Book Review: Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home

matilda windsor

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin, explores changing attitudes to sexual activity and pregnancy across the decades of the twentieth century. The main threads of the story are set in the late 1980s and early 90s. The titular protagonist, a septuagenarian, is being assessed for her suitability to benefit from the new Care in the Community policy – an attempt to deinstitutionalise those who have spent years locked away for supposed health reasons. If selected, Matty would be required to leave the psychiatric hospital where she has lived for the past fifty years. Having been incarcerated for so long she struggles now to recognise or acknowledge reality. Matty believes the asylum is her mother’s stately home, the inmates her guests and the staff her servants. She believes it important to treat all these people well whilst retaining a certain decorum and distance.

Another thread follows Janice, a newly qualified social worker who applied for a job at the institution to be near her boyfriend. The couple separate before she starts working there. Janice takes a particular interest in Matty having discovered she was placed in the asylum with a diagnosis of ‘Moral Turpitude’ – likely because she was pregnant, although her notes contain scant details.

“That can’t have been uncommon. If every unmarried woman who fell pregnant was diagnosed with moral-whatever the wards would be chock-a-block.”
“Most would’ve been packed off to the country,” said Sister Henderson. “Once the child’s adopted, they’d slot back in at home.”
One woman’s loss another’s gain. “And Matty Osbourne?”
“Maybe her father smelt a whiff of scandal. Mebbe she’d been a bother and he wanted shot of her.”

Notice the change of Matty’s surname there – it has an interesting explanation that effects plot development.

The third main thread follows Henry Windsor, a bachelor in his late fifties who has worked all his life at the local council. He lives alone in the house he was born in, that he keeps furnished as it was in his late father’s day. Henry refuses to leave the place overnight, even to go on holiday, as he expects his beloved sister, Tilly, to return to him. She left without explanation when he was six years old having raised him from when he was a baby. She promised she would be back and Henry has spent decades trying to track her down, to no avail. Henry is having an affair with Irene, a married younger woman and mother of twins. Henry harbours a hope that Irene will leave her family for him.

As the backstories to Matty, Janice and Henry are revealed, plans for their futures hit setbacks. In amongst the unfolding events are pregnancies that end in a variety of ways. A morning after pill takes care of one unexpected, drunken coupling. An abortion frees a woman from an unwanted child. A miscarriage is mourned, the suffering mother subjected to careless commentary. Adoptees, raised by loving parents, consider searching for those who gave them away. A social worker recounts a distressing visit to a young, single mother who is struggling to adequately care for her baby. In amongst all this is the spectre of AIDS. There are still varying degrees of societal stigma attached to all these events.

Matty is a wonderfully complex if pitiful creation. Henry is less admirable, especially as regards Irene. It is interesting to consider how mental capacity is assessed and the role family prejudice can play. Janice, although well meaning, comes across as naive. The cast of characters that surround each of these key players offer ample opportunity to explore attitudes and obligation, particularly within neighbourhoods and families.

Short chapters move the story along although the pace was, at times, frustrating. The reader is offered a window into encounters that the characters rarely pick up themselves. Henry, having spent so long trying to trace Tilly, appears not to follow through when he is finally granted a potential lead. He has strange turns at key moments – perhaps a hint at his own mental incapacities. The staff at the asylum may talk to the residents regularly but seem unaware that some of them knew each other before they were sectioned. Patients’ ramblings are regarded as delusional rather than a lens to their history.

The author grew up in Cumbria where the tale is set. We are told that ‘her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a longstay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.’ I am therefore happy to defer to her expertise on mental health matters. This makes it even more upsetting when the patients’ stuttered attempts to communicate appear to be ignored or dismissed.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters set in the 1930s in which we learn of Matilda’s childhood and how she came to care for the young Henry.

Be aware that, in amongst the humour and pathos, are disturbing incidences of sexual abuse – historical and contemporary.

The author presents a thought-provoking yet always entertaining story, written with knowledge and verve. Once the pacing picked up and enough reveals had been shared, this was a book I did not want to put down until the satisfying denouement.

A good read that covers difficult issues through accessible characters whose flaws add to their depth. No easy answers are offered and this seems appropriate when exploring issues surrounding mental health.

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

Book Review: Amongst Women

Amongst Women

“‘Be careful’, Moran advised when he kissed each of them in turn as they were ready to leave. ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.'”

