Book Review: This Brutal House

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a book appears that teaches me of a culture I had been unaware existed, perhaps because it has never been referred to by the tribe I mix with – proof of the echo chambers in which we often inadvertently live. This Brutal House introduced me to Voguing – a ‘style of dance or performance that arose from Harlem ballroom cultures, as danced by African-American and Latino drag queens and gay men, from the early 1960s’ (source: Wikipedia). The story is based in New York City and features people who compete in Vogue Balls for money and kudos amongst peers.

Opening on the steps of City Hall, five elders and mothers are beginning a silent protest at the inaction of the authorities in locating their children who have gone missing.

“it should not only be pageant queens whose faces grace the back of milk cartons but girls who are trapped inside the bodies of boys; those who break out of their incarceration by wearing make-up, boys who like boys”

Within City Hall is an employee, Teddy, who lived with the mothers for a number of years. Through his access to official records he now knows more about what happened to some of his missing siblings. He has not shared these truths with the mothers, wishing to protect them as they once offered him a home.

The mothers are not blood mothers but rather men who take in children needing shelter and who they may then enter in the Vogue Balls. Additional funds are raised by offering sexual favours. Although groomed by the mothers, the children are willing participants. Those who do not wish to dress up in drag and dance can help out in cloakrooms or take on other supporting roles. The children live with the mothers having been rejected elsewhere.

“They were wanted at home; needed until they failed to live up to expectations of manhood. Most were loved, even if they were seldom heard.”

Teddy is assigned by his employer to keep an eye on the growing protest. He is long used to looking out for the mothers’ practical wellbeing.

“Teddy, with better penmanship and turn of phrase, who could reply to the electric company and the rent control board in the language they wanted rather than the guttural tongue by which we were raised.”

The reader is offered glimpses of what is happening and why the situation has been created and then escalates.

“We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard”

“The city deems us rodents”

The story unfolds from the points of view of the mothers, the children, various City employees and, most of all, Teddy. He is well aware of the corruption that exists in government and aims to use it to the mothers’ advantage. He observes potential threats and suggests to his colleagues that visible support could be publicly advantageous. He walks the political tightrope carefully.

“When did our police force augment into a military mindset, after funds allowed purchase of the first armour-plated SUV, or the second?”

The chapters told from Teddy’s point of view provide interesting background to life in his mothers’ apartment where, as a boy, he was smitten by one of the now missing children.

“He knows that if Sherry had stayed around she would have moved on of her own volition, her attention mercurial, his dissatisfaction, ancestral and chronic. He would always be unable to mend what needed to be mended.”

When the police respond to reports of the missing, they question the children’s provenance and nature of relationships – why boys have been taken in by older men.

Underscoring the narrative is the question of what is being offered and what taken. Choices are made but by those whose circumstances lead to limited options.

The mothers regard their actions as philanthropic, at least on the surface.

“By nature we are crowd-pleasers, craving the approval of our own, wishing the children to be schooled in our ways, independent, but cut from our cloth. How else can any of the old ways survive?”

Within the various houses that the Vogue mothers run there is a hankering after baubles and couture which are regarded as signifiers of beauty at the balls. The children are trained in how to walk provocatively, dance and strike a pose. They seek attention and validation. The mothers compete to train the child who will win for their house. They beat and berate. I pondered how such behaviour differed from coercion applied by blood families to bring perceived honour above individuals being themselves.

On the steps of City Hall, the protesters seek support and acceptance by a mainstream that struggles to see beyond men wearing wigs, dresses and make-up.

As points of view shift each character is presented as both an emotive and rounded person with issues and sensitivities and then as a derided facsimile whose vision remains blinkered. No easy answers are provided to offset what are often flawed decisions. Family – blood and adopted – are shown to be as culpable as individuals, and government.

Two of the chapters are set at the Vogue Balls. The structure of these is repetitive and tiring to read but succeeds in getting across the intensity of the occasions.

The writing elsewhere is stiletto sharp yet with almost poetic insight in places, although some of Teddy’s later streams of thought may have benefitted from more succinctness.

Any Cop?: A layered tale with a poignant turning point that demonstrates how misunderstood most people are, even by themselves.

“They speak as children sending their parents away, only to wait anxiously at the door once the thrill of the first few nights has worn off. Willing mischief, but knowing they’ll tire of it.”

“Something crumbles in the knowledge that you are no longer needed”

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Melting Point

To be clear from the outset, I didn’t get on with the style of writing in this short story collection. It is published by the mighty Salt Publishing so I started with high expectations. The stories are varied and eclectic. There are fine ideas yet I struggled with their execution. I will try to explain.

