Book Review: In the Blink of an Eye

In the Blink of an Eye, by Ali Bacon, is set in 19th century Edinburgh. A breakaway group of 400 ministers have left the established Kirk to form a free church. David Octavius Hill, a respected and lauded artist in the city, offers to paint a portrait of these men of faith. His commission is to commemorate what is being referred to as the Great Disruption. It becomes the bane of his career.

Capturing likenesses in sketches would be a time consuming process for all so Hill accepts the help of a man newly arrived in Edinburgh. Robert Adamson uses his camera to capture images quickly on specially treated paper. The skills required to produce these calotypes fascinate Hill who recognises the potential for artistry. The two men become friends as well as colleagues and their work is soon sought after by many of Edinburgh’s high society.

The story told covers the period from just before the Disruption, in 1843, to the first public display of the painting 23 years later. Although many details of lives and interactions are imagined by the author, they are based around known facts about Hill and those in his circle. Only two of the large cast of characters are entirely fictitious. All the paintings and calotypes referred to exist.

Adamson was born and raised in St Andrews, suffering regular bouts of ill health. His family are concerned when he moves to Edinburgh – Auld Reekie for the sake of his career. His part in the tale provides a fascinating insight into early photographic techniques and its growth in popularity – calotypes purchased become valued family mementos.

Hill is a widower with a young child, Charlotte. He is portrayed as a charismatic man, a favourite with the ladies. These ladies include a family friend who is curious about how things work and assists Adamson, an aspiring artist who takes up sculpture, and an art critic who divides her time between Edinburgh and London. At a time when women were expected to marry, these characters live remarkably independently. They are potential love interests but also rounded people.

Also referenced in the story is George Meikle Kemp, the architect of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument which was under construction at the time of the Disruption.

The structure of the story allows the reader to drop in on the lives of key characters and watch how they develop over two decades. Friendships wax and wane. There are marriages and deaths. Art in its many forms is a key influence but rarely provides the desired fulfilment. Love in its many forms is underrated until a loved one departs.

The story brought to life many landmarks in the city as well as the lives of the historic residents featured. I was saddened to read that one grand house mentioned, Rockville, was demolished in 1966.

While cities evolve, certain attitudes remain. The views of the privileged towards those living in the overcrowded old town tenements, especially when compared to the fishwives of Leith, offer a picture of moral concern with little understanding. This felt timely given the many homeless in the city today.

The writing is adroit and taut, the storytelling subtle and affecting. The reader will become invested in Hill’s predicaments as he ages. Characters who appear briefly add to the depth and interest, there is much in their inclusion that will linger. This is a tale that is well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

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Book Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

Set in the small French border town of Saint-Louis, where many of the residents have lived all their lives, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of Manfred Baumann – a socially awkward loner – and his dealings with local detective, Georges Gorski. Manfred is a creature of habit who, most lunchtimes and evenings, frequents the Restaurant de la Cloche near the town marketplace. Here he observes the staff and clientele while enjoying predictable meals and glasses of wine. When a young waitress at the establishment fails to show up for work, the detective questions each of the regulars. Not wishing to be drawn into the investigation, Manfred is economical with the truths he tells. Georges needs to work out if the information withheld is of any importance.

Both of Manfred’s parents died when he was a child leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents. He lost the one great love of his life while still a teenager. Now a bank manager in his thirties, Manfred has found ways of coping with his needs. The habits he has formed provide daily structure but rarely happiness.

Georges decision to join the police force went against the plans his parents had worked towards. The job is a niggling source of annoyance for his wife. Haunted by a murder case from his early career, Georges is determined to uncover Adèle’s fate. With few leads the case is at risk of going cold.

The story opens with a scene set in the Restaurant de la Cloche that introduces the reader to many of the key characters. It then follows Manfred through a typical weekend during which he is shown to have several distasteful habits. While the descriptions provide useful background I considered some repugnant.

After Adèle’s disappearance the pace of plot development picks up. Chapters looking back at Manfred’s childhood are also of increasing interest. The varying timelines have crossover characters, often not explicitly stated. The effects of parochial life, prejudice and gossip are well evoked.