Amongst Women, by John McGahern, tells the story of an Irish farming family over a few decades in the twentieth century. It is bookended by the demise of the elderly patriarch, Michael Moran, a widower whose second wife, Rose, was welcomed by his teenage children for the relief it brought them. Moran is unpredictably temperamental, with strong views on how his family should behave. He has kept them distanced from the local community, something the children accept.

“Maggie looked at this isolation he had built up around them as distinction and strength. In her heart she felt that Rose was a little common in knowing so many people.”

Moran adheres to the rituals of his religion, with daily prayers – graces and rosaries – recited by the family together. Having fought and distinguished himself in the Irish War of Independence, he is now disappointed at how the new country turned out. He bought his farm with money received when he left the army, and turned the land into a living. Having done the best he knew how to raise his children, the sense of loss felt as each chooses to leave cuts deep. He had hoped that one of his sons would run the farm after him but neither were interested.

The slow peeling back of Irish family life is affecting if unrelenting in its honesty. Moran may be a difficult man to live with but there is a great deal of love and respect for him within the family circle. This doesn’t mean the children are always happy with what he demands of them. In their own way, each quietly rebels against imposed strictures. The choices they make are not always for the best.

“The whole empty strand of Strandhill was all around them and they had the whole day. There is nothing more difficult than to seize the day.”

When the children do need help they turn to each other. The obligations towards family are deeply ingrained. This is also true of the wider community, although perhaps not as powerfully as amongst the Morans.

“Such is the primacy of the idea of family that everyone was able to leave work at once without incurring displeasure. In fact their superiors thought the sisters’ involvement was admirable.”

The story offers snippets from the past: Moran’s fighting days; his courtship with Rose; how he treats his children and the limitations this incurs as they reach adulthood; his acceptance if not respect for the partners they choose, who each carry their own family baggage. That the children continue to visit Moran regularly, despite his outspoken views and behaviour, says much about the duty instilled.

The writing is taut and spare yet richly evocative of the time and place. It is hard to like Moran – the way he treats both family and neighbours; the cruelties he inflicts on Rose; his tightness over money when he is not poor – yet he elicits sympathy for doing what he believes best for his children.

There is a poignancy in the denouement that he did not recognise the loyalty of his family. His authoritarianism was, after all, of its time in Ireland.

“‘Who cares anyhow?’ Moran said. ‘Nobody cares.’
‘I care,’ she said passionately.
‘That doesn’t count.”

While in many ways a troubling story, the depth of feeling conveyed will linger. A remarkable achievement in a slim yet satiating read.

Amongst Women is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: We Are Not In The World

not in the world

We Are Not In The World, by Conor O’Callaghan, tells the story of Paddy, a middle aged Irishman who dusts off his HGV licence in an attempt to get away from the mess his life has become. The story opens as he crosses the channel from England to France. He has just discovered his twenty-something year old daughter, Kitty, stowed away in his cab. Taking along a passenger is against the rules so she must stay hidden but Paddy welcomes the chance to spend time with her. They have had a difficult relationship since she was teenager, tarnished by a torrid affair and marriage breakdown.

Chapters follow the months of Paddy’s journeying through France, stopping mostly at truckers designated rest areas. He and Kitty stutter between silences and family reminiscences. We learn Paddy’s backstory – of his relationship with his parents and younger brother. The latter is Kitty’s godfather and the family’s golden boy. Paddy understands why but still harbours jealousy.

Interspersed with this unfolding tale are chapters told from the point of view of the other woman. For years she has been orchestrating liaisons for sex – encounters described graphically. Her husband is mostly aware of what is going on but tolerates such behaviour for the sake of their young son. These chapters are placed in reverse chronological order, linking to the reveals of Paddy’s life story.

Neither Paddy nor the woman are likeable characters, their selfish behaviour hurting those they should be caring for. The fallout from their actions is unexpected and poignant. Both have suffered personal tragedies.

There are disturbing scenes around the lives led by HGV drivers, their apparent camaraderie shadowed by bestial undercurrents. Paddy can hide amidst their accepted transience but prefers to keep himself and the grief he carries apart.

“I must have dropped a load at some point, but where and when I can’t remember. There must have been no pick-up. Now we’re just a cab. Now we’re doing what the super in the container at Dover said not to, heavy mileage without a load. A load is family. I see that. The load’s ballast gravitates you to a steady keel. Without it, I have felt all over the shop, buffeted by cross-winds, headlong and not enough to fix me to the ground.”

