of the abbey but who may not wish to dig deep into the canon. The book is aimed at tourists passing through – it will be available to buy in the abbey shop when it reopens – but will also appeal to those seeking accessible chronicles of the place and period. 

Broken Angels offers an interesting story wound around the wider challenges of poverty and a powerful church eager to retain its veneer of moral superiority. It is a reminder of the timeless hypocrisy of those who deign to tell others how they should behave.  

Book Review: The Silent Treatment

The Silent Treatment, by Abbie Greaves, tells the story of Frank and Maggie, a married couple who have been together for forty years. Despite continuing to live in the same house – eating and sleeping together – Frank hasn’t spoken to Maggie for the past six months. He has a secret that he fears, if shared, would drive her away. Meanwhile, she has reached the end of her tether.

The prologue describes events that result in Maggie’s hospitalisation. While there in an induced coma, Frank is encouraged by medical staff to talk to her that his familiar voice may help draw her into recovery. Thus the reader learns how they met, married and the difficulties they faced through their many years together.

The book is divided into two main parts: the couple’s life story as told by Frank at Maggie’s bedside, then the same story written in a journal by Maggie in the week before her hospitalisation. As may be expected, the two points of view have differences in perspective.

There is an urgency to the first part that I found lacking in the second. Both, however, are leading to key revelations. By the time these were divulged I had grown bored by the buildup. The bar of expectation had been raised to such a height it felt overworked.

Both accounts present an almost too perfect marriage. Serious difficulties encountered over the decades are acknowledged but the memories recounted are mostly frolicsome and adoring. Frank and Maggie each blame themselves for any shadows cast. Frank’s silence may be recent but they had never spoken freely. The love they retained for each other could not make up for their inability to communicate.

There is a third key character – the couple’s daughter, Eleanor. She is adored by both her parents. I found it draining to read of their pain when she started to pull away. As a parent, the impotence and despair experienced when a child is hurting but will not accept help, resonated.

There were minor inconsistencies – niggles – in Maggie’s journal entries. She wrote that she never did feel at home in a particular role yet then described it as the happiest time of her life. Perhaps this is how personal memories are always massaged.

Although I liked what the author did in the final few paragraphs it did not assuage my impatience with the structure. Many readers have raved about this novel but to me it felt bloated – the reveal not meriting the buildup. A shame, but it was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Century (an imprint of Penguin Random House)

Book Review: Depth Charge

Depth Charge, by Chris Emery, is a beautifully produced poetry pamphlet containing a selection of the author’s more recent creations. Themes rising to the surface include an evocative appreciation of nature in all its shades. People are presented at a remove, the reader engaged as observer. There are undercurrents of sadness in what is being lost to the past.

The collection opens with an elegy for an aging coastal hotel. The damp, grey weather provides a backdrop to the echoes of former times. Language is rich and woven together to create images requiring several read-throughs to fully appreciate. The sense of place conveyed is impressive.

There follow a number of poems that portray various aspects of nature. Alongside the wonder lies the question – why it is being treated badly? There is an urgency along with desire for more attention to be paid to surroundings. Creatures are glimpsed and their attributes valued. The tenacity of delicate flowers is admired as they return each year despite being wantonly damaged.

Self-Portrait with Angela provides an injection of humour albeit with a sting in its tail. The narrator is looking back on a summer marked by a crush on the titular girl.

“Flared jeans and Clarks shoes,
my sweaty hat pressed flat
over helmet hair
and seven o’clock lust.”

[…]

“my wasted summer, my staring nights,
it all ran out with the whinnying
district horses, the heavy wheels
of that final cart of local coal
no one noticed.”

Memories of loved ones as they age are written with a refreshing realism. The collection is completed with an imagining of how an afterlife might be. In this, there is none of the beauty that the previous poems reflected – perhaps it is a warning to make the most of what we have, while we still can.

A strong and satisfying set of poems that merits reader time and attention. Fulsome and rich but never cloying – like a good red wine.

Depth Charge has been privately published in a limited edition of 100 signed and numbered copies. It may be purchased from the author.