The opening tale, Crime and Bread, initially struck me as quirky. Imagery is a key feature as the reader is introduced to the protagonist, a female, who states

“But life only makes sense to me when I’m burning the candle at both ends, I can’t stand that dullness, when things go stale, I can’t stand that grey area. I need sequins, raisins, spices from Morocco, French wines. What would they say if they saw me tail-spinning out of control, intravenous needles hanging from me”

So, she is looking for adventure.

She shares her dreams, then a story she is reading that she phones a friend to discuss. She sees a poster in a window that she wishes to own. Rather than purchase it, something not beyond her means, she plans to steal. The narrative follows her thoughts, actions and their consequences. The language is rich and sensuous. The reader is left to make what they will of a nebulous denouement.

I moved on to the second offering, The Watery Gowns, which explores the transformative power of confronting personal fears. The protagonist, a female, is staying in a Greek villa offered to her for a few days by parents of a friend. She goes diving with locals. She borrows their little boat to get closer to the rusting remains of a shipwrecked freighter. Again, the language is rich in description and imagery. The female’s emotions are heightened by every experience.

In Erasing the Waves the language becomes more crude in places. Two men meet after many years. They had been good friends at university. One is professionally successful while the other is frustrated by the anxiety caused by  their less than successful freelance career. Conversation veers in a variety directions.

“He said nothing. For the first time I had a fear of the evening going wrong or ending in recrimination or tension, which was not what I wanted.”

This story has sections of extended dialogue, as do others in the collection. These felt stilted.

The next tale, Island, is clever, mind-bending even, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The men, with their sexual preoccupations, are stereotypes. The women’s bodies are described in detail. I grew bored at the party attended due to the characters’ shallow behaviour.

“I have a rather pessimistic view of the world at the moment. People eat shit, they watch and listen to shit and, above all, they talk shit. The average person is so stupid they probably wouldn’t be able to define what stupidity means.”

There is a futuristic element that is well done but then fell flat, perhaps deliberately. I was disappointed that a section I enjoyed was included for a valid reason but not pursued.

The variation in writing style affected flow and engagement – a disjointed narrative that even the rich language couldn’t compensate.

The Mosque of Córdoba offers beauty, calm and peace juxtaposed with hatred, murder and horror.

“What things had to happen to a man, what disfigurement had to take place for him to be willing to have his limbs scattered, for him to be willing to massacre and maim others? What false and grotesque heaven had been promised to him, had been sold to him […] for him to be willing to swear everlasting allegiance to a god synonymous with evil, hatred and murder?”

The author is presenting interesting and timely points but plot development stutters. Characters are shoe-horned in for effect.

The Chimera is another example of an interesting idea – again futuristic – spoiled for me by a sexual thread that felt unnecessary.

The Rich and the Slaughtered is an example of a real world problem being explored but in a structure I couldn’t engage with. Set in London’s RAC Club, a dinner is being recounted. It presents the self-entitlement of the privileged.

“The moment seemed to be indicating that all was as it should be once again and that the skeleton of social injustice had been shoved back once more where it belonged – in the cupboard marked Irrelevant.”

The themes are worthy but the fractured telling doesn’t quite come together.

The Meltdown takes a playful stab at modern architecture, and offers up an extreme case of a clash of musical tastes. The protagonist is a village schoolmaster with an interest in world cultures and history. He cannot understand those who are content.

“Would Marjorie Bowles, the local pharmacist, one day realise that life was not merely waking and working and supper and television, that another music played somewhere”

By now I realised that each of the stories in the collection offered not just one plot or one theme – that the frequent changes in direction were deliberate. This didn’t work for me as a reader.

I didn’t enjoy The Balls which felt predictable and, again, presented man driven by sex, and woman as an object to be attained and then owned. The characters lacked nuance and depth.

The Visitation has fishermen pondering on what could be living beneath their vessels after a grotesque creature is swept ashore. These men have accepted the horrors they live alongside, gossiping inanely of such things as a twelve year old relative who is pregnant. They fear the consequences of the natural more than the man made.

Alba introduces yet another beautiful young woman, as if love can only be offered to the aesthetically pleasing. She muses

“Sometimes I think you are in love with a sense of me as someone else, sometimes I think you don’t know me at all”

According to the metaphors employed, men only value what they can have sex with and looks are key. A ‘bovine woman’ is described as reading an ‘airport novel’ – terms employed as derogatory.