The story told is spare, haunting and beautifully wrought, despite the oedipal suggestions and sexual explicitness. It is a tale of family, of differing reactions to shared events and upbringing, and how even inevitable deaths can lead to schisms. Paddy may have behaved badly on numerous occasions, but time is shown to pass. The reader will come to realise that alongside regret there can be moments of hope.

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

Book Review: The Failing of Angels

failing of angels

The Failing of Angels is written in the first person – a grown man looking back on his childhood. This was not a happy time for him. From as young as he can remember he was aware his mother had wanted a girl baby and found the son she gave birth to tiresome and irritating. She wanted rid of him.

The mother berated her young son for his many perceived transgressions, insisting her husband beat him severely as punishment. Verbal reprimands were equally damaging, as was her indifference to his complaints about how he was being treated. Food was withheld and clothing limited or inappropriate.

School offered little respite as the boy resented the enforced incarceration. Early on he became a regular truant, his parents showing little interest in anything he did or said about this. He longed for his mother to love him but remembers only her antagonism or disinterest.

The narrative starts with the boy’s birth and proceeds through the years slowly. There is much analysis of the parents’ actions and attitudes – attempts to make sense of how they thought and acted. The mother is portrayed as cruel and narcissistic, the father detached and prone to violence – going along with his wife’s wishes without question. The detail of their abuse makes for painful reading.

“I became achingly aware of an extraordinarily irrepressible and fantastically resilient natural facility I have for saying precisely the most inappropriate thing at exactly the least opportune moment”

There is also an undercurrent of how reliable the narration is given hints of the boy’s precociousness and then burgeoning flamboyancy. Occasional references to parental gifts suggest the father was not entirely uncaring or vicious.

The mother is staunchly religious and tries to inculcate her son in order to exert control – to silence and subjugate. The presence of an all seeing god is regarded by the boy as threatening.

“I felt surrounded on all sides by some paranormal paparazzo”

The story is a slow burn rather than a page turner. The writing style utilises repetition, employing many words rarely encountered in creative fiction. It took some time to segue with the cadence. While not hard to understand, the verbosity and linguistic gymnastics did at times become tiring – and this from a reader who generally enjoys such an approach in writing.

The pacing picks up when the boy reaches his teens and gains greater independence. By this time his mother has a new project demanding her attention, one that meets with remarkable if disturbing success but brings to the fore how unhinged she is. These parallel plot lines add some welcome tension.

There is still much foreshadowing and commentary with the author playing with language more than progression. There are occasional digressions from the vituperative maternal memories to the boy’s own activities as a teenager – including remarkably ordinary interests in music and literature that he enjoyed with friends. When he falls in love, he suffers few of the trials associated with the lack of experience and jittering confidence more typical of one his age. I pondered if he could have inherited his mother’s narcissism.

The denouement unfolds with elements of tragedy and comedy. Along the way there are opportunities to skewer many revered institutions. The church establishment in particular is portrayed in all its hypocrisy. This was neatly interwoven with the unfolding action.

Did I enjoy this book? The characters were rather too caricatured for my tastes. While the writing style may be clever it seemed done almost for the sake of it. The bleakness of the abuse, the perfection of the girlfriend and her family, the gullibility of the mother’s acolytes – all are possible but lacked depth and nuance. I remain unconvinced of the narrator’s veracity.

There are frequent references to the importance of words throughout. For those who enjoy plays on language, this may be a worthwhile read. As a social commentary there is much to consider. As a story, it left me cold.

The Failing of Angels is published by Avalanche Books.

Robyn Reviews: The Falling in Love Montage

‘The Falling in Love Montage’ is a cute sapphic romance, but also a moving coming-of-age story that deals with grief, family, and making the most of the time you have. It balances the saccharine sweetness perfectly with hard-hitting character development, producing a novel that’s both entertaining and moving.

Saoirse doesn’t believe in happy endings. If they were real, she and her ex-girlfriend would still be together. If they were real, her mother would still be able to remember her name. If they were real, Saoirse wouldn’t be at risk of inheriting the very condition that’s confined her mum to a care home in her fifties. The last thing Saoirse is looking for is a new relationship – no point in starting one if its doomed to end. Enter Ruby – a rom-com obsessed girl only visiting Ireland for the summer. She has a loophole: for the next few months, they do all the swoon-worthy activities from her favourite rom-coms, then at the end they break up and never see each other again. Its the perfect plan aside from one tiny flaw: at the end of the falling in love montage, the characters always fall in love. For real.

