Meet the writer behind my book reading hen avatar

This interview was conducted by and first published on Bookblast.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Belfast during The Troubles. My parents grew up in working class families and were determined to ‘better themselves’. When my older brother was eight they bought a newly built, three bed semi-detached house and moved from the central area of the city to what was then its outskirts. They still live there today.
My sister and I were born after this move. My brother left home when I was six so I never really got to know him – he now lives in Australia. My sister and I both passed the 11+ exam and attended an all girl state run grammar school before going up to the local university. We continued to live with my parents, although I did move into student digs for around six months after yet another row about my behaviour – aged twenty I was staying out beyond my curfew and drinking alcohol. I suspect we all wish I could have afforded to stay away, but my part time job wouldn’t cover the rent longer term.
Belfast felt parochial, cut off from what we referred to as the mainland due to the violence. We were expected to attend church and conform to a code of conduct that demanded we put on a front to the world of chastity and sobriety. It always felt that what I was seen to be mattered more to my parents than what I was or aspired to.
Despite this I look back on a largely happy childhood. Certainly at the time I felt loved. My determination to leave Belfast and to be myself stems from the frustration of being guilt tripped into conforming to a wide range of strictures I didn’t agree with.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
My father is a great reader. His hobby when I was growing up was chess and he would regularly order hardbacks, despite my mother’s disapproval of the expenditure, about the grand masters and their games. He also had a large collection of Penguin classics and modern classics that I longed to read. When I eventually left home he allowed me to take some of them with me.
I was bought many children’s books – Ladybirds, Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, C.S. Forester, Conan Doyle, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I discovered Tolkien when I was a teenager and then (aargh!) Jeffery Archer, James Clavell and a few of the classic writers not studied at school. I made a brief foray into romantic fiction, a genre I now avoid.
I used the local library and, when old enough to catch the bus into the city, scoured the charity shops for anything that looked interesting. I have always been an avid if not discerning reader.

Books that changed your life?
The Famous Five made me long for adventure. Laura Ingalls Wilder had me believing I was capable at a younger age than my parents would allow. Damage by Josephine Hart has a line that still resonates – ‘Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.’ I worked hard to get away from Belfast and eventually I did. I survived the years that others tried to mould me to fit their ideals, but the scars inflicted continue to ache in a way my younger self hadn’t anticipated.

What made you decide to start a book blog? How long have you been blogging?
I started my blog in early 2013 as a space to write through some personal issues I was facing at the time. It morphed into a book blog about eighteen months later. I had no idea that book blogs existed until I started to post reviews. It has grown from there to a point where it is what I do.

What’s the name of your blog? How did you choose it?
From the start I called my blog Never Imitate, from a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson – ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate’. I added the strap line ‘Trying to avoid society’s pigeonholes’. These seemed to fit my aims in life, to be myself rather than someone else’s idea of what I should be.
I have a sister blog where I occasionally write flash fiction which I call Dreams and Demons. My dreams and demons are the inspiration for much of my creative writing (spoiler alert, it isn’t very good). That blog’s strap line is ‘Can you hear the silence?’ from Bring Me the Horizon’s song Can You Feel My Heart. Another line in that song is ‘I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim’. All of these ideas speak to me and act as a reminder that impactful writing doesn’t always come from what may be well regarded by the self styled arbiters of these things.

What is your selection process when choosing a book to review?
I like to support the small independent presses so tend to prioritise their publications. Having said that there are certain authors published by the larger presses whose books I will seek out. I have a review policy on my blog which I hope helps publishers understand the books I am likely to enjoy. My TBR pile is vast.
Sometimes I simply feel like reading a particular book. I decided to stop taking part in blog tours at the end of last year as I wanted to regain the freedom to choose the order in which I read the books I am privileged to be sent.

