Book Review: My Mother’s Secret

My Mother’s Secret, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s third psychological thriller. It is told from three points of view and across two timelines, opening with the pivotal event from which the rest of the tale unfolds. Unusually for this genre it took several chapters before I was fully engaged. A lot of characters are introduced in a short space of time and I kept having to flick back to work out who was who. Once I had placed each alongside their contemporaries I was able to settle and enjoy the sequence of teasers and reveals.

There are good reasons why so many psychological thrillers become best sellers. They are engaging, easy to read and offer a puzzle to solve. This book is well paced, smoothly written and typically structured. The settings are brought to life becoming both comforting and threatening as the plot requires.

The earlier timeline involves Lizzie, a young wife and mother who leaves her family home – a remote cottage in the Lake District – for a few days each week to work in Leeds. Here she gets caught up in a violent crime that changes her life. The chapters telling her story explain the before and after of this incident, what she must do to survive and protect those she loves.

The later timeline is narrated by Emma and her fourteen year old daughter, Stella. Emma is neurotic, her instability manifesting in overprotecting her two children. Stella is starting to rebel against the restrictions imposed due to her mother’s condition and her father’s complicity. It is notable that both Stella and her younger sister, Ava, display their own anxieties, likely instilled by the manner in which they are required to live under the guise of keeping them safe.

Emma works at a bakery and there are many descriptions of food, not something I have an interest in but likely to appeal to certain readers. Her husband, Jack, attempts to impose his healthy eating ideas on his family. He has provided them with a lavish home and likes to keep it and its residents in a manner that suits his ideas of beauty and order. This is a loving family but one that relies on a strict code of parental control.

Much of the story is set in and around Long Ashton on the outskirts of Bristol. The descriptions of place are rich – aesthetics are held in high regard.

Emma’s story begins with a chance encounter with a man from her past. She arranges to meet him at Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near to where she lives. Stella notices a change in her mother and decides to investigate. What she discovers threatens their carefully cultivated stability. Alongside this, Stella enters into a relationship with a boy at school. She and her mother try to guard their secrets, not easy in a family used to strictly monitoring all activities.

Despite correctly guessing the various reveals in advance, this was an enjoyable read. That is not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles – such as the dual mention of the Moorside power plant, which seemed unnecessary, and the changes in wording when the prologue is retold. These are small details though in what is a well crafted addition to a popular genre. Fans of domestic noir will likely enjoy.

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

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Book Review: Bristol

Bristol is an anthology of experimental prose poetry from the wonderfully subversive publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, under their DW Cities imprint. Created in collaboration with an array of literary groups, each book in the series is accompanied by a local event held in the city featured. Like the writing, the idea may be innovative but it is satisfying that such a venture is made possible by supporters and contributors. The literary world benefits from original thinking.

This slim title contains diverse work from six writers. It opens with a concept piece from Sarer Scotthorne which I interpreted as a commentary on the effects of zero hours contract relationships. There is a feeling of risk and disconnection – of those who sign up being expendable. Hours are described as ‘missing’, method as ‘island gropes’ or ‘into a kind of abyss’. It is strangely disconcerting.

Vik Shirley offers a series of poems on celebrity (Betsy) and their varied acolytes (vigilantes). Betsy is a has been whose continued fame relies on her intense following. They demand certain standards for inclusion and have become a power in themselves. The real Betsy is no longer needed for the vigilantes to continue as influencers.

David Turner sets his pieces in the Tate Modern and provides an entertaining alternative commentary on famous art installations. They are playful in their treatment of the conceits and rage of well known artists and their work.

Paul Hawkins’ contribution is more opaque. I took from it a cynical despair at continuing demand for vanilla living and writing.

“the world is full of climbers
putting the win on instagram

hucksters pumping sherbet after sherbet
of effects into the stratosphere

balm ready
going super soft option for the whining win”

Lizzy Turner opens with a quartet of diary entries highlighting the problems of living with anxiety. She then blacks out increasing sections, thus bringing to the fore the ongoing darkness of such a condition. It is a powerful evocation.

The final contributor is Clive Birnie whose bio explains he works with appropriated text. His six interrelated poems are about deals and money-making. Their protagonist, The Lemon Squeezer, is a ‘cease and desist investor’. There is mention of disgrace and deteriorating conditions, of catastrophe ‘becoming commoditised’ – advise given:

“A fool should sell himself, while
he still has something left to sell.”