Again, in The Fever

“She was on the wrong side of forty, with depleted features and a beaten-up body, but not unattractive, not without a certain 3am allure”

I wondered if this tale, an American road trip, was intended as a pastiche.

The final story in the collection also jumped between plot threads, stilted dialogue and vivid imagery. Two sisters are travelling together in Sri Lanka. The horror of an evening changes their life view.

Aware that I am sensitive to what I regard as unnecessary sexual description, that I prefer my fiction to be character driven, this collection may simply not have been targeted at me. I won’t be retaining it for rereading.

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

Book Review: Turbulent Wake

“No one wants to admit that we are all fucked up, that we are all imperfect, vain, frightened, too easily flattered, so readily tempted. Christ, I sound like the Old Testament.
And yet we go on with our fictions, our made-up lives, trying to mirror some television or internet ideal of who we should be, what we should look like, how we should act.”

Turbulent Wake, by Paul E. Hardisty, opens in Canada where a young boy, Warren, is lying in bed hoping for the snowfall that will transform his neighbourhood. He is ‘warm and safe and excited’. He is at the beginning of a long life that he will recount in snapshots, explaining its course and decisions made with hindsight.

Each chapter tells the story of a key event in the boy’s life between his birth and his death. Interspersed with these are the reflections of his estranged son, Ethan, who is reading through the manuscripts, found in a house left to him in his father’s will. As each story is finished lingering questions are answered about Ethan’s childhood and the father he has long resented for repeatedly sending him away.

“You never really know anyone. Especially the ones you love.”

Ethan is an insurance salesman in his forties whose career has stalled. He lives in London, is divorced from the professionally successful Maria and hated by their ten year old daughter. He knows that his life is a mess but not how to fix it. He feels emasculated. Maria wanted a man who would willingly help with childcare and housework. She regards Ethan as selfish for not fitting her ideal.

“Everything now seems an exercise in control – hold back my emotions, rein in my temper, restrain the physical side of myself, that part of me that always felt the most natural, the most real.”

Warren led a life that took him around the world. As a child, his family moved regularly. Growing up, he wanted to be: a soldier, a pilot, a writer. Eventually he ends up an engineer. Warren survives horrific incidents and personal tragedy. He tries to be a good person but often fails. Around him he observes a world being increasingly ravaged and reflects on the effects of man’s egocentric behaviour.

“the forces of greed were inestimably more powerful than the endeavours of any one person.”

“he knew that none of these good and perfect places was safe from the cutting and mining and the plunder”

“what was irreplaceable had become inconsequential”

In learning of Warren’s personal life, viewing him through a lens few children are capable of accepting is their parent, Ethan’s life view subtly shifts. Warren comes to question how anyone can channel their actions to benefit those left behind given their and societies’ imperfections. He acknowledges his mistakes, recognised in hindsight. Warren speaks to Ethan through his writing as doing so in person would have required his son to listen without prejudice – something loved ones, those directly affected, can rarely achieve.

Neither Warren nor Ethan are inherently bad men but they struggle to fit into the expectations of the women and children in their lives. An underlying thread throughout the story is the change in how men are required to be.

“All he wanted to do was make her proud, be worthy of her. He wanted to change. That’s the secret. You have to want to change. The only thing was, she couldn’t change him enough.”

“who is this guy she thought she wanted? Be all the things a traditional man is supposed to be: strong, protective, financially secure, generous, all that shit. But she also wanted me to be, what can I say? […] I was never the man she thought I could become”

The writing is succinct and absorbing with thought-provoking themes and threads. Although many of these could be viewed as dispiriting there is a hopefulness in the direction they take. Pleasure and appreciation in the natural world is granted significance despite how it is being stripped and despoiled. There is a reminder that, whatever mistakes have been made, while there is life there is a chance to do better moving forward.

An affecting story of relationships and the inherent difficulty in openly communicating with those whose opinion is valued. More than this though it is a wider exploration of what position an individual chooses to occupy in their world, and the legacy this leaves for those who come after.

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

Book Review: Poems of the Mare Nostrum / Costa Nostra

Having recently read a number of crowd pleasing novels it felt good to sink my teeth into this challenging poetry collection. Subtitled, ‘Poems for the twilight of the shipwrecked’, the author opens by explaining the main title.

Places go by many names over time. What we now call the Mediterranean, the Romans referred to as Mare Nostrum, meaning Our Sea. Today, Costa Nostra refers to

“beaches, and the Pan-European defence of coastlines and borders: a machinery which only intensified in recent years.”