What are your main criteria for evaluating a good book?
It has to be well written. The structure, language and flow should be seamless. When reading I shouldn’t be noticing any of this but rather be caught up in the story. The pace needs to keep the reader engaged but not overburden with unrelenting crises. Suggestion is better than explanation. Readers do not need to be spoon-fed.
I look for good character development. Not a lot needs to happen if those involved are presented in an interesting way. If a character is introduced I expect there to be a reason, and for them to be fully formed.
I am always disappointed when my reading is snagged by clunky or clumsy prose. Plot threads need to earn their place. A good editor can usually sort this.
After that I need to enjoy the reading experience. This is highly subjective so I will always try to explain in my reviews if I couldn’t engage.

What motivates you to keep blogging about books?
I want to tell other readers about good books that may fly beneath their radar. So much quality writing is published by the small presses yet they rarely make it to the best seller lists. If my reviews tempt just a few readers to buy or borrow a title then that can make a difference, not just to the reader but to the author and publisher.

What one piece of advice do you wish you’d had when you first started book blogging?
Be more discerning about the books you ask for. It takes time to read a book and write a review so try to select only titles likely to be enjoyed. Book bloggers are not under contract. Their reviews are an act of goodwill. Although I try to read every book I am sent this is not always possible and that’s okay.

Is it possible to earn a living from blogging?
I believe some people do this, but rarely through book blogging. I have been offered payment for particular services and have chosen not to get involved. My blog is my space and I want to run it in a way that suits me. I guard my autonomy fiercely. I hope this adds credibility to my reviews.

What book genres are your favourites, and your least favourites?
preti taneja bookblast diaryI particularly enjoy literary and experimental fiction. Prose can be as stunning as poetry if well written. I often seek out shorter books that pack a punch, that say more between the lines. There are of course some amazing longer books, such as Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young.
I avoid romances as they annoy me. Characters do not need to be beautiful to be interesting. Sex does not need to be described in detail. Happy endings are rare – life is more complex and messy than that. Books may offer an escape but I look for at least an element of relatability.

How many books do you read each week?
Generally around three although this depends on the type of book. Non-fiction tends to take me longer. I read less over the summer months as family life makes more demands on my time.

What’s your most popular blog post?
A fun little post about teddy bears! I wrote this before I started book blogging and it is still viewed on most days. My most popular book review is for How To Play The Piano by James Rhodes. I followed his instructions and taught myself to play in order to write it. For fiction it is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone followed by The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. This was an interesting question to answer as I don’t normally check such stats.

What do bloggers bring to the book publishing ecology which press reviewers do not?
Press reviewers are courted by publishers as the exposure they offer is valued. To an extent this is also now happening to some of the bigger book bloggers. Most bloggers, however, are writing without the rewards of limited edition snazzy proofs, promotional days out or invites to exclusive parties. Their reviews may be shared on social media but not with the excitement a publisher displays when a book they are promoting appears in the mainstream media. I think this makes bloggers less partisan, less prone to being swayed to favour a book because they have got to know those who produced it. This distance is of value to an ordinary reader who simply wants to find their next good read.
I am aware that my particular interest in the small presses has led to me meeting many of those involved in creating their books. They don’t court me – they have no marketing budget for that – but they know who I am.
Fewer people are reading the mainstream media so bloggers impact is increasing as their reviews appear in Google searches. Some are easily as well written as those in the press.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I am content with where I am and consider myself fortunate to feel this way. I wonder if others’ desire to exist in a different time is a mis-remembered nostalgia, something that has fed into our current political problems. I am grateful for modern medicine, for greater tolerance of difference and equality for women. There is still a way to go, but England now is so much easier for me to live in than the Belfast where I grew up.

Your favourite prose authors?
Margaret Atwood. Also John Boyne, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulks, Joanne Harris, Marcus Sedgwick. There are plenty of other authors whose individual books I could select, but those listed have written titles I have consistently enjoyed.

Your favourite feature films?
Ishiguro’s The Remains of the DayPeter’s Friends, the Wallace and Gromit films, Paddington.

pinkfloyd dark side of the moon bookblast diaryFive favourite bands?
I don’t listen to much music, usually preferring silence. Bands I select for background at family events would include some early Muse or Athlete, the Maccabees, Stereophonics. For myself I would occasionally play Pink Floyd, especially on vinyl, or Chopin’s piano concertos.