Saoirse is a highly flawed character – cynical, angsty, and prone to verbally lashing out – but she’s also deeply caring, and trying to navigate the complexity of the teenage-to-adult transition with a lot on her plate. There’s her mother – in a care home with early onset dementia, a disease which is often genetic. There’s her father – unbeknown to Saoirse, in a new relationship despite her mother still being alive. There’s her future – she’s secured the envy of everyone, a place at Oxford, and she can’t quite bring herself to admit that she isn’t sure she actually wants to go. Not to mention there’s the huge breakup that has cost her both her girlfriend and her best friend. Saoirse is too proud and mistrustful to ask for help, or even admit she needs it – but for all her flaws, her intentions are good, and her growth throughout the book is amazing. She’s also a highly realistic teenager with many relatable struggles and snap reactions.

While this is a love story, there are several key relationships in this book. There’s Saoirse and Ruby – but also Saoirse and her father, Saoirse and Ruby’s cousin Oliver, and Saoirse and her father’s new partner Beth. Romantic love is important, but this also explores other forms – love between family, between friends, and love and acceptance of one’s self. Some of the book’s strongest moments involve Saoirse’s father or Oliver rather than the Saoirse and Ruby dynamic.

“I do believe there’s a right person for you at different times of your life. Whether that relationship lasts a week or fifty years is not what makes it special.”

The writing is excellent – Ciara Smyth creates a wonderful sense of place, and her pacing is spot on, the story moving quickly but also slowing for some poignant moments. There’s the right balance of romance, humour, and harder hitting content, and each character feels three-dimensional – while this is Saoirse’s coming of age story, her father also shows significant character growth, and both Ruby and Oliver have their moments. All in all, this both strives for and succeeds in weaving an additional layer of depth over the stanard rom-com structure.

If you’re looking for a fun, quick read that’s also poignant and moving, this is the book for you. Recommended for fans of sapphic romances, coming-of-age stories, and stories that explore the complexity and emotion of family dynamics.

Published by Andersen Press
Paperback: 4th June 2020

Book Review: The Long Field

long field

The Long Field, by Pamela Petro, is a memoir wrapped around musings on hiraeth – a Welsh word that approximates to homesickness. The author spends much of the book attempting to more clearly define the word for a wider variety of uses. The writing is also a paean to Wales where Petro, an American, studied for her MA in 1983. In the intervening years she has made more than 27 trips to the country – for work as well as pleasure – and she now directs the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing at a small campus in Lampeter, linked to the University of Wales. The school attracts students from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds – unusual in this remote and insular location. As well as teaching, Petro hopes to inculcate at least a few of her charges with the deep and abiding appreciation of the place, something she felt from the outset.

The author was born and raised in New Jersey, by loving parents who longed for their daughter to find the settled family life they had enjoyed. Petro, however, fell in love with a woman she met in Paris – Marguerite – although she never openly came out to her parents. She tried dating boys in Wales but did not find her happy ever after. What she did find was a feeling for the country that altered her profoundly.

“Wales was an ancient nation with one of the oldest languages in Europe, a proud, parochial, working-class, mostly rural place … I was a suburban, middle class, liberal, naïve American kid. And this place felt like home.”

Petro is eager to learn the Welsh language and muses on the importance and benefits of keeping local cultures alive. She delves into ancient history, particularly around the stone-age megaliths of the region, discussing how traders and invaders brought supposed progress that may have made life easier but also different. Successive changes over time shifted the balance of power, often at a cost to the indigenous population.

Fond as she is of the Welsh countryside and customs, she cautions against blind nostalgia.

“A good friend of mine might be able to travel to Italy, but her grandfather’s rural village of family stories – always conceived by her generation as a future destination – is now a suburb of Naples. The village only exists in memory and imagination. Hiraeth speaks to the salveless ache of immigrants and their descendants.”

To a degree, however, such longing can bring benefits if considered in wider context.

“To be able to put a name to what refugees are experiencing in exile as they seek safety far from home means that we who are already home can more easily put ourselves in their place.”