Desimone looks to ancient Greece for heroes and beasts

“all of whom seem to have enjoyed significantly more freedom to wander, especially in the light of today’s more clearly defined barriers”

This theme of borders and beasts, ancient and modern, along with the plight of immigrants and refugees and how this compares to the treatment of tourists, permeates a collection alive with anger and contempt for those who dehumanise others in order to protect their privileged existence, despite having more than enough available to share.

Set largely in and around the Mediterranean there are musings on who is allowed in and who must sneak across borders and the sea. The history of the area is referenced along with the many sites over which wars have been waged. There is mention of religious zealots who indulge in alcohol and harlots, against the texts they demand others adhere to. Tourists are mentioned – plugged into headphones rather than listening and engaging, who capture photographs rather than absorbing and dissolving their being into that moment’s experience.

When looking at art – illustrations by the author are included – there is consternation amongst the Muslim brotherhood over depictions of female nudes. Imposition does not just come from the capitalist west.

The poems explore freedom and what this means. They look at walls, borders and prescribed behaviour, at (in)tolerance of non conformity.

“there is nothing remote about control”

Man, with his war machines and war mentality, his striving for capitalist or religious ideals that he then wishes to protect against rebels and invaders, is compared to earlier societies in the area. The author asks if education is the eradication of tradition, and what is lost following polish and cleansing – of the masks donned in so called modernisation.

“erecting new office buildings,
jagged edifices of stress, vomitous,
against the sea”

“They expect to live forever;
they want to sleep with the famous
and to vote for absolute evil,
in the elections
of the continent of good ideas”

Several poems refer to the death of a gypsy woman on a French street, and the attitudes of those going to work in their smart suits who ponder when the body will be tidied away.

I particularly enjoyed Welfare Rat which explores the resentment felt by the well fed when asked to provide a means for the hungry to acquire food. This is followed by Poem Against Switzerland which rails against the country’s expense and values.

“Fear Swiss static: its glaciers birthed
streams of expensive water,
and echoed the birth
of the anti-dream

To the Swiss lands
of Evian for downing Prozac,
I by far prefer Greece:
Onira Gleekee they say before
sending you to bed, “Sugar on your dreams””

The striving for eradication of dirt and smell, for the spread of order and convention and distaste for anything else, is a repeated theme. Also tourists taking, then talking as if knowledgeable of a culture they briefly experience but have not inherited and had ingrained.

Later poems look at fear and how it is generated. How, over time, it has become hidden – a school of sharks transformed into submarines and torpedoes.

“The game of mongering dread, aversion:
today our masters call it “deterrence””

In amongst the anger were mentions I baulked at – the prostitutes, a reference to ‘bestseller housewife novels’, the ‘sexiness of fake blond’ – I disagreed.

I cannot say I got all the references, and nor could I make sense of many of the author’s line drawings. And yet, I understood the passion and resentment that a way of living was being imposed – striving for acquisition a driving force over acceptance.

The poems are best read as though being listened to – as urgent, spoken word poetry. The powerful collection gives more on each rereading.

“In the end,
Sun and Moon can destroy
and recreate like no human can.”

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Prote(s)xt.

Book Review: Expectation

“We fought for you. We fought for you to be extraordinary. We changed the world for you and what have you done with it?”

“Our best. We’re just doing our fucking best.”

Expectation, by Anna Hope, is a book that centres on three female friends and the complexities of their lives and relationships. It offers a reality check for those who believe close friendships exist under a perpetually glowing halo.

Set mostly in the early years of the twenty-first century, the three women attend university before the introduction of tuition fees. They live together in London before rent hikes make such carefree lives in the capital the preserve of the rich. Growing up, both they and their families encourage and take pride in their burgeoning potential. The women are not so well prepared for dealing with future disappointment or perceived failure.

Cate and Hannah meet in school where they are academic rivals. Whilst Cate is accepted into Oxford, Hannah ends up at her home university in Manchester where she meets the carelessly beautiful Lissa. Lissa’s mother is an artist, former teacher and activist. In raising her daughter she wished to instil an understanding that women can have lives outside the role of parenting.

The story opens in 2004 when the three friends are sharing a shabby townhouse in London. They are all single, enjoy good food and mediocre wine, attend small gigs and gallery openings, nurse hangovers with strong coffee. They are twenty-nine years old and believe they have time to become who they are going to be.

“They do not worry about nuclear war, or interest rates, or their fertility, or the welfare state, or aging parents, or student debt.”