One of the difficulties of reviewing experimental writing is a concern that my interpretations may be wide of the mark intended. Such is the risk taken by any writer publishing their work. As a reader I enjoyed unpacking this collection. It benefits from rereads and offers much to consider.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the editor, Paul Hawkins.

Book Review: Sight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“how simple things would be if only I could know myself or others; […] but instead there is only this excavation, a digging in the dark: precarious, uncertain, impossible to complete.”

Jessie Greengrass’s short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, demonstrated her confidence and competence as a writer of innovative, piercing fiction. In Sight, her debut novel, the clarity and conviction of her prose is again in evidence. Written mostly in the first person, with occasional digressions to explore the histories of key medical advancements – x-rays, human anatomy, psychoanalysis – it reads as an intensely personal, non linear series of reflections. It is a search for knowledge, an attempt to make sense of the most challenging emotions – the multifaceted viscerality of love, desire and grief.

The story opens with the narrator “pregnant again”, watching through a window as her toddler daughter, and partner, Johannes, play in the garden. She feels the distance between them, a distance that she recognises will increase as her daughter ages. She understands that this is as it should be, that a child should be raised able to one day cope without parents.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is at the heart of the novel. The reader is offered snapshots of the narrator’s childhood, of time spent with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst who had raised her child alone. It was only later that the narrator came to understand that her mother was also a daughter, and that the grandmother was trying to help and protect her, especially when the mother’s errant husband finally left for good. At the time the young girl felt resentment that she was being kept from her loving mother by a grandmother who required the child to accept more independence.

The inner monologue by which the story is told may be introspective but the author demonstrates her ability to articulate the essence of emotion without hyperbole. Even when recounting the long months leading to her mother’s death and her subsequent grief – a time when she spent day after day in the Wellcome Library – she is seeking an understanding of how she reacted to events.

“The things which I learned without noticing all through that year recur to me still, those images from medical textbooks, the bodies dissected or described, the case notes and the cabinets and all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves, and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key”

The narrator is “young, adrift, bereft” when she meets Johannes. After a time, the possibility of having their child is considered. The narrator desperately wants to be a mother but fears that this is for selfish reasons rather than for the benefit of the being she would create. She also fears the inevitable changes motherhood would bring; the uncertainty of what she would become and how she would cope with this. Johannes is supportive, willing to accept whatever she decides but requiring that a decision be made to end the unsettling prevarication.

After her mother died, the narrator disposed of her possessions. She retained memories rather than mementos. Pregnant, watching her daughter she ponders:

“I wonder what they will keep of me, later; what off-cut memories will remain to be re-stitched, their resemblance to myself a matter of perspective. I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused.”

The depth of feeling and insights offered into the distances that exist in even the closest of relationships make this an intense, compelling read.

Any Cop?: The writing is rich yet pithy, the story stark in places yet emotionally resonant.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Under the Rock

The first thing a reader will notice on picking up Under the Rock is that it is beautifully produced: the vibrant detail and embossing on the cover; the purple end papers; the clear, well spaced print. Within a few pages it becomes clear that the writing is something special too. That subtitle, The Poetry of a Place, is deserved.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

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

Book Review: What Happened To Us

What Happened To Us, by Ian Holding, is a slow burner building to an intensity that lingers beyond the final page. Set in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in the tinderbox of an approaching election, the narrator is a young man recalling a pivotal few weeks in his life when he was thirteen years of age. Danny is a privileged white kid, heavily influenced by parents who are resentful at the changes being made in a country that no longer protects their interests. Although vaguely aware of the issues they must now face, the teenager is cosseted by an exclusive community that eschews its darker skinned neighbours.

The story opens with Danny cycling near his home making a nuisance of himself. He recognises that his actions are childish. He is bored and irritated by a relentless heatwave. As he makes his way back to the large, gated property where he lives with his parents and older sister, Rebecca, he becomes aware of three men heading in the same direction. He is agitated by the thought that they seek retribution for his recent foolish behaviour. When the gate bell rings while he cools down in the back garden swimming pool he ignores it, fearing a reprimand he prefers not to face.