Your chief characteristic?
Awkwardness. I still cringe at the thought of things I said or did at social events years ago, which I doubt anyone else even remembers. I have to force myself to go out into company from time to time.
Beyond that you would have to ask someone who has met me. We see ourselves from the inside out so it can be hard to judge.
My daughter says that my chief characteristic is organisation and that I am a planner who likes everything to follow a routine and know what’s happening in advance. This can result in an element of awkwardness at social events.

Your bedside reading?
I don’t read in bed. I rarely read in the evening. I am a fairly early riser and like to write first thing in the morning before settling down with a book.

Your motto?
Insist on yourself; never imitate.


Book Review: Best British Short Stories 2018

Edited by Nicholas Royle, this 2018 collection of twenty short stories is the eighth in an annual series published by Salt. It provides eclectic and engaging reading with stories selected from a range of authors, although as the title suggests to qualify for inclusion all contributors must be British. The stories have previously appeared in a wide variety of print and online magazines and anthologies.

The collection opens with Payman’s Trio, written by the late Colette De Curzon, and one of several chilling tales. Set in last century’s post war London the voice is appropriately evocative of the time period, somehow deferential when compared to contemporary writing. The story begins with the purchase of a second hand book that places an uncanny musical score into the hands of a musician. When he and his friends perform the piece they realise the folly of their curiosity.

Although written by British authors quite a number of the stories are set abroad. A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica, by Adam O’Riordan, tells of a faltering long distance relationship that culminates in the titular event. It is the characters’ thoughts, behaviour and observations more than a plot that provide interest.

Trio for Four Voices, by Jane McLaughlin, is another character driven tale located abroad. Tension is maintained as the narrator is drawn into the scheming of a family staying in the same hotel. Like the previous offering, the temporary nature of the setting adds an element of dislocation.

In contrast, How to be an Alcoholic, by William Thirsk-Gaskill, features a narrator very much stuck at home, although whose actions are inexorably leading to a crisis that may cast him adrift. It is a story of self-inflicted breakdown that he observes whilst lacking the will to change.

We Are Methodists, by Alison MacLeod, introduces a plumber with a terrible history who decides to share his dark background with his client, a stranger recently moved into her new home. Unburdening to loved ones risks their judgement and a change of perception. A stranger’s reaction can be more straightforward to deal with.

Life Grabs, by Adrian Slatcher, is a disturbing tale of a man whose young son disappeared many years ago. Desperate to know what became of the boy he resorts to desperate measures.

Dog People, by M John Harrison, is taken from a collection by the author I reviewed last year – You Should Come With Me Now

Skin, by Jo Mazelis, is set in New York and details the swan song of a relationship. Told from the woman’s point of view there is a refreshing lack of blame when she recognises her boyfriend’s true nature.

Cwtch, by Conrad Williams, is a dark tale of the effects on a family of a tragedy that continues to haunt a surviving twin. The denouement may have been telegraphed but was still chilling.

And Three Things Bumped, by Kelly Creighton, exposes how memories are twisted in the telling. A taxi driver chats about his life unaware that his client has heard previous versions.

In Dark Places, by Wyl Menmuir, is set underground in an area long popular with cavers. A honeymooning couple have booked a guided tour beyond the popular caverns. Tourists display interest in macabre history from their sanitised safety. Written by the author of The Many, it is narrated by those who have inhabited the caves for centuries.

The War, by Owen Booth, is a thoughtful if somewhat depressing take on the many causes and effects of conflict – of man’s self-indulgence and damaging self-pity.

And What If All Your Blood Ran Cold, by Tania Hershman, is set in a hospital where medics are experimenting with raising the dead. I wonder if this was inspired by actual medical research.

The Homing Instinct, by Mike Fox, features the homeless and their precarious survival. It highlights how those offering help are doing so on their own terms.

“a more formal prayer followed by a short homily from the verger was over. This they tolerated: food mostly came with God attached.”

Mask, by Brian Howell, is set in Japan where a man is attracted to a dental nurse. Sexual predilections can be weird.