“Life is still malleable and full of potential. The openings to the roads not taken have not yet sealed up.”

The timeline then jumps forward six years and much has changed. Hannah – married and financially successful – is undergoing her third round of IVF. Cate has moved out of London, to Canterbury where her in-laws live. She is struggling to cope with the exhaustion of caring for a six month old child who regularly interrupts her sleep. Lissa is auditioning for a role in a play that will enable her to leave her job in a call centre. Her longed for big break as an actress remains a dream.

Moving back and forth in time, snapshots are presented of key moments in the women’s lives: first meetings; holidays and wedding days; moments of conflict. A melancholy permeates the main, linear narrative. Each of the friends looks at what the others have achieved and compares their own life unfavourably.

“why should it matter what her friends are doing? Why should her happiness be indexed to theirs? But it is.”

Hopes and love, sharply focused on a particular wedding day, fade. The paths the women’s lives have taken are not what each believes they deserve. They try to swallow the bitterness they feel, to cope with their current reality. They turn to their friends but do not find the succour they crave, which leads to resentment.

The brief portrayals of the older generation throughout the story offer wider context and understanding. It is only in rare glimpses that any of the characters can see the others as they see themselves. Parents are blamed and also envied. There is a longing for the success that was expected.

The writing is subtly evocative in its depiction of life’s challenges. The author is skilled in her use of language. The structure and flow are well balanced, although the pervasive despondency at times felt oppressive. There is a raw honesty in how the three friends regard each other and the mistakes they make.

An interesting study of varied relationships and the difficulties encountered when individual needs are not understood, acknowledged and met. Although the protagonists’ lack of contentment at times felt dispiriting, this was a poignant and candid read.

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

Book Review: The Carer

The Carer, by Deborah Moggach, is a bittersweet story of two sexagenarian siblings. It presents their personal travails as they navigate the murky waters of remaining independent whilst dealing with a frail elderly parent. Their eighty-five year old father, James, is a retired Professor of Particle Physics. He was married for sixty-four years to the equally intelligent but now dead Anna. Since breaking his hip, James cannot manage the stairs in his cottage so sleeps alone on a single bed at street level. His children, Robert and Phoebe, wish to continue with their own lives unencumbered by their father’s practical needs. They therefore hire a live-in carer to enable him to stay in his own home several hours drive from where they live.

Finding a carer willing to move to a sleepy Cotswold village and give James the attention he requires proves a challenge. After a couple of false starts they find Mandy, an overweight and garrulous fifty-two year old who arrives with impeccable references. The recently morose James is transformed under her care. Gone are the stimulating conversations and intellectual musings. In their place is an interest in village gossip, scratch cards, daytime TV and visits to shopping centres.

Robert and Phoebe retreat feeling both relieved and guilty. Robert is writing a novel in his garden shed in London, avoiding his beautiful and successful wife who goads him about his failures. Phoebe, an artist living in a small Welsh town where every second person harbours artistic tendencies, is indulging in an affair with a local woodsman. Both siblings feel frustrated at the direction their lives have taken, blaming parents they remember from childhood as neglectful.

Mandy berates Robert and Phoebe for still harbouring grudges against their parents. She has little time for such self-pity when they are farming out their father’s care. As her employers, the siblings do not appreciate being spoken to so plainly. Privately they worry that what Mandy is saying may be true.

Story chapters are told from key characters’ points of view. The reader learns the bare bones of the siblings’ backstories, their thwarted desires and concerns. As Robert and Phoebe go through their days, James and Mandy appear to be getting on well. There is, however, a growing suspicion that the affable carer is not trustworthy. Phoebe and Robert prevaricate over whether they are being paranoid or if they should be concerned. And yet, do the family want to lose a carer doing a job they are unwilling to take on themselves?

There is a gentle humour in the writing as key events unfold and threads are spun together. The author captures the pathos of aging, both the elderly James and his no longer young children. It is a nicely structured depiction of some of the challenges and risks inherent when bringing a stranger into intimate contact with a loved one. There are gently mocking observations to lighten any darkness in the tale.

The final third of the book adds an unexpected dimension. It offers an interesting exploration of familial secrets and their impact on relationships.

I found the pace somewhat slow in places but then this is not to be the sort of book I normally read. The topic is timely given our aging population. A complex issue wrapped within a wider, droll tale – easy but not empty entertainment.

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

Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

“the fact that what is it with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff”

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is mostly written in the form of a single sentence, containing many commas, and running across almost one thousand pages. Add in the notes at the end, expansion of the acronyms scattered throughout the text, and it easily breaks this tally. It also weighs more than a kilogram – a Big book in every sense of the word.