Danny’s family life is happy and largely carefree. He harbours the usual teenage angsts – an increasing interest in girls, how he appears amongst his peers, irritation at the demands made by his parents – but with a stable home life is shielded from wider worries. He shares porn clips in a WattsApp group with friends from his expensive school, plays FPS games on his Playstation, messages the girl next door who he occasionally crosses the wall to meet in secret. It is a life of braais and tennis club and family time, a routine made comfortable by the oft berated staff who live out of sight at the edge of the garden.

The first hint of unease caused by the trio of overall clad men is followed by further phantom ringing at the family gate and then a suggestion by a coloured classmate that Danny’s father is in financial difficulties. What transpires is that the government is threatening to confiscate the business assets of the white community. Danny’s father is attempting to counter this by partnering with the classmate’s father, a wealthy banker with powerful political affiliates.

With all this in the background, and the heatwave exhausting the close-knit community, Danny’s home is broken into while the family sleep. Locked in his room for his own safety, the boy can only guess at the nature of the invasion. The fallout is a fracturing of everything on which his easy life has been based. Added to this is Danny’s unspoken guilt. He fears that the attack, which has left his sister traumatised, is the work of the three men, and that he is to blame.

The unfolding story is skillfully written with a continuing ramping up of tension. In the aftermath of the robbery, Rebecca is the family’s main concern. Danny’s parents are unmoored by their inability to protect. Their boy is sidelined. His coping strategies are harrowing. His determination to somehow help leads to a devastating conclusion.

Contemporary Zimbabwe with its beauty, heat, widespread poverty and political difficulties is sympathetically evoked whilst acknowledging the challenges faced by all who live there. There is selfishness and racism, corruption and violence, children being raised to perpetuate their parents’ prejudices. The voice of the narrator comes across as authentic, a recognition of the difficulty adults have communicating with young people, and vice versa. The tale offers a window into the psychological damage caused when property cannot be protected and personal safety is at constant risk.

This is a powerful, haunting novel in which setting and culture are key. The heart of it though is a wider perspective on the side effects of conflict and political upheaval. It is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Old Baggage

In Lissa Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Heart, the reader is briefly introduced to Mattie Simpkin, an elderly lady who was once a suffragette. Old Baggage is set a decade earlier and offers further details on the life of this idiosyncratic character. Neither book relies on the other for its story but, having enjoyed the earlier work, I was delighted by the links that exist.

The tale opens in 1928. Mattie is walking across Hampstead Heath when she is assailed by a memory, her momentary distraction enabling a thief to make off with her handbag. In attempting to waylay the malefactor she injures a girl who then threatens legal action. Mattie’s good friend, Florrie Lee, steps in to help, offering the girl, Ida Pearse, a position in the house where she lives with Mattie. Florrie works as a Health Visitor and is the more practical and empathetic of the pair. She grew up in a poor household whereas Mattie came from a wealthy family. This disparity is more significant than Mattie can realise. The causes she cares about are linked to female equality and aspiration which can be stymied by family circumstances as much as legislation.

Mattie went to university in a time when these institutions refused to confer a degree on a woman, however well she did in their exams. As a suffragette she was imprisoned and badly treated leading to a lifelong contempt for upholders of law and order. When she sees how little Ida knows about the rights Mattie has spent her life fighting for, the older woman decides this is indicative of an important matter that she can address. She places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting girls to join a club which she will use to propagate her views. As she says to a friend:

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is not the only suffragette looking to influence the young people of London. The idea for the girls’ club was inspired by an encounter with another old friend whose outlook has moved towards Fascism. The two groups, which the ladies set up, hold their meetings on the Heath and soon become rivals leading to a confrontation. Mattie has been foolish in her dealings with the attendees at her club – favouring one for personal reasons – with cataclysmic results.

The minor plot threads and contextual references add depth to what is an entertaining and accessible story. Mattie is a wonderful character, her drive, intelligence and willingness to take responsibility for her headstrong actions and their consequences an inspiration. Florrie offers a different perspective, quietly supporting and mopping up after her friend. The varied milieu offer a stark reminder of the importance of the welfare state.

It takes skill to write a book that is congenial and captivating whilst offering the reader interesting topics to chew on. The attributes and actions of the characters demonstrate how multifaceted an individual can be, and how often one judges on incomplete information. Old Baggage is funny, tender, fervent and affecting. It does not shy away from important issues but neither does it preach. It is a joy to read.

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

Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

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