Book Review: Brood

Brood, by Jackie Polzin, is a story that blends the joys and challenges of hen keeping with the evolving experiences of a middle aged woman living in Minnesota, USA. It is a bittersweet tale but never cloying in its depiction of life and loss. The writing is honest and to the point, a clear eyed take on the curveballs to be dealt with as time goes by. A hen keeper myself, I found the observations of the feathered ladies delightful. The author has captured the essence of the relationship formed when a small number of birds are kept, ostensibly for eggs, not quite pets but still individually cared for.

The nameless narrator is married to Percy, an academic. They have kept four hens in their back garden for the past four years. When the tale opens, Percy has applied for a job at a prestigious university in Los Angeles. If he is offered the position, the hens will have to be rehomed.

Through the bitter cold of winter, into spring and then the heat of summer, the challenge is to keep the hens alive.

“Life is the ongoing effort to live. Some people make it look easy.”

“The chickens don’t care about my gestures toward life in a traditional sense, but most of the time they don’t die, which is the most primitive form of gratitude.”

As well as caring for her home and hens, the narrator works as a cleaner. Her friend, Helen, is a real estate agent and needs properties polished to a shine to create the best impression for potential buyers. The narrator finds this work soothing, despite the memories it evokes of a terrible event suffered while doing the job several years ago. In certain important aspects, her life has not gone in the direction she desired and envisaged.

Chapters are kept short and direct offering snapshots of the narrator’s day to day life and her thoughts on issues she is faced with. The reader is offered glimpses of friends, neighbours, the narrator’s mother, and Percy. Readers will also get to know the personalities of the four hens.

“While there is no agreement on the subject of chickens and words, there is agreement that chickens speak only of the here and now. A chicken does not speak of the day before. A chicken does not speak of tomorrow. A chicken speaks of this moment. I see this. I feel this. This is all there is.”

It would be easy to seek out metaphors from the behaviour of the hens in this story but I preferred to read it as a straightforward depiction of the woman’s life and its constraints. She is practical and rarely prone to emotional outbursts. She feels deeply but is accepting of what she cannot change.

There is a recollection in the book that particularly resonated. The narrator views a painting in an art gallery that she had seen several years previously but reacted to quite differently then. It offered a reminder that the lens through which we look at the world will always be coloured by ongoing personal experience, that little of what we do or say can ever be entirely objective.

Although lightly told there is a depth of feeling in the quirky yet accomplished writing that held my attention and made me care. The shadow of sadness in the narrator’s life is just one facet of the many practicalities she must deal with. The strength and calm acceptance she digs down for, to live in the moment as her hens do, is a quality I can admire.

An enjoyable read albeit one tinged by loss and the lasting impact of grief. The hens add heart and humour, as they do in real life.

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

Book Review: Whiteout Conditions

“I think about all that I have expected that turned out to be wrong, in the dark before sleep, remind myself the joy and love and success found by all regular people I know are not meant for me, and when I remind myself of this, I can picture the look on my face, and would prefer no one sees it.”

Whiteout Conditions, by Tariq Shah, is set over a two day road trip that old friends, Ant and Vince, take to attend the funeral of Vince’s young cousin, Ray. The narrator is Ant, who flies into his old home town, from where Vince will drive them to the wake. Ant left many years ago, something Vince appears to resent. Vince is now married with kids. Ant has no living relatives left. He has not been good at keeping in touch. He doesn’t know if he will be welcome but is drawn to funerals, claiming to find them ‘kind of fun’. Ray died in horrific circumstances – a teenager whose family have been left devastated.

Around these bones of a plot the author constructs a story of everyday violence, grief and the costs of living in its aftermath. The car journey is fraught, shadowed by sniping conversation as Ant and Vince try to process their shared backstory and the lasting hurt this has created.

“What we say never changes. How we say it reveals our age, a history invisible to the stranger’s eye, one that is never really addressed by those familiar with it.”

