Book Review: The Last Good Man

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Last Good Man is set in a dystopian future. Fires burn in the city and many have died. With food scarce and basic services and utilities failing, there is a sense that the end of times approaches. Rumours circulate of communities in the countryside but these are as often about the masses that have perished as about the possibility of survival and a better way of life.

The protagonist of the story, Duncan Peck, travels to Dartmoor after receiving an invitation to visit from his estranged friend, James Hale. Duncan’s mother took James in when he was a boy and the two ‘cousins’ grew up together. Four years previously, James left the city without telling Duncan – a betrayal that still smarts. Since then, life has become ever more untenable. With nothing now to lose, Duncan seeks change.

The remote town on Dartmoor, where James now lives, has developed an innovative justice system. It relies on community snitching and a type of ochlocracy. A vast wall casts a shadow over the town and residents are encouraged to post their grievances on it. If a name appears several times then it is assumed there is some truth in the accusations that require punishment. If the writing is on the wall then it is acted on.

The community functions using a system of reward based on perceived behaviour. There is no currency as such but each resident is expected to contribute by carrying out useful tasks in return for a share of goods produced. James has been given the role of punishing transgressors, stepping into the shoes of a long time resident who fell from grace following a murky family dispute. James has accepted the need for violence in maintaining order, to a degree that initially shocks Duncan.

Arriving at a time when the number of serious accusations is increasing, Duncan is wary of the veracity of what is being written on the wall. There are many petty matters but also more troubling allegations. When James’s closest neighbours find themselves the focus of attention, loyalty is demanded whatever the truth of the matter.

There is a history of tragedy and infidelity to unpick. Respected individuals may expect bounty but goodwill can quickly be lost. Duncan is welcomed by many but draws ire from a dangerous source. He recognises the potential for good in a town working together to attain self sufficiency but also how its customs encourage backstabbing as payback for personal grudges.

The story starts well, drawing the reader into how things are without too much overt exposition. The writing is fluid and world building imaginative, although much is left unexplained. Plot progression, however, proceeds in fits and starts. At times it coasts, the loss of momentum making the prose appear bloated, before a sudden turn of events effectively jump starts interest.

Too many of the characters never become fully formed – introduced and then largely ignored. Human nature is portrayed as so flawed as to make people unlikable, whatever guise they don. It became hard to root for the community’s survival amidst the dying that still surrounds them. The title suggests goodness exists yet clemency is depicted as currency that will require a reckoning. Likewise kindness is offered only by those who expect to gain personally.

There will likely be readers who can more easily accept the violence and selfishness than I managed. Mass deaths and the breakdown of society may lead to such behaviour but the lack of hope made the story a challenge to enjoy.

Any Cop?: A depressing depiction of a world ravaged in which survivors prove themselves no better than the worst of those who exist now. A dispiriting read that I could have done without.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Beastings

Beastings, by Benjamin Myers, is a raw and shocking tale set in the wilds of the English Lake District. The author’s prose retains its signature poetic quality but is used here to flay any notions of easy tranquility when up against nature. Characters are depicted as elemental – brutal in their determination to protect the way they live.

A teenage girl, raised by nuns in a pitiless workhouse, takes her employers’ baby and flees their home in Cumberland. She plans to cross the fells in hope of reaching the sea. The girl seeks a life away from people. Her existence to date has been one of endless abuse. She wishes to offer the child a chance of a better life than she has had to accept.

When the abduction is discovered the baby’s father turns to the town priest for help. It was the church that placed the girl in his home to help with chores his wife’s sickness prevents her from completing. The priest has personal reasons to wish the girl be found and returned to the church’s care.

The priest employs the services of a poacher and his dog to track the absconders. The poacher has heard rumours of the priest’s proclivities but has reasons of his own for helping a man with such influence. He does not expect it to take long to catch up with a young girl considered ‘a dummy’ and lacking provisions.