The author’s ponderings on language, stories, conquest and loss meander through the pages. There is much repetition as she tries to capture the subjects that intrigue her. Despite her obvious love for this small, damp country in western Britain, she comes across as, and admits to being, very American in expectation and outlook. Her positive perspective barely skims the surface of the lives of residents whose choices are stymied through being unable to afford to leave.

Petro is obviously a skilled writer. She provides a clear and concise analysis of Trump’s victory. The historic and literary elements of the book are fascinating. I learned much about the legend of Arthur, and other myths that were once believed. I would, however, have preferred a pithier version. In rambling so freely and repetitively through place and time, engagement occasionally waned.

Perhaps, for me, this memoir would have worked better as an addition to the publisher’s fabulous Monographs series. There is much beauty within its pages but I prefer the threads of a tale to be more tightly woven than this. Having said that, the meandering fits with Petro’s years of trying to pin down an idea that is hard to translate. A thought provoking if somewhat long read.

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

Book Review: Wilder Winds

wilder winds

“Life had taught her that stability wasn’t to be found outside on the streets. That as soon as you get used to how others live, everything changes.”

Wilder Winds, by Bel Olid (translated by Laura McGloughlin), is a collection of sixteen short stories exploring the myriad conditions under which families and individuals must live. These are stories of the young and the old, of the contented and the displaced. One theme running though is how little control any person has over changing circumstances, and how they must adapt if they are to survive.

Some of the most powerful stories are those that bring to the fore comparisons in how people of similar age end up existing, often due to the accident of birth. In the opening story two young girls meet when one is thrust unexpectedly into the other’s home. The reader is shown how shadowed a life can become when surrounded by illness.

“she was such a spirited contrast to my dry, sick, elderly mother, but I was struck by the image of the splendid woman before the mirror”

The lasting impact on children of chance encounters occurs again in Red. A young girl walks in, unseen, to observe a birth, that leads to a death.

Other stories portray the lives of refugees who must live for years in basic camps while being processed. As well as the effect this has on inmates, there is the difficulty faced by staff and volunteers when they start to care about individuals. A humane response brings with it its own pain.

This type of pain is evoked brilliantly in Three. A mother of triplets works with the children of convicted criminals. To survive her job she must retain emotional distance. In working long hours she worries about the breach this creates within her own family.

Invisible tells of an undocumented worker living a hand to mouth existence. In detailing her day the reader is shown a life revolving around survival, amongst those who choose to look away.

There are stories about the impact of conflict. At times an uprising can be euphoric. There are also tragedies.

Linda tells of the everyday conflicts women face by simply existing in public spaces. When one young women responds with unexpected violence, the media reaction is one of surprise.

“‘We still don’t know why the young woman reacted this way,’ say the police officers in charge of the investigation. Yes, that’s the problem right there, thinks Lola; they really don’t understand.”

As well as writing of the complexities of relationships – of shifting dynamics over time – the stories tell of love, duty and occasional irritation. The voices are often visceral yet beautifully rendered. I was particularly touched by Anna, Anne, Anna, in which a young girl finds a book that changes her.

In Plus Ultra, the author makes a brief foray into the supernatural.

In Cabaret the body of an obese woman who enjoyed her size is inhabited. In losing weight, she feels she has lost some essential part of herself.

“me singing and dancing and laughing. Round, full of curves and complexities me, splendid and happy me, imposing my body wherever I went. Me taking up all the space needed and more.”

Although important issues are explored, the stories are about the people living with the effects of what is happening around them more than the whys and wherefores. The writing style is taut but also tender, characters are nuanced and portrayed with sympathy.

This is, quite simply, a stunning collection that I am now eager to recommend. Another fine read from the Fum d’Estampa Press.

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

Robyn Reviews: Beartown

‘Beartown’ is a powerful novel from a master of character-focused fiction. Along with ‘A Man Called Ove’, ‘Beartown’ is probably Fredrik Backman (and translator Neil Smith)’s most famous work – and for good reason. Where ‘A Man Called Ove’ focuses on one man, ‘Beartown’ focuses on an entire community – what makes it, what ties it together, and what happens when those ties start to fray apart. Its a brilliant piece of literature, and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of ‘A Man Called Ove’, it’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Beartown is a nowhere town – a tiny town in a Swedish forest growing smaller year by year as its residents gradually up sticks in search of work and opportunity. It’s also, like so many towns in the area, a hockey town: and therein lies the town’s greatest hope of a future. If their junior hockey team can reach the finals, Beartown will finally be put on the map. When that future is threatened by one person speaking up, battle lines are drawn. What matters more: the future of the town, or the truth?