The initial narrative and somewhat slow to start action had me wondering why the book came so highly recommended. These concerns quickly dissipated once details of such things as bodily emissions were subsumed by the dark undercurrents of unexplained hours. Manford’s view of himself is shown to be at odds with the casual opinions of acquaintances, whose own standing amongst their peers proves delusional.

Not a typical crime thriller, the strengths of this story are in character depth and development. What starts as exposition grows into a much more subtle discourse. The denouement is deft if poignant with a trademark afterword by the author. Worth sticking with for a tale that will linger.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is published by Contraband.

Book Review: Haverscroft

Haverscroft, by S.A. Harris, is a deliciously creepy ghost story. It opens with the Keeling family – Kate, Mark and nine year old twins, Sophie and Tom – moving into a big, old house on the edge of a small town in Suffolk. Having renovated their London home the couple are aware of the work ahead of them. Their relocation has mostly been driven by Mark with Kate agreeing for the sake of their faltering marriage. She has been ill for many months but is now determined to stop taking her medication and return to her former, capable self.

The old house creaks and groans but there are other noises that cannot be explained. The children are scared so Kate must try to be rational despite her own fears. During the working week Mark still resides in the city. With no internet and patchy mobile reception the couple struggle to communicate. Kate is concerned that if she tells her husband of the malevolent presence she sometimes feels he will believe she is relapsing and stop listening to anything she says.

The Keelings have kept on the former owner’s cleaner and gardener, with the cleaner soon becoming a friend. Through her Kate learns more about the history of the place and those who have lived there. The Havers family harboured dark secrets yet few in the gossipy town seem willing to share the detail with Kate. She starts to research on her own. Each new discovery increases the tension with Mark.

The story is told from Kate’s perspective, her shaky mental state leaving the reader unsure of the veracity of the narration. The unfolding tale puts many under suspicion. The denouement offers potential explanations without taking from the chilling portrayal.

The writing is taut and fluid. Both the atmosphere of the old house and the wider family dynamics are evoked with skill. Whatever one thinks of a place harbouring the spirit of past deeds this story could throw shade over certainties. Recommended, but exercise caution if reading after dark.

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

Book Review: Good Day?

Good Day? by Vesna Main is written mostly as dialogue. The conversations transcribed are between a long married, middle aged couple. She is an author and ardent feminist. He is an academic, researching women in the Labour Party. He is also his wife’s first reader. Each day they discuss developments in her work in progress. The novel being written is about a long married, middle aged couple, Richard and Anna, whose marriage has hit difficulties following Richard’s revelation that he has been sleeping with prostitutes.

The husband is unhappy that his wife appears to be basing her characters on them. He is concerned that she is revealing too much that is true and that their friends and colleagues who read her work will assume it is autobiographical. Also, that acquaintances will find themselves within the story and feel insulted. The wife denies the extent of these allegations but still takes personally her husband’s critiques of Anna’s controlling and self-centred personality. She insists that Anna is lovely and that it is Richard who should be condemned. Her husband’s sympathy for the man, his assertion that Anna shoulder some responsibility for Richard’s actions, creates tension.

The dialogue tells the story of the work in progress and also of the real life couple. Art mirrors life but does life mirror art? There is a lingering question over how much impact stories have on a reader’s subsequent actions.

It is interesting to view how a writer constructs a novel – the conceits and concerns. Ideas are lifted from other tales already written.

The unusual structure is used to impressive effect. The sensitivities of the writer and her irritation at the male perspective are recounted with candour and wit. By telling a story within a story there are blurred lines between fact and fiction. The loneliness and frustration inherent when couples cannot convey their thoughts and feelings in a way that garners affinity is skillfully portrayed.

Within the tale are many interesting diversions. The author explores themes such as: addiction, obsessive behaviour, rewriting memory when exposed to new information. There are threads on class and the affectations of the intelligentsia. There are challenges to thinking that places itself as the moral high ground.

As someone who dislikes reading detailed descriptions of sex I baulked at one particularly blatant scene, yet even this fitted for the reasons given. The author is exploring derivative work and plagiarism. The overlaps between the two couples are somehow both obvious and opaque.