I mention that it is mostly written as a single sentence. There is a story within about a mountain lion that runs in parallel. This is presented in a more conventional format and provided relief from the frantic intensity of the stream of information and opinion pouring from the narrator’s head. The two tales increasingly segue and enable a devastating denouement. The final line was breathtaking, and not just because the book was finally finished.

I recently read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession and it was like being enveloped in a welcome hug – it is quietly splendid. While Leonard and Hungry Paul is a story that makes me feel good about the world, Ducks, Newburyport is its opposite. Over the course of its thousand pages it lists many, many ways in which man is a scourge on our planet. I’m still not sure I can forgive the author for putting the picture into my head of the teenagers with a baby dolphin – just one horrific scene in a multifarious outpouring. By the end of the book I was believing the world would be a better place if we all followed the lead of several minor characters and removed ourselves. This tome is depressing.

Set in Ohio, America, the sentence is the internal monologue of a middle-aged wife and mother of four children. She bakes cinnamon rolls and pies in her home, supplying select eateries around her local town. She keeps hens in her backyard. She misses her dead parents, especially her mum. We learn of her history and current concerns between ephemera meandering around such subjects as: baking, films, actors, popular culture, books she has read to her children. She watches the news and bemoans the state of modern America – the atrocities enabled by American gun laws and the thoughtless self-entitlement of humans.

“the fact that nothing you do seems innocent anymore, the fact that even baking a pie has many ramifications”

The woman’s history does provide interest. She has lived in Europe as well as America. She has suffered serious health issues. The facts and feelings engendered by these nuggets sown within the digressive text need to be sieved from the stream of facts that are often inane: types of pie, the contents of cupboards, shopping lists. She details her dreams, her worries about her children and the type of mother she is.

“the fact that I’m only doing it to help my family, and yet to make any profit on these pies, I have to ignore my poor family half the time”

The reader is taken on trips to a shopping mall and a visit to the dentist but mostly the woman is in her kitchen, baking and watching news on TV. She is thinking about her shyness, looking back on all the incidents in her life she feels bad about, remembering her parents. She is considering the way Amish people live and how simple their lifestyle appears.

There is a great deal of repetition: polluted water supplies, bottled water, plastic pollution; how inspectors drive around gathering samples and thereby contribute to air pollution; cruelty to animals, factory farming, the billions of chickens raised in cages to sate man’s wasteful food preferences.

“the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”

The narrator is neurotic – well meaning but selfish. The narrative is all over the place and this appears to be deliberate – that thoughts will wander as connections with memory are triggered by current events.

“the fact that I do feel guilty though, bringing kids I love into a world we’ve trashed”

This trashing of the world along with the senseless cruelties inflicted by man are, of course, done for money – personal gain.

“the fact that it was the costliest natural disaster in Ohio history, the fact that it’s always about money, the fact that they think that’s the only thing that interests people, the fact that they can’t just talk about a violent storm, they always have to translate the damage into cash terms”

The woman regularly mentions her money worries, blaming the cost of medical care. She worries about environmental issues but mainly their impact on human health.

Trump is mentioned along with his Make America Great Again slogan. This is backed up by national educators’ desire to instill patriotism, optimism and contentment in their students.

“the fact that a lot of American history is nothing to be proud of, the fact that it makes you pretty sick, but my students didn’t want to hear any of that, the fact that they wanted everything to make a pretty picture, upbeat”

To get to the story there is a need to read through page after page of frenetic, often upsetting and then inane, tortuous facts.

“the fact that celery puts so much effort into being celery, just to end up filling the plastic lunch box of a not particularly hungry American kid”

I wondered why this structure had been chosen. It is audacious and ambitious but felt done for the sake of it.

Amongst the many books I have not read, or not finished, are tomes such as Don Quixote and Ulysses – books that certain people seem to believe should be appreciated by anyone who wishes to have their opinions on literature taken seriously. Ducks, Newburyport may well end up sitting amongst these supposed greats. Making it through to the last page certainly felt like an achievement.

There is much to ponder within its pages but also a great deal that felt like filler. Had the book been a quarter of its size, had it told the family story and the lion story but without quite so much litany, then perhaps I would have been more impressed. As it is, the sheer number of words and the form in which they were written overwhelmed the beating heart of what is a devastating take-down of human consciousness and behaviour. The issues confronted may be worthy, but I am glad to have finished reading.

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press.