The writing is taut and direct with much conveyed through dialogue and memories of shared conflict. The ancient car they travel in has footwells filled with trash from takeaways. The weather travelled through is filthy – roads clogged with slush and angry traffic. All this adds to the untidy atmosphere of provocation as Vince tries to gain a handle on why Ant left, what he has been doing, and why he has returned. There is no welcome for an old friend in these pages, rather they spill over with bitterness at the hand dealt and how it has been played.

And yet the reader will be drawn in, made to feel. In gaining an understanding of Ant’s life there is growing empathy. His coping mechanisms for losses suffered can at first appear insensitive but he has always had to harden his veneer to survive. Vince has his own demons, leaving little energy for a man he feels rejected by. There may be little to admire in either of their behaviour. This does not detract from what is a compellingly told tale.

I was almost afraid to read the final few sections such was the tension built and my fear of what images would be put into my head. The denouement fits with what went before adding a forward trajectory to a disturbing act of vengeance.

A dark yet somehow moving account of lives stymied by circumstances as much as choices made. A pithy yet potent read for those undaunted by brutal reality.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Golem Girl

“Ableism is the belief that in an ideal world, all bodies should be flawless, or that they should at least try to be cured.”

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958 with the inner layer of her mother’s placental wall adhered to her skin swathing the lower half of her body like a mummy’s bandages. She had a red sac protruding from her back. She had spina bifida. At the time only 90% of babies born with this condition lived to see their second birthday. Prevailing medical opinion was that they should be left alone – only those who survived proving themselves worthy of the medical resources necessary to treat them. Riva’s mother, Carole, had already suffered two distressing miscarriages. She was determined to fight for her living child and found an ally in a surgeon freshly trained in the latest techniques for treating spina bifida. Newborn Riva was operated on – the start of decades of surgery in which doctors would try to make her body more ‘normal’.

Golem Girl is a memoir that tells the personal story of an accomplished artist and teacher whose life has been built on the belief that she is a monster – an aberration. Throughout her childhood she was expected to submit to painful surgeries and treatments that her mother sought in an effort to, if not ‘cure’ her daughter, at least enable her to function and fit more smoothly into a society that would cruelly comment and stare with impunity. Thankfully, attitudes changed over the years, although in her epilogue – written in May 2020 – Riva questions the underlying truth of this.

The first half of the book covers the author’s childhood, during which she would have little agency over her treatment and education. Carole was a formidable advocate, supported by her fiercely Jewish wider family. She did not consider that Riva could want anything other than to be made less obviously disabled. She also took life changing decisions for her daughter because, as she bluntly stated, she did not believe Riva would ever find a loving husband, looking as she did. She wished to protect her child yet could never see her as anything other than someone in need of fixing.

Not all the surgeries Riva underwent resulted in the outcomes aimed for, yet still her mother persisted in her search for treatment that would change how her daughter looked and moved. As she grew older, Riva started to question their necessity, angered that she was not consulted.

Riva was in her late teens before she gained any sort of autonomy – and this was under difficult circumstances for the family. It would be many more years before she would question the orthodoxy that surgery was necessary, not to save her life but to make her look more acceptable. She was a talented artist still trying to find her niche in a world that could not see her and her work except through their blinkers of what others considered the bounds of femininity and disability.

Riva did find love, and also came to question why society struggled to regard people like her as acceptable as they were.

“Disability was natural, as was queerness, and neither were in need of correction or eradication.”

The timeline of the second half of the book jumps back and forth through several decades as the author explores a variety of issues she faced as an adult. There were a number of significant love affairs. There were friendships that resulted in impressive bodies of artwork. Throughout the book are illustrations of some of Riva’s art – many of them portraits that study the lives of other disabled people. These are reproduced in a section at the end which describes them more fully.

I use the term disabled aware that such a term may not be acceptable to some. Riva discusses this as she tells her story – how descriptors have changed in her lifetime. As a child she would be subjected to abuse regularly – neighbourhood children calling her ‘retard’ and pelting her with missiles. As an adult she was approached by a stranger intent on telling her: if I looked like you I’d kill myself. All of this has shaped Riva’s perception of herself, and her self-confidence. That she used her experiences to get to the stage she is at now is remarkable – or maybe that view is also reductive and I should listen more carefully.