Sister, by CD Rose, is another story of twins, one of whom goes missing. Even loving and supportive families cannot always offer the help needed.

Waiting For The Runners, by Chloe Turner, is a tale of family betrayal in a small community. A mother must decide how to behave when her lonely son finds a new friend.

Swatch, by Eley Williams, is taken from the previously reviewed Attrib. (and other stories), published by Influx and winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

The Last Dare, by Lisa Tuttle, is set in Texas where a grandmother returns to visit her family. It involves a spooky house and missing children, a memory from childhood brought back around Halloween.

Dazzle, by Iain Robinson, involves an adulterer whose wish for absolution manifests itself. Comeuppance is rarely this direct.

For those wishing to dip their toes into short stories currently available in a variety of mediums this collection offers an excellent primer. As a fan of the literary format I found it a well curated and enjoyable read.

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

Live on air – BBC Wiltshire summer reads segment, Week 3

On Monday of this week I enjoyed my third guest slot recommending a summer read to listeners of BBC Wiltshire’s afternoon show. On arrival I discovered that James Thomas, the usual presenter, was not hosting. In his place was Karen Gardner who ran the show in a slightly different way. Even with my limited experience I have learned that taking part in a live broadcast involves an element of unpredictability. The preparation I had done was useful but much was not featured (the book read over weekend, my planned reading). This week’s show focused solely on the one book I was recommending.

We that are young, written by Preti Taneja and published by Galley Beggar Press, was my book of the year last year. It is a big book, ideal for those who like to immerse themselves in a compelling story.

As well as discussing the format and plot of my recommended title we talked about literary prizes – We that are young won this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novels – and their importance, especially for the smaller presses, in raising the profile of particular books.

Karen had told me beforehand that she listened to audio books so was interested to hear that We that are young has recently been made available in this format.

If interested you may listen to the radio segment, which lasts just over 6 minutes, here.

I will be returning to the studio next week to recommend another summer read. I feel privileged to have been offered this opportunity to bring excellent books to the attention of listeners.

Book Review: Takeaway

“they reckon about a hundred people in London account for something like fifty percent of all the ambulance callouts. It’s like they want a gold membership card, or a special closeness with their god, the fear of death.”

Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard, offers an uncompromising look at the realities facing an NHS ambulance driver in contemporary London. The honesty is shocking in places so used have we become to expressing thoughts in language deemed acceptable by those who have made it their business to police such things. The tales told are refreshingly devoid of standard public censorship. Although at times derogatory it is to expectations and behaviours rather than people.

Written in the voice of an experienced ambulance driver, part of a team that has established an inner detector honing in on who may actually benefit from hospital treatment, the anecdotes recounted bring to light how often ambulance callouts are unnecessary. Prospective patients are drunk, on drugs, suffering indigestion or simply seeking attention. Families do not wish to deal with difficult or messy relatives. They want the problem of responsibility to be taken away. When a true emergency happens – a heart attack, attempted suicide or road traffic accident – sometimes the kinder action is to accept the inevitable. Those looking on increasingly expect a miracle, as seen on TV.

“we’re judged on how many of those dead people we can bring back to life. Most of those dead people are dead for a reason. Forty years of smoking, drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. […] Only five percent of people come back when we do CPR and the rest of it. Out of that, how many of them actually have a quality of life? A tiny amount. […] The natural way of dying is the heart stops beating, oxygen stops going to the brain, the brain cuts out. As you’re going through that dying process, your head is most likely producing some psychedlic, drug, and you imagine you see a tunnel of light or the gates of heaven. Imagine you’re going through that relatively blissful drug experience, and some [f- c-] starts trying to reverse it […] your relatively pleasant death is turned into this brutal forty-minute procedure […] I feel sorry for the people for whom it’s their last experience on this planet.”

The ambulance teams have regulars – patients with complex issues that cannot be sorted by a visit to A&E. The drivers must also circumvent a bureaucracy that values public perception, targets and adherence to listed procedures over what may be of longer term benefit to the patient. There are run-ins with the police, with violent criminals, and with privileged office workers on a night out who require protection from the effects of their own idiocy.