The story told is of the chase. Narrative switches between: the girl, those she meets, the poacher and priest. Journeying across high ground in order to avoid locals and tourists – who may have been alerted to the taking of a baby – the travellers encounter few people other than men hardened to survival in a lonely and rugged terrain.

The priest is a monstrous creation – the church at its worst. He is contemptuous of his congregation and believes he deserves the rewards he grants himself for ‘doing God’s work’. As he and the poacher traverse the fells, their conversation reveals details of the life he leads. When faced with those who will not bend to his will he responds with cold brutality.

As days pass, the girl struggles to find food for herself and the baby. She knows that she will be hunted and must keep moving if she is to succeed in getting away. Gradually, her backstory is revealed and the reader comes to understand the extent of the suffering she has faced – why she is so determined to escape. She is just one of many taken in by the church as an act of charity, used and then punished for the sin of existing.

In an era before mass tourism, the locals eke out their livings against a landscape of fearsome beauty but hard won takings. There is a poverty of expectation in communities where choice is limited by economics and location.

“I do believe killing is bad.
The Priest raised his head from the fire and looked at him.
Yet you kill animals every day.
That’s different.
[…]
They’re just animals.
And humans aren’t?
[…]
Some of them are pests Father.
So are some humans.”

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It is tense and engaging but filled with horror and hate filled individuals who think nothing of violating others knowing they will get away with it. It is also quite brilliant in the way it remorselessly evokes the time and place.

A succinct and skilful rendition of base behaviour in a bleak yet awe inspiring landscape.

Originally released by Bluemoose Books, Beastings is now published by Bloomsbury.

Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: Cinderella is Dead

Cinderella is Dead is pitched as Queer Black girls take over the patriarchy – and it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a fun, quick read – the sort of book I’m so glad today’s teenagers get to grow up with. The plot is mostly predictable, the twists standard young adult fantasy fare, but the fierce sapphic women are delightful enough to read about to make this a worthy addition to the genre.

The book follows Sophia – unapologetically herself, but born into a world where that person isn’t accepted. In her world, men rule the roost. Women are required to attend once-yearly Balls – in homage to the original Ball where Cinderella found her Prince Charming – where they will be selected by a husband. If a woman fails to be chosen, she is cast out. There is no space for women who think for themselves – let alone women who happen to fall in love with other women. Sophia does both, and she can’t understand why no-one else seems to be fighting for change.

I love Sophia. Plenty of teenagers will empathise with her rage at the world and its injustices, and her determination to fight against it – even when everyone else has given up because of the seemingly insurmountable odds. Sophia is feisty and reckless, but also beautifully caring and human. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends – even when they can’t see it – and sticks fast to her principles even when they get her in trouble. She isn’t unflawed – her practical skills are lacking (which leads to a brilliant scene between her and Constance about making bread, my favourite part of the book) and she trusts incredibly quickly – but her heart is always in the right place.

Constance is the badass warrior woman all girls want to be. Need to make a bomb? She’s your girl. Want to know how to kill a man? She’s got that down. I actually wish we got more of her backstory because her upbringing sounds incredible but very little of her past is revealed. Her relationship with Sophia was delightful – perfectly paced and believable, which is something of a rarity in young adult romance. I was rooting for them the entire time.

Overall, this is an excellent young adult fantasy. The twists might not surprise you, but it’s still fun with characters you want to root for. Recommended for any teenager and any young adult fantasy fan – especially those who need more sapphic characters in their lives.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Paperback: 6 August 2020

Robyn Reviews: Sway – Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Agarwal also clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science from musings which have yet to be proven, presenting references for each argument made and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. Science is ever-evolving, and sadly this is an under-researched field.

Sway is split into several sections. The first, ‘Hardwired’, covers basic neuroscience and psychology – how our brains create an image of ourselves, the world, and how the two fit together. It unravels the pathways involved to give a grounding to the lay reader. I have a neuroscience background, so whilst this was interesting I can’t comment on its accessibility to someone new to the field. However, Agarwal includes several diagrams to illustrate her points, and I imagine these will be very useful to those trying to picture the concepts she describes.