This is an eminently readable and important work, depicting as it does life through the lens of a woman who has been both othered and dehumanised. Thanks to her own efforts and the ongoing support of her family, Riva has been able to carve an independent life for herself. She points out that financial constraints prevent many disabled adults from ever leaving their parents – infantilising them in a cocoon of well-meaning autocracy.

A poignant and moving tale but also one that is anger inducing when one considers how the disabled continue to be treated. The artwork within these pages speaks as powerfully as the words – of bodies that are beautiful and have achieved and are various. This is a story that deserves to be heard and then heeded. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Waiting for Nothing

“Everything else has been taken away from him, or might be taken at any minute: work, money, food, a place to sleep, friends, lovers, freedom, life. None of these things can be assured. All are at the mercy of the economic system”

Waiting for Nothing, by Tom Kromer, was first published in 1935, republished in 1968, and is now the first novel to come out from a new imprint – the common breath. You may find out more here about why they are ‘bringing a neglected work, a “genuine literary classic”, back to at least some form of prominence in this country’.

The story follows a man, Tom, who has been left destitute by America’s Great Depression. It is a stark and deeply affecting tale of a life devoid of hope, and yet the narrator  – it is written in the first person – struggles on, fighting against the odds to survive. Each chapter chronicles one aspect of Tom’s daily, troubling experiences over the course of several years.

The voice adopted has a vernacular that serves to set the down and outs – the ‘stiffs’ – apart from those who can still afford food, shelter, and clothing that keeps them warm and dry.

The stiffs spend their time trying to acquire the few cents needed to pay for a meagre meal and a dirty bunk in a flop house. The parks are full of those who fail in this endeavour and must bed down, whatever the weather, on a newspaper covered bench. Many turn to the ‘missions’ – churches that serve bad stew, made from going off food, and a lice ridden bed in exchange for attendance at a lengthy religious service where the starving will be exhorted to turn to Jesus Christ. Anyone complaining will be told they harbour Satan and then banished to the streets.

What is being presented is a graphic picture of the life Tom is leading, with no prospect of change. He is hungry and cold – carrying an ache in his empty belly on feet barely covered by falling apart shoes. He exists on the margins of a society that chooses to turn away from the discomfort of the destitute in their midst. Many blame the vagrants for their predicament, ignoring the fact that not enough jobs exist for them to earn their keep.

Tom reaches a point where he can see no way forward other than to break the law – planning an attack on a man with money in his wallet, or holding up a bank. Should Tom be caught he may be killed by the police, which would, he considers, at least be an end to his suffering. It is clear that a man in such circumstances places little value on life. And yet the deaths he observes – the starved, hypothermic, suicidal – still affect him.

The police treat the ‘stiffs’ with violence and contempt. On a cold wet night, when several are sleeping in an empty building, the police arrest them for trespass. Wherever the desperate and hungry gather they are moved on, despite having nowhere they can go that is more acceptable.

Long lines of grey and sunken people, kept queuing for hours outside a mission, are gawped at by passers by – a dehumanised spectacle that serves to make the church appear compassionate.

Both men and women offer sexual favours for the chance of a warm meal and a bed. Sometimes the vagrants help each other when they have found food or shelter, but there are also those who will take even the few cents available via force and threats.

The breaks Tom tells of are few: a friend offering a space on the floor of his room on a cold night, a woman offering to cook the scant food they have bartered and will share. Attacks feature more regularly – from both the authorities and the unhinged. Tom goes begging in restaurants and from those who look to have plenty. Mostly he is rejected – a pest people wish to eradicate from their vicinity.

Tom travels by jumping on board moving, freezing trains – a dangerous pursuit but the only way to try for better elsewhere. Wherever he stops there is rejection.

The writing is taut and visceral – somehow vividly detached yet also deeply personal. There is deliberate repetition in the narration that brings home how desperate Tom’s situation remains. The events he recounts are horrific in the cruelty inflicted and threats faced. Given the times we are currently living through I can only hope this tale is not prescient.