When an ambulance is called – say to pick up an elderly person who has fallen over because carers are not allowed to lift people, or because a woman is suffering vaginal bleeding (monthly?) – that vehicle becomes, for a time, unavailable. This is rarely a concern as callouts missed are unlikely to be time critical. Knowing this the drivers are not always rushing to get back to work.

Although trying to act in a calm and professional manner drivers are human and can become enraged by the way they and the services they offer are treated, especially when they decline to comply with self-entitled expectations and problem shifting.

Written as a series of short and fascinating examples of cases, this book provides mordant entertainment through attitudes and reactions to incidents. It is also food for thought about how each reader would wish to be treated should they one day require an ambulance team’s skills and services.

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

Book Review: Sal

Sal, by Mick Kitson, tells the story of thirteen year old Sal Brown who runs away with her ten year old sister, Peppa, following horrific events at their flat in coastal Scotland. Sal is determined to keep her little sister safe and to ensure that Peppa does not suffer the abuse that Sal has endured for years. They have been unable to seek outside help as siblings put into the care system are too often separated. Sal has looked after Peppa since she was a baby alongside caring for their alcoholic mother. The threat of care has been used many times to ensure the girls do not report their mother’s neglect, nor the way her current boyfriend treats them.

Sal is not like other children. She carefully orders all that is inside her head and conducts research to gain in depth knowledge of facts that interest her. When her mind wanders she becomes disorientated and struggles to breath. She rarely smiles.

Once Sal decided she would need to take Peppa away for her own safety she set about preparing everything they might need. Using Youtube videos and other internet sites she taught herself new skills, gathered together necessary clothes and equipment, and planned every element of their escape in detail.

Sal believed they would be safest living in a remote forested area, building a shelter and hunting for food as she had watched the likes of Bear Grylls do on television. Her experience of the police convinced her that they are not clever enough to work out where the girls will have gone, so long as they limit the trail left and stay hidden. It is people who are dangerous. Missing city girls are not expected to be capable of wild living.

The tale is told in Sal’s voice so the reader understands the practical nature of her thinking. In flashbacks the reasons for the girls’ escape is revealed. It is a devastating indictment of a system that should be functioning to protect vulnerable children, dealing with causes rather than the effects.

Sal and Peppa’s life in the forest presents difficulties that Sal shows skill and creativity in attempting to overcome. Peppa is a livewire and lacks Sal’s wary reticence. The younger girl is more willing to trust and befriend. The forests of Western Scotland may be remote but they attract walkers and holidaymakers. The sisters have been reported missing and triggered a media campaign. They run risks if they are seen.

The story is beautifully told with characters introduced to demonstrate that human kindness exists and that even badly damaged people need not turn bad. The rule of law and authority is shown to be a blunt instrument that requires a humane interpretation, too often lacking.

This is a deceptively simple, nuanced tale that I sat up late to finish, needing to know the outcome of Sal’s actions and ongoing behaviour. It is a story that is both heart-warming and heart-rending.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Mick Kitson will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival with Adelle Stripe on Sunday 30th September 2018. For more information click here.

Book Review: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.


Jackie Law

Book Review: Strangers With The Same Dream

“I did my best. I came up short. Can any of you claim otherwise?”

Strangers With The Same Dream, by Alison Pick, is set in 1921 when the first kibbutzim were being established on land that would one day form a part of Israel. The tale provides some understanding of why the pioneering Jews felt entitled to settle in Palestine. It acknowledges the righteous anger their actions ignited among those they displaced, whose families had lived there for generations.

The story is told from three points of view.

Ida is a young Russian fleeing persecution following her father’s brutal murder, whose mother was assaulted by the perpetrators and thereafter encouraged her daughter to go ahead of her and her younger child to help found a homeland where Jews could live safely and feel they belong.

David is the de facto leader of the new kibbutz who, a decade previously, was among pioneers founding another community. He was required to leave following the death of a young girl.

Hannah is David’s wife and has to live with the anguish of collective decisions made in the name of expediency and equality, which rob women of autonomy over their bodies and offspring.