The second section, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, covers the ways in which our brains reinforce biases and prevent us moving past them. This was fascinating. It covered things like hindsight bias – believing after something has happened that we knew would happen from the start, even though we actually had no or very little idea. These are concepts which we rarely consider day-to-day but are incredibly important for acknowledging our own limitations and mistakes. We cannot confront our own biases and blind spots unless we’re aware that they exist. Agarwal includes plenty of examples and anecdotes to prevent the material becoming dry, again citing all her sources so that those interested can read further.

The third section, ‘Sex Type-Cast’ covers what everyone thinks of when they think of bias – prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia. It also covers things that people might think of less – fatphobia, ageism, and discrimination based on ‘beauty’ or conventional attractiveness. Agarwal combines scientific data with her own polls carried out on Twitter, with some rather interesting results. After all, one of the well-known biases in science is research bias – those involved in research studies, including those on bias, are not representative of the whole population, but instead just of the population willing to get involved in research. This is a different group to those happy to spend a few milliseconds clicking on a Twitter poll. Agarwal doesn’t claim huge scientific accuracy to her Twitter poll data, merely including it as a point of intrigue – it supplements the more conventional sources very well.

The final section, ‘Moral Conundrum’ looks to the future and the impact of technology on bias. Technology is claimed by many to be the solution to bias – why would a robot care about race? The answer, of course, is that robots care about race because the humans programming it do, and the data sets they are trained on have their own intrinsic biases. There is a chapter in this section called ‘Good Intentions’ which covers the incredibly contentious topic of how trying to reduce bias can end up increasing or reinforcing it, which should be mandatory reading for everyone. Agarwal covers the issue masterfully and without judgement, merely presenting the facts and highlighting the importance of education and continual learning. Being completely unbiased is impossible – all we can do is continue to learn from our mistakes, learn our own biases, and act on them.

Overall, this is an excellent book – well-researched, informative without being dry, and highlighting some incredibly topical issues. Recommended for everyone.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover: 2nd April 2020

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by JK Rowling, is the fourth installment in the popular children’s series that follows the eponymous wizard through his years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is a review of the 20th Anniversary edition, published in the four Hogwarts House colours that each include distinct content. Pottermore sorted me into Ravenclaw so it is this book that I purchased. As my daughter is in Slytherin I also mention the additional content that varies between these two house editions.

The original Goblet of Fire was the first Harry Potter book that I read. It impressed me enough to purchase the previous three books in the series – and to pre-order each subsequent release. My review is therefore a reread after many years and having watched the film adaptation on numerous occasions. Being familiar with the story will have impacted my reaction to the writing.

The book opens with an introduction to Ravenclaw. It summarises key plot points in the following story, from the House perspective. If reading for the first time it may be wise to leave this section until the end in order to avoid spoilers.

There is then a map of the grounds of Hogwarts drawn as an ink sketch. Illustrations in this style enhance other sections.

The story proper starts with a chapter titled ‘The Riddle House’. An elderly gardener spots a light in the empty house he has long worked at. On investigating this suspected break-in he encounters his first wizard. He is not treated well.

From the second chapter the reader follows Harry Potter and his friends. As with previous books in the series, the timeline opens in the summer holidays. Harry is whisked away from his unhappy home where he lives with his uncle, aunt and cousin. The family of his best friend from school, Ron Weasley, invite Harry to join them at the Quidditch World Cup. The third member of the children’s friendship group, Hermione Granger, is also invited. These early chapters serve to bring the reader up to speed with previous plot developments and key elements of the wizarding world. Such detail may be necessary, and I recognise this is a story aimed at children, but it did come across somewhat as an info-dump.

As well as the excitement of attending a magical, world ranking, sporting event, including enjoying the match itself, dastardly deeds occur involving dark wizards. The Weasleys and their guests return home subdued and concerned. There is little time for the youngsters to reflect on what happened as the new school term is imminent. Within days they must travel to London and board the Hogwarts Express.