The novel switches between a large number of perspectives, with Maya, Amat, and Benji probably the strongest. Maya, a fifteen-year-old musician, can’t understand the hockey obsession of the town – she’d much rather be playing her guitar. She can, however, understand their obsession with star player Kevin Erdahl. Maya is sweet and naive but also strong, with an integrity and maturity beyond her age. Its impossible not to like her, and as the mood of the town turns, to both admire and pity her.

Amat, also fifteen, lives in the poor part of town – and for that, his immigrant status, and his small stature, he’s looked down upon. His escape is ice hockey – ever since he first put on a pair of skates he’s adored it, and thanks to his obsession his hard work is finally starting to pay off. He’s been awarded a coveted place on the junior team as they aim for the national finals. Being a part of the team comes with new acceptance and community – suddenly he’s a star, his name cheered instead of sneered at, his teammates protecting him from bullies instead of bullying him themselves. But there’s a cost – and as Amat leaves his old life behind, he starts to feel uncomfortable at the new one he’s thrust into. Like Maya, Amat is sweet and naive – but unlike her steel, Amat is pliable, unable to stand up for anything when the time comes. He has a good heart, and while it’s easy to villainise those who don’t speak up, Amat shows just how hard it can be.

Seventeen-year-old Benji is the backbone of the junior ice hockey team, known for his fierce fighting and protection of Kevin, the team’s star. He’s the cool kid – but Benji has more heart than most, and while he’s crafted himself into whatever Beartown and Kevin need him to be, he’s increasingly uncomfortable with that image. Benji’s character arc is one of the strongest, a compelling secondary narrative to the main story.

Of course, there are major adult characters in the novel too – Peter, the hockey club’s general manager and Maya’s dad, roles which eventually put him in conflict; Kira, Maya’s mum and a high-flying lawyer who, as an outsider to Beartown, still doesn’t understand it; Sune, the adult team’s elderly coach and increasingly ostracised by the club’s ambition. Each of these has a part to play – but it’s Maya and Amat who have the novel’s heart.

The town is central to the story, and Backman crafts a wonderful sense of place, emphasising Beartown’s isolation and accumulating state of disrepair. Like a Swedish winter, it’s a cold and unforgiving place, not fond of outsiders or those who threaten the status quo. This is superficially a book about ice hockey, but anyone who has lived in a small town can recognise the atmosphere of it.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that captures person and place perfectly, this is the book for you. Recommended for those who enjoy books about human nature, community, and just generally good reads.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd May 2018

Jackie reviews ‘A Man Called Ove’ here. Robyn reviews Backman’s latest release, ‘Anxious People’, here.

Book Review: Good Choices

good choices

“But the thing about getting clean … is that you have to get used to living with this tandem, shadow self around you – this other you which could exist”

Good Choices, by Bonny Brooks, tells the story of a thirty-five year old woman, P, who is questioning the direction she has allowed her life to take. P is a recovering junkie who has remained clean now for many years. She has built a métier for herself as a writer and is engaged to be married to a man with assets and education. She is unclear in her own mind, however, if this is the future she truly wants. She believes it would be a good choice, but the cost to her sense of self could be significant.

“This place is gentrified now and so am I. I have a career and an online presence. I have found better cheeses. And now I am sitting here pondering marriage over a green view like some Jane Austin cliché.”

The story is structured in two styles, intermingled. The first is a piece of writing the narrator is putting together, setting out the truth of how she feels about her fiancé. The second tells of her return visit to the rehab facility that helped her with the detox required to achieve recovery, to give a motivational talk to current patients. Here she meets a man she knew from her own time there, a fellow patient she had sex with. The conflict she is suffering comes to the fore when she realises she doesn’t want him to know she is engaged. She ponders the self she presents to men in order to be accepted.

“I’d learned that they didn’t want to listen; what they wanted was to watch themselves being listened to. That ultimately, they would rather a woman that thinks they are funny, than a funny woman. That they would rather a woman who thinks they are clever than a clever woman, and that ultimately, someone with too many thoughts of their own is in their way”

P’s fiancé is also a writer, one with a large and popular online presence. P is aware that he lives much of his life as a performance for his followers, something she has willingly collaborated with. Now, however, she is reminded of what she used to be. Which life, if either, was more honest and satisfying?