A powerful evocation of life amongst those most damaged by a widespread economic downturn. It is a timely reminder to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves if reduced to similar circumstances – a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, the common breath

Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

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

Book Review: Holiday Heart

“By this point, Lucía knew that her argument was falling apart, that the things she was saying were only distantly connected to what she’d read. She simply wanted to say them, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do so.”

Holiday Heart, by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), is the story of a crumbling marriage. It opens on Miami beach where Lucía and her young children – twins, Rosa and Tomás – are watching the Fourth of July fireworks. They arrived earlier in the day to spend a fortnight at Lucía’s parents’ holiday apartment where they will be looked after by Cindy, an American of Cuban descent. Lucía and her husband, Pablo, are Columbian immigrants – educated and financially successful but hankering after an elusive satisfaction in the life they lead.

Pablo has recently suffered heart issues which brought to light his infidelities. He remains at their home in New Haven, recuperating. His actions, though, are secondary to resentments that have been bubbling to the surface for years. Pablo and Lucía goad each other with both their silences and conversation. They try to be good parents but neither of them truly enjoys being with their children.

“She wondered if giving birth to a child and just abandoning it to its fate – whether as the decision of a Spartan parent or out of necessity or tradition – would hurt less than giving birth to it only to neurotically monitor the area surrounding it every day: that diminutive, infinite space filled with dreadful and uncontrollable dangers.”

Pablo, a teacher, is writing a novel. Having read through the manuscript, Lucía accuses him of yearning for his homeland – something she regards with derision. The reader is offered snapshots of his past through interactions with his wider family. For them, making a life in America is regarded as a success in itself.

Lucía writes a column for a magazine in which she is highly critical of her husband, claiming artistic licence when Pablo complains. He feels that he lost her when the twins were born and Lucía took the reins in how they would be raised. On holiday at Miami Beach, the children have more fun with Cindy than they do with their mother. She views the friendly young woman as trashy but is jealous of her easy affinity with the youngsters, especially Rosa. Both Pablo and Lucía are critical of many aspects of demeanour they observe in other immigrants.

“His shirt is tucked in and he wears a blue suit jacket that screams cheap. Bad taste in clothes is the last sign of an impoverished background to disappear. Sometimes it never leaves. Almost all of the high school teachers are of Latino descent: they are the sons and daughters of technicians, plumbers, maids, supermarket cashiers. Getting an education, unlike their parents, doesn’t make them any less rough around the edges, if anything the contrary.”

The key lives portrayed are brimming with dissatisfaction making this a rather bleak tale to engage with. The writing style is taut and flowing but neither Pablo nor Lucía elicit sympathy – their actions appearing foolish and weak. I was left curious as to the veracity in terms of the immigrant experience: if assimilation creates a disconnect, if expectations can ever be met. Pablo ponders the life his unmarried aunt, Lety, has chosen for herself, unable to understand how she can be content when her job is running a launderette. It is, perhaps, because neither Pablo nor Lucía can find the joy in what they already have that I struggled to empathise.

A well structured and written tale but not one I especially enjoyed reading. Maybe the insular and stifling reflections of the privileged characters were not the best choice for me given current lockdown economic concerns and restrictions.

Holiday Heart is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Book Review: The Narrow Land

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950. It is a study of people, how they regard themselves and how they are judged by those they meet. There is an undercurrent of sadness, of privilege failing to offer fulfilment. The ebbs and flows of both adult and child relationships are evoked with skill.

The story opens by introducing ten year old Michael who was brought to America from Germany after the Second World War as part of a government programme offering a new way of life to orphaned children. Michael was adopted by the Novak’s whose infant son died. Now Mrs Novak is pregnant again and Michael is concerned that he is being dismissed from their home in New York as he is no longer required. Mrs Novak views the opportunity to send him to Cape Cod for the summer as potentially beneficial for all involved.

The Kaplans have taken a summer rental on Cape Cod for their family and friends. Mrs Kaplan suggested to Mrs Novak that Michael join them as a playmate for her grandson, Richie, who is still grieving for his father, killed in the Second World War. It is assumed by the adults that the boys will get on despite their backgrounds and upbringing being so different. Their summer by the beach is regarded as a treat for which they are expected to be grateful.