The school year is enlivened by the announcement of an historic tournament to take place over the coming year, hosted by Hogwarts. Students from two other witchcraft and wizardry schools in Europe will visit to compete. As part of the traditions surrounding this event there will be a Yule Ball for students from the more senior years. All of this adds colour to a plot line that still revolves around more normal school activities.

House rivalries play out, exacerbated by the interest of a tabloid reporter, Rita Skeeter, who has somehow breached the Hogwarts defences. Harry is favoured by the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. The boy is again picked on by the Potions professor, Severus Snape. Care of Magical Creatures teacher, Rubeus Hagrid, has found yet more dangerous animals for his pupils to care for, injecting welcome humour into the tale. The tasks set for the Tri-Wizard Tournament provide challenge and peril, giving the three friends much to work on. House elves play a role, especially when Hermione decides they should be freed. The visiting students allow the reader to learn of additional magical powers, previously unmentioned, including historic prejudices and allegiances.

Despite the length of the book – some 600 pages – the pace, action and development retain reader engagement. The climax is well balanced to portray the horror of where the series thus far has been leading. Clues dropped along the way are pulled together in a lengthy dialogue – another info-dump but a useful explanation.

A subdued end to the academic year sets the scene for the series arc to continue in a more focused direction. With the cast aging there has been a shift in character development to appeal to a slightly older readership than previously.

The book concludes with three additional sections: a brief reminder of key moments in the life of a Ravenclaw alumnus, Garrick Ollivander; a look at some of the magical paintings that hang in Hogwarts; a quiz on what has just been read (I scored 9/10).

The Slytherin edition opens with an introduction focusing on this house. In the concluding, additional sections the alumnus is Lord Voldemort. The magical paintings section surprised me by mentioning events that happen in later books in the series. It is revealed that characters in paintings may move beyond Hogwarts, not just within the school as was suggested in the Ravenclaw edition. The quiz that concludes the book is the same.

I am a fan of the Harry Potter books and this reread has not changed that opinion. What it has done is to highlight certain flaws in the style of writing. Nevertheless, the popularity of the series, and the young people it has brought to book reading, make such quibbles appear pernickety. I am not the target audience but still thoroughly enjoyed the tale.

I purchase the 20th Anniversary editions as they become available. It is pleasing to see how well my growing collection looks on my shelves.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is published by Bloomsbury.

 

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling, is the third installment in the popular fantasy fiction series chronicling the eponymous boy wizard’s years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This review is of the 20th anniversary edition and is a reread of the main story. As Pottermore sorted me into Ravenclaw and my daughter into Slytherin I had access to both house hardback editions. I reviewed the first in the series and wrote about these anniversary editions here. I reviewed the second book in the series here.

This book opens with an introduction that selects and comments on house relevant facets of the story to follow. There is then an interesting pencil drawn map of Hogwarts and its grounds – a useful reminder of key features for those of us who last read the book well over a decade ago. Anyone picking up this edition who is new to the tale may enjoy perusing these details once they have read the main story.

As with the other books in the series, this one starts around Harry’s birthday which falls during the long summer holidays that he must spend with his only living but mutually hated relatives, the Dursleys. Vernon Dursley’s sister is due to visit and she takes great delight in besmirching the memory of Harry’s late parents, leading to unfortunate consequences. Believing he has no other choice, Harry flees. Luckily for him the magical world has ways of coming to the rescue of witches and wizards in need. It is touches such as this that makes the imaginative world invented so entertaining.

The key plot around which the story pivots is the escape from the notorious prison, Azkaban, of a mass murderer named Sirius Black. Nobody has ever escaped from Azkaban before the the Ministry of Magic is concerned that Sirius will try to get to Hogwarts in order to harm Harry. The reason for this fear is slowly revealed, mostly through overheard conversations. The adults wish to protect the children by not telling them why Sirius would be interested in Harry, but of course they want to know.