The writing is tense and compelling. Although nuanced and layered the story has the feel of a thriller. It is admirable that so much has been fitted into such a concise volume. This is a clever and thought-provoking read.

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

Book Review: Plume

Plume, by Will Wiles, is set in contemporary London, albeit one that makes no reference to multiculturalism. Its protagonist is Jack Bick who works as an interview journalist for a glossy lifestyle magazine. It explores such fictions as: truth, memory, aspiration, and social media.

When Jack first moved to London it was still possible to get a foot in the door of journalism without first serving as an unpaid intern. It was possible to believe that, one day, he may become a home owner in the city. He mixed with the right people; moved into a rented flat with his girlfriend. The raw edges of his life could be smoothed over with a few drinks at the end of the day.

The story opens at a weekly work planning meeting. Jack is zoning out, not just from boredom but from the effort of not being found out for what he has become. His timekeeping is erratic; the work he submits unoriginal and shoddy. The word is that there will be cutbacks and he fears what this could mean for him.

The shockwave from an explosion in the east of the city barely registers initially but marks the beginning of what Jack believes may be the end of long desired possibilities.

He resents the rent he must pay for a dark little flat that suffers noise intrusion from neighbour’s building work. He resents that his ambition is growing ever further beyond his reach. Jack is an alcoholic. Hiding the effects of this from colleagues is becoming increasingly difficult.

Jack plans to interview a reclusive author, Oliver Pierce. Contact was made through a mutual acquaintance who has developed a new type of social media app, due to be rolled out further afield. Jack’s boss would prefer if he interviewed a property developer at the forefront of recent regeneration projects. Between them these people represent everything Jack has missed out on, including the financial success that would enable him to buy rather than rent.

A key character is the setting and the effect London has on its residents. As the plot and associated action moves between areas – the pockets of wealth and still dodgy streets – what is seen and what is believed is shown to be key to satisfaction and behaviour. Landlords look to enhance their assets with little regard for pesky tenants. Middlemen step in to assist those who can pay.

Jack is not the only man facing a crisis. Oliver has agreed to be interviewed because he wishes to atone for past behaviour – a lie he has been living that generated his success. Both men’s actions are erratic and often dangerous yet they are not as autonomous as they may wish to believe. There are manipulations from shady sources, and from the mirage of a lifestyle they are encouraged to pursue.

The author has captured the zeitgeist, particularly around Shoreditch, and presents it with wit and candour. Interspersed with keen imagery are nuggets of local reference to amuse. As a reader of Kit Caless’s book I was tickled by the man in Wetherspoons photographing his shoes. The Winterzone event that Jack and Oliver attend encapsulates the conflicting interests and benefits of widespread city regeneration.

Beneath the personal facade lies a yearning for rose tinted pasts and futures alongside a desire for authenticity, whatever that may mean. Yet life can only be enjoyed within the confines of personal comfort and security. London is an amalgam; it is alive and it is dirty. Those who pass through, however long for, see only fragments through a glass darkly.

The writing is fluid and entertaining, the characters well rendered if of a type. There is much to ponder, more to enjoy. Despite my reservations about breadth of representation, this is a piquant and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate.

Book Review: A Devil Comes to Town

“It was strange that people who were so reserved and reticent, even toward their confessor, were willing to disclose their secrets provided there was a chance they would see them in print.”

The fictional village of Dichtersruhe is a charming location in the Swiss Alps. Popular with summer tourists, who enjoy walks in the local woods, it closes down during winter when just the long term residents are made to feel welcome. Many of the families have lived there for generations with links through marriage drawing them closer together. Yet they never discuss their shared, secret ambitions. Most of them are writers. They spend free time working on poems, essays, memoirs and novels. Manuscripts are regularly sent to the popular publishing houses and then reworked following rejection.

A new parish priest, Father Cornelius, arrives and struggles to fit in. From a teaching post at a seminary, he has been banished to this backwater following scurrilous accusations. The old priest has little time for the incomer, indeed for anything other than writing his memoirs. Then the accepted ways, the coexistence of gentle rivalries, are thrown into disarray by the arrival of another stranger. Bernhard Fuchs introduces himself as a publisher from Lucerne. Following fearful omens involving foxes, Cornelius recognises Fuchs as the devil incarnate.

