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.

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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.

Live on air – BBC Wiltshire summer reads segment, Week 2

After last week’s nerve wracking debut I returned to BBC Wiltshire in Swindon earlier this week to take part in my second live radio guest appearance on the James Thomas afternoon show summer reads segment. This week I was asked to recommend a non fiction book and chose Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers, published earlier this year by Elliott & Thompson.

To open I was asked about the books I have been reading since last week and we talked briefly about What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran, published by Nine Arches Press. Coincidentally, Josephine lives in the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge which I hope was of interest to listeners.

I then moved on to discuss Under the Rock, also giving a brief mention to the author’s fictional work set close by, in Yorkshire’s Upper Calder Valley, The Gallows Pole which is published by Bluemoose Books and won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018.

Asked what I would be reading next I mentioned: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe, and Sal by Mick Kitson. Both of these authors will be at the Marlborough Literature Festival next month discussing their debut novels, an event listeners may well wish to attend.

If interested you may listen to the radio segment, which lasts just over 7 minutes, here.

It was heartening to be told as I left the studio that positive comments had been made about my choice of books as they are not familiar titles. I am also pleased that I have been invited back to recommend another summer read next week.

Book Review: What Are You After?

“Forgive me for the sin of making up my own identity; for not sitting easily inside a category; for leaving school with nothing; for learning languages from cassette tapes I borrowed from a public library; for liking literature and art and orchestras; for stuffing my face with a free university education before it ran out.

I’m far away from my council house. If I turned up there, they wouldn’t know me.”

What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran, is a collection of poems and prose poetry on love, life, family and self. It explores grief, loss, belonging and not belonging. It posits that memories are not what make us but rather that they provide a script from which we may write ourselves.

Subjects include marriage, class and religion. In the opening poem, Honeymoon, the narrator is taking her new husband north to visit a coterie of widowed aunts, noting how differently she and her partner are treated now that they have said wedding vows.

“my father’s brothers dead,
their crucifixes still hanging. In each house
we were given the double bed,
my aunties inviting us to fornicate

on concave mattresses, dead men’s
seed. Had we come one week before,
you would have been given nothing
but dusty blankets on a downstairs floor.”

The deaths of parents and unborn children are movingly presented, affecting waking and sleeping dreams. Children subsequently born carry with them as they grow a shadow of the losses that predate them.

The narrator of the poems investigates their own heritage. From the titular poem:

“A German seaman who abandoned his family
A seaside town in the North West of England
A new wife with a Scottish surname
English-speaking children
Three baker’s shops
Blond hair and blue eyes strong in the gene pool
Something for my children.”

The unimportance of possessions is conveyed as the narrator steps into their life outside of the already bereaved family circle.

Form is effectively played with in Telephony, a reverse poem.

Political issues are touched on, such as in “Police Say Sorry” which lists many apologies made for the behaviour of supposed law enforcers who earnestly claim, time and time again, that each transgression cannot be allowed to reoccur.

Harry Potter earns a mention, as do immigrants and their valid if too often ignored attempts to assimilate. Torrential is a powerful thought-piece on attitudes to suicide.

The anthology reads through as a personal history. One gets the impression that the narrator has had to be strong growing up under difficult circumstances and will not now suffer fools gladly. In Psychologies of Economy Ham reasons for donating to a food bank come under scrutiny. Certain poems do not offer comfortable reading.

Attitudes towards the elderly are included. Schooldays are remembered. Gavrilo is set during a history lesson, each group in the class of girls – the cool, the popular, the sporty, the nerds – thinking about their plans for the weekend. Unusually the remainder of the class earns a mention.

“Unremembered girls somewhere in the room […]

Drawing hearts and flowers around his name.
Not picked for netball teams
or parties or cinema trips”

Searing at times but wholly relevant the collection both moves and challenges. Beautifully presented it deserves wide consideration, and continues to reward on rereading.

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

Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One, and imprint of Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: Weight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Why then did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried? I realise now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realise that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed of light power – to break that gravitational pull.”

Each time we tell a story from our lives we tell it anew. Aspects may remain but nuances change. Our present is heavy with all that has gone before and all we aspire to become. We each carry the weight of our individual worlds.

In the introduction to Weight, the author writes

“When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended.”

Thus we get a retelling of the tale redolent with Winterson’s personal experiences of living under the burden of her upbringing, and the great effort required to be someone who does not meekly follow what is be expected. Atlas’s burden was a punishment for daring to defy the gods. Winterson wished to step out from under the world she had been moulded to inhabit.

“We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.”

The story opens with an exploration of space and time, the creation of the universe. It introduces Atlas, the offspring of Poseidon and Mother Earth. Atlas was one of the Titans, half man and half god. He resided within the perfection of Atlantis until this was no longer enough.

“Everything that man invents he soon turns to his own destruction. You could have chosen differently. You did not.”

Atlas fought the gods for what he regarded as his freedom. His punishment was to forevermore carry the weight of the world he loved on his shoulders.

The reader is then introduced to Heracles, the Hero of the World. This hero is depicted as unusually strong whilst embodying every weak trait known to man. He is crude and lacks control of his desires and appetites. His part of the story makes for unpleasant reading.

Heracles asks for Atlas’s help, offering a trade that could suit them both. Having got what he requires he tricks Atlas and leaves him with all of time to mull over the lessons learned.

The writing is a mix of the poetic, the profound and the playful. Contemporary elements are woven through to good effect. Heracles’ self-centredness, his ability to quash feelings of guilt over his behaviour, is all too recognisable.

“Every man assumes that what is valuable to himself must be coveted by others.”

I particularly enjoyed the denouement which neatly brought the myth into the modern realm.

Any Cop?: The tale was not as wholly satisfying to read as The Penelopiad, the previous Canon I reviewed, but the layers and musings provide a thoughtful retelling.

 

Jackie Law