Not far from the Kaplan’s holiday home is the summer residence of the artist, Edward Hopper, and his volatile wife, Josephine. Unlike the local adults, who fawn over the famous artist in their midst, the young boys are unaware of the couple’s celebrity status. Michael and then Richie strike up a friendship with the pair that then draws the Kaplans and Hoppers together. Josephine grows jealous of her husband’s perceived interest in this household of women.

The points of view shift as the story progresses offering a window into each of the key characters’ thoughts, disappointments and aspirations. Josephine is a particularly complex character, not likeable but evoking a degree of sympathy. Her feelings towards her husband and his work are proprietorial and demanding:

“deafened by the clash of envy and pride, admiration and resentment”

Loneliness and self-pity are explored as is the disconnect that occurs when expectation leads to misunderstanding. The Hoppers are shown to connect with both boys better than the Kaplans, who demand a standard of behaviour that suits their societal standing. They project their own thoughts and interpretations onto these young people, rarely concerning themselves with reactions.

Katherine Kaplan, who is ill and declining, offers friendship to a besotted Michael but not loyalty when it matters. Edward is also drawn to her fading beauty, a risky preoccupation given his wife’s temper.

Josephine regards herself as a talented artist whose work deserved some of the attention her husband achieved. She blames him for not being a sufficiently loyal advocate over the years of their marriage. When she attends a party at the Kaplans’ she tries to raise her cachet amongst the guests by putting others down.

“She feels sorry then and slightly ashamed of herself for trying to demean them by demeaning their lives.”

When she overhears how this behaviour was regarded, something she has heard said of her before, she is mortified and blames Edward for not doing more to ensure her talents are revered by the people they meet. We are shown that Edward has been doing the best he can.

The writing flows gently throughout yet offers a depth of insight as the summer progresses towards fall and festering frustrations bubble to the surface. Each of the characters is flawed with the denouement offering an alternative view of their behaviours when another couple arrives on the scene.

The narrative is haunting as reader empathy is sparked and then repeatedly challenged. A deceptively straightforward story that provides a lingering, satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Vanish in an Instant

Vanish in an Instant, by Margaret Millar, is an old time crime thriller set in small town America’s mid west. First published in 1952 it needs to be read with an awareness of attitudes at the time. The women all appear to be looking for a husband, the men for a woman who takes care of her appearance. A new romance that blossoms was the one aspect I couldn’t make sense of in what is otherwise a carefully crafted tale.

The story opens with a concerned mother, Mrs Hamilton, flying into town to help her married daughter, Virginia, who is being held at the county jail following a murder. Virginia, was picked up by local police, seriously drunk and covered in the blood of the victim. They had been out together the night before. Virginia cannot remember anything about what happened at the cottage where the body of the married man was found.

A local lawyer, Eric Meecham, has been called in by Virginia’s husband, Paul. Mrs Hamilton takes an instant dislike to Eric. The mother is resentful that her son-in-law hasn’t managed to prevent the possibility of such a situation occurring. She appears overbearing but not entirely surprised at developments.

Before Eric can make progress with uncovering what happened, a witness appears whose evidence allows Virginia to walk free. Late night meetings and a series of unhappy marriages bring with them the whiff of dodgy deals. A further death takes Eric out of town where he becomes embroiled in the well being of an elderly alcoholic who the second victim was trying to help.

There are the requisite twists and blind alleys as the affected families and those associated with them reveal their links to both victims. Eric appears content to work without payment, despite it being offered on numerous occasions, as he follows leads and tries to uncover the truth of a sorry situation.

The writing flows and the plot is well structured. The denouement provides answers to the puzzle with the scattered clues now making sense. The era evoked brings to the fore the dissatisfaction and frustrations of, particularly, the female characters. This may be old time crime – lacking forensic analysis and effective, dogged police work –  but it offers a window into sociological aspects that are still not as distant as many of us desire.

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