“like most of us to some degree, what you want is significance”

The insights offered on choices and relationships resonate. This is an author able to drill through complex issues with eloquent succinctness. The reader is provided with a lens through which an addict views their options: the damage wreaked by a high that is nevertheless desired for its escapism; the knowledge of what is missed when such drugs are eschewed.

The tension ratchets up as P’s life spirals. She wishes to appear responsible, to be accepted within the circles her fiancé inhabits, but isn’t so sure she can be herself in that world.

This is another pocket sized masterpiece to add to the Open Pen novelette series. A book with something to say that is well worth paying attention to.

Book Review: The Goddess Chronicle

goddess chronicle

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi, gods credited with the creation of the Japanese Islands and many of their elemental gods. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, of death and revenge. Much of it is set in an underworld where the spirits of those who died with regrets drift unhappily for eternity. They end up in this place as they were unable to make peace with their fate while living.

The book is divided into five sections; all but one narrated by a young woman named Namima who died young. The opening section tells her story, how she was born and raised on an island far to the south and east. For generations cruel customs had been accepted there, believed necessary to keep the majority of islanders from starvation.

Namima is the youngest of four siblings, closest in age to her adored sister, Kamikuu. Their family is privileged as it is they who must produce the island’s Oracle. On Kamikuu’s sixth birthday she is taken to live with her grandmother to begin training for this revered role. Namima learns that she is ‘the impure one’, but what this means is not explained until she turns sixteen.

The section opens with a great deal of exposition, describing the small island and the lives lived therein. Much of the culture appears shocking, such as occasional culling of the elderly and killing of babies not born within rules. The plot progresses slowly but nevertheless retains interest after the lengthy descriptions of setting. The islanders live daily with the unease of repercussions if caught in transgressions, something Namima risks when she falls in love with an outcast, Mahito.

“I had never encountered anyone with such strength. The rest of us lived such timid lives, fettered by laws, fearful of breaking them.”

When Namima learns what her role on the island is to be she rails against it. Mahito sets out to save her but with motives she only learns of after her death.

The second section is set in the Realm of the Dead. Here Namimo meets Izanami who she is to serve. A lengthy few chapters tell the creation story, how the many gods came to be. The detail provided did not seem entirely necessary for the telling of this tale.

Despite being a god, Izanami died. She feels betrayed by her beloved Izanagi and now kills any woman he marries. Namima empathises with these feelings of jealousy, desperate to know what became of Mahito yet struggling to accept that he will have moved on with his life.

The third section opens in the underworld where, each day, Izanami chooses one thousand humans who are to die. She remains bitter over what happened to her and how Izanagi remains in the land of the living, still siring offspring.

“She continued with her task, silently and listlessly. Determining who would die was, in truth, a chore that left an unpleasant aftertaste.”

Namima now learns there is a way she could briefly visit the land of the living. Izanami advises against such a course of action. Ignoring this, Namima sets out to try to return to the island, albeit in a different form. Through this quest, Namima changes the direction of others’ lives.

The fourth section explores what became of Izanagi since Izanami died. Many centuries have passed and the god is growing tired of his immortality. Having travelled, as is his wont, he is returning to visit his latest wife who is due to give birth. Unashi, his loyal servant, has misgivings about this plan being more aware than his master about what befalls the women he marries. When Izanagi presses Unashi to share this knowledge, the pair concoct a plan to try to break the cycle.

Although this section pulls together the threads of the story, it does so by imbuing further characters with a death wish. When choices in life appear limited, suicide is accepted. Throughout the story, life is given little value until lost, and then it is only selfishly desired.

The final section returns to the underworld where there is a showdown between Izanagi and Izanami. Love turning to hatred due to jealousy has also gripped Namima.

“I suddenly made a terrible discovery. Spurred by my hatred of Mahito, I found myself longing for someone to die. Wasn’t this the feeling that had gripped Izanami when she was first locked up in the Realm of the Dead? Hatred is terrifying.”

The denouement offers a certain dark satisfaction. This carries with it a disturbing undercurrent as to why.

Previous releases in ‘The Canons’ series have been tightly woven, imaginative retellings. By comparison this was ponderous with much detail beyond what was needed for clarity. Although containing interesting elements, the length seemed unnecessary.

Any Cop?: An embittered tale of selfish desire that cast on this reader a perturbing shadow.

Jackie Law