In coming to this story I bring decades old memories of a summer spent volunteering on a kibbutz during which I worked in the younger children’s accommodation block. As a non Jew I have always struggled to understand why, over the centuries, Jews have been persecuted. If my reading of this book is correct it is, to some extent, because they believe they are God’s chosen people and therefore have rights above other races and religions. They appear to regard Jewishness as their nation more than where they reside, wishing to breed only amongst themselves and preserve the ancient bloodline they believe goes back to biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah. They seek peaceful acceptance, to be allowed to contribute and function within society, but choose not to fully assimilate. They are not, of course, the only cultural entity seeking to hold themselves apart. And yet, exclusion fuels resentment.

The story opens with a narrator, a ghost, informing the reader that they did not commit suicide as those left behind were led to understand. This Being wishes the truth to be known claiming their honour is at stake.

Part One is Ida’s story. We are introduced to her in the straggly line of new settlers, mainly male and from Russia or Germany, as they wind their way through the Palestinian mountains. They reach the swampy lands where their new kibbutz is to be founded. They are challenged by the resident Arabs. The supplies the Jews carry includes barbed wire. Within the collective, workers may be regarded as equal but there will be a need to protect the land they are taking from those who many look down on with disdain, and also fear.

David tells the new settlers that they must surrender their possessions, that all will be shared and used according to need. This first test of the Utopian ideal lays bare the contamination of human desire and possessiveness. Ida has brought with her valuable candlesticks, heirlooms entrusted to her by her now longed for mother. Ida knows that if she surrenders them they will be sold to raise necessary funds. Jewish customs on high days make use of many revered objects yet the kibbutz ethos demands a relinquishing of personal assets and desires, for the common good.

In tableaus through the turning of the seasons the reader is offered glimpses of the challenges faced by the idealistic young people as they drain and clear the land for ploughing and planting whilst going hungry and sleeping in tents. Ida falls in love with Levi who becomes sick. Her early decisions come back to haunt her, and wreak wider damage she could not have foreseen.

From time to time further groups of settlers arrive. They are swarmed not for the skills and effort they offer the collective but for the effects they carry and must submit to be shared. There are resentments as talents do not receive the wider recognition they may achieve elsewhere. There are power plays at work as secrets are used as leverage.

Part Two is David’s story and was the most challenging to read as he is an intensely self-centred character. We learn why he had to leave the kibbutz he helped to found, and then how the events recounted in Ida’s tale are viewed through his eyes. David is the embodiment of the weaknesses of many men: lust, ego, a need for attention and laudation.

“All a boy wanted from his mother was comfort, and to be the centre of her universe. It was this they were trying to get back to their whole lives.”

There is an undercurrent of discontent, disagreements over how best to achieve the ideals for which the settlers strive, and what these may mean for the individual.

David talks of equality and freedom yet seeks out only the beautiful women. He regards them as existing for his gratification, including somewhat disturbingly his daughter, Ruth. Although he becomes irritated by the child’s demands he muses that he is pleased she is a girl rather than a boy. He quashes thoughts of his ineptitude as a leader and fears being eclipsed.

The third and final part tells the same story from Hannah’s point of view. By now we know that she has had to live through heartache due to David’s actions but not yet the extent of his betrayal and its terrible consequences. In such closed communities secrets will not stay buried. They bubble to the surface, expelled in part due to guilt and mistaken belief that others grant them the same attention and importance as the bearer.

The structure of the story is a familiar device jarred slightly by the occasional interjections from the ghost narrator. It is a compelling tale to read but not one that is entirely satisfying. David is almost too stereotypically unlikable (“It was not love, it was appetite.”) and there are many limited snapshots of characters whose roles then peter out.

What is offered though is an understanding of how the kibbutzim were created: the hardships endured by the founders in their quest for a homeland, how the land was taken. Having lived in one, albeit briefly and as an outsider, it would appear the discontents I observed in the 1980s existed from what was reminisced about, particularly by the more elderly kibbutzniks, as the exemplary beginning. As a fictionalised history of the region this makes for interesting reading.

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