“what is the key that is capable of forcing the mind of an aspiring writer who has tried everything without result?”

A Devil Comes to Town, by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel), is a short yet multi-layered take down of the conceits and jealousies of writers. There is darkness and tension in the tale but also humour in its observations. Opening with a renowned author clearing out the many manuscripts he has been sent by aspiring authors, all eager to have him read their work and thereby become its advocate, the story quickly focuses on a manuscript from an unknown writer regarding a strange tale told him by a priest many years before. Although somewhat meta this structural device offers the reader a picture of one of the prices of authorial success, and the lengths writers will go to if there is any chance of emulating or otherwise gaining from those who have already been published.

Some may deny it but writers wish to be read and revered. They have their egos and also deep rooted sensitivities. They struggle with continued rejection in favour of those whose work they remain unimpressed by. Those who achieve publication often castigate readers who fail to recognise the wonder of their work.

In Dichtersruhe the arrival of a publisher is grasped as an opportunity. The residents vie for the man’s attention, offering drinks, meals and other inducements in an attempt to curry notice and favour. When a writing competition is announced that will lead to inclusion in a published series, manuscripts are eagerly submitted. As these are filtered there is bitter division between residents whose work is rejected and those still being considered.

What happens when a winner is selected who no other writer believes is deserving?

The story told is fable like with nuggets of detail leading the reader to question the veracity of the various narrators. Authors often skate between truth and fiction, between writing what they know and pure invention. Is truth of any importance when the aim is to entertain?

And thus another layer is added to the unfolding tale: do writers truly behave like this? What are readers of this book being encouraged to believe?

The author has created a fabulous take down of the literati with a blending of fiction, reported rivalries and real world suspicion. It is a captivating, clever and deliciously teasing little tale.

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

Book Review: Ghost Wall

“The baskets weren’t to sell. Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine and dry feet.”

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss, is set in the Northumberland Moors where archaeology students have built an Iron Age hut. As part of their course they must spend a period of time living as the Ancient Britons did, hunting and foraging for food. Joining them is their course professor and his friend, Bill, who is a hobby expert on Iron Age living and survival. Bill has brought along his wife, Alison, and their teenage daughter, Sylvie. It is through Sylvie’s eyes that the story is told.

The students – Molly, Dan and Pete – sleep in modern tents close to the camp. The family sleep in the dark hut. Uncomfortable though this is, Sylvie is used to complying with her father’s requests and holidaying in wild places. Bill is an angry, volatile man who demands submission from his family and punishes transgressions.

“I do not know what my father thought I might want to do in those days but he devoted considerable attention to making sure I couldn’t do it.”

Sylvie is fascinated by the students, especially Molly, as they talk of travel abroad and the freedoms they enjoy. She has been raised to use her time wisely. Her dad eschews modern pleasures and expects his family to do the same. The world he inhabits is one of resentment that the land he considers rightfully his is now populated by foreigners. In his eyes, these people have taken from him the respected position in society he could have had before they arrived. He reveres what he imagines were the hierarchies of the Ancient Britons, when women cooked and cared for offspring while the men hunted, guarded and killed.

The book opens with a depiction of an Iron Age ritual during which a young woman is sacrificed for the supposed good of her people. This is based on what has been surmised by historians from the state of a body found preserved in nearby peat bogs. Bill has explained to Sylvie that the Ancient Britons would place in the bogs possessions they valued, believing that giving these to the land would ward off evil and help them to survive.

Molly is scornful of Bill’s attitudes but his expertise soon draws the men in the group to take an interest in certain Iron Age activities. The group divides along gender lines with the inevitable shift in dynamics.

The writing is subtle in its power and darkness. The nuances of each theme explored are developed with restraint yet depth. Sylvie’s impotence as a child, her lack of agency and learned silence, is both searing and sapient. An intoxicating read that, especially considering its brevity, packs impressive literary heft.

Ghost Wall is published by Granta and is available to buy now.

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