This is still, though, mostly a story about thirteen year old school friends who attend a boarding school and the details of their lives in this closed world. There are rivalries – especially on the quidditch pitch – along with the usual bullying and favouritism. Harry’s friends – Ron and Hermione – have a falling out when Hermione’s cat takes a dislike to Ron’s pet rat. New classes are introduced along with the annual change of teacher for Defence Against the Dark Arts.

This year’s Dark Arts teacher takes a shine to Harry and offers to help him deal with his intense reaction to the cohort of Azkaban guards who now patrol the Hogwarts perimeter. He proves a useful ally when Professor Snape sees his chance to gain revenge for an old grudge.

Answers are provided around wider world building, such as why the whomping willow was planted within school grounds. There are also new magical artifacts to enjoy, including the Marauders Map. The village of Hogsmeade is introduced and certain of its mysteries revealed. As with everything in this series, details are included for a reason.

The writing includes lengthy descriptive sections but remains entertaining enough to hold reader attention. As this was a reread I was already aware of plot direction but picked up on many humorous references missed previously. Aimed at children, the circumvention the protagonists attain from pesky adult interference will no doubt be a delight to younger readers.

The penultimate scenes involve risky adventure and bravery along with tying up of plot threads and further details about Harry’s parents. The denouement takes us to the end of the school year – I particularly enjoyed the final page.

These special editions are rounded of with a house specific discussion on the Patronus spell – the conjuring of a temporary guardian figure. There is also a line drawing of a house member with their patronus. The Slytherin edition offered an interesting tidbit on Severus Snape that I had not previously considered.

In buying these special editions I out myself as a fan of the series. Nevertheless, the book easily stood up to rereading. Enjoyable and recommended.

The Harry Potter series is published in its many forms by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: The Offing

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, is written in prose that is as mesmerising as poetry. The author conjures up a potent sense of place, rendering the beauty and power of nature alongside man’s small place in it. The tale is humbling but also uplifting. This is writing to be savoured.

The story is narrated by Robert Appleyard, son of a miner working the pits around Durham. Now facing old age, Robert is looking back on a pivotal summer when he was sixteen and hungry for freedom. Growing up he understood that, once finished with school, the colliery beckoned as it had his father and grandfather. Before accepting this fate, he decides to satisfy a hunger for a different experience. The Second World War is not long over and the transience of life, the need not to waste what precious moments are granted, is seared into a mind still reeling from horrific images of mass graves.

“Wars continue long after the fighting has stopped, and the world felt then as if it were full of holes. It appeared to me scarred and shattered, a place made senseless by those in positions of power.”

“no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.”

With a pack on his back, Robert sets out from home one morning to explore whatever is beyond the village where he has spent his life to date. He sleeps in outbuildings or under hedges, doing odd jobs to earn food along the way. Having felt cooped up in a classroom, where lessons dragged interminably, he relishes being outdoors, unknown and unconstrained. He walks from Durham across Cumbria and through North Yorkshire, to where the land meets the sea.

“This was agricultural rather than industrial terrain – of the earth rather than stained by it.”

“I experienced frequent and quite unexpected moments of exhilaration at the overwhelming sense of purposelessness that I now had. I could go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone.”

Although drinking in his newfound freedom, Robert’s outlook is still limited by the beliefs drummed into him about what someone like him can expect to achieve. He is therefore unprepared when he meets Dulcie Piper, a wealthy and eccentric older lady living in a rundown cottage above a remote bay. She recognises the potential in the boy and sets about inculcating an appreciation of literature. Amongst other pleasures, including fine cooking and wider thinking, she introduces him to poetry.

Dulcie is a fabulous creation with her disregard for rules, religion and those in authority.

“I have seen other wars. Read about plenty more too. And what I’ve learned is that they’re all much the same […] most people just want a quiet life. A nice meal, a little love. A late-night stroll. A lie-in on a Sunday. As I said before, don’t despise the Germans.”

“‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.”

Dulcie tells Robert stories from a colourful history, lends him books, expresses opinions he has never before considered. Over the course of the coming weeks she awakens in him a deeper understanding of possibilities. Alongside their burgeoning friendship the verdant surroundings shares its bounty. Robert is enraptured by the sea, the land and its creatures. In time he learns why Dulcie, with her wealth and connections, has settled in this place.

Plot development is gentle. The joy of the book is the language: the rich descriptions of nature, the wit and wisdom of dialogue. Although set in a time that too many hark back to with nostalgia, it has contemporary relevance. Time is marked in the shape of the land more than the history of man’s repeated foolishness fuelled by ego.

“the Great War was the worst atrocity committed by humankind. What lessons were learned? Build bigger bombs and better bombs, that’s all. Hitler still happened, and there’ll be another angry little man along in due course. I sometimes think that in many ways we’re completely screwed, all the time. I suppose it’s a collective state of insanity. It must be, to keep repeating the same patterns of death and violence.”

Perhaps because of such sentiments, the life Dulcie has lived, and introduces Robert to, is one of making the most of every moment. She has taken pleasure wherever it may be found: nature and literature, food and wine, love and travel. A tragedy haunts her yet she retains an enthusiasm for life, eschewing societal strictures. She shows Robert that he has choices beyond family expectation.

I finished this novel both with tears in my eyes and feeling like punching the air with satisfaction. It made me want to go straight out and enjoy a long walk through the local fields to appreciate what matters in our still beautiful world. There may always be the endless bickering of dull men about: politics, loss of respect for some self-appointed hierarchy, the good old days. Of more import and value is the breathing in and out of the seasons. Nature renews and offers itself as a balm for those willing to engage. Perspectives in life need not be those imposed by oppressors.

I enjoyed this story, the power of its words and beauty of its language. The author has delivered something special. I recommend you read it.

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

Book Review: You Will Be Safe Here

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Like many countries colonised by Europeans over the centuries, South Africa has a distressing history of entitlement leading to brutality. A population of disparate groups evolves, with each believing the land is rightfully theirs. War and political change lead to festering resentments passed down through generations. Inculcated prejudices can result in the dehumanisation of those considered other for a variety of reasons.

You Will Be Safe Here explores a number of such prejudices. It opens with a short prologue that introduces sixteen year old Willem Brandt as he is taken to a New Dawn Camp by his mother and her fiancé. They hope that the military style training regime will fix Willem, turning him into what they regard as a normal man.

The story then jumps back from 2010 to 1901. Written in the form of a diary, this section covers a month in the life of Sarah van der Watt whose husband is away fighting with Afrikaner commandos in the Second Boer War. The British army are trying to crush resistance to their occupation by rounding up Afrikaner families along with their slaves. Possessions are sifted through and confiscated before homes are burned to the ground. The people are loaded into trains and taken to segregated camps – the population thereby concentrated and contained. Knowing what is about to happen, Sarah and her six year old son, Fred, are preparing to leave the farm they have wrested from the veld.

Sarah is asked by the British soldiers to sign an oath of neutrality. In refusing she condemns herself to live in conditions that grow ever harsher. She will come to pay a heavy price for what she regards as necessary loyalty.

“I hate the Khakis but hand-uppers disgust me because they surrendered, they gave up the land we fought the Zulu for at Blood River. God cannot grant their prayers.”

The irony of her actions – that she considers the country that her forebears took and then cultivated with slave labour to be rightfully hers – doesn’t cross her mind.

Sarah’s diary offers a picture of day to day life in the camp. It is a stark portrayal of starvation, disease and death. The British may not have actively murdered their prisoners but in Bloemfontein they did as little as they could get away with to keep them alive. Over the course of this war, more civilians died in the British concentration camps than soldiers on the battlefield.

The second section of the story is set in Johannesburg, starting in 1976 when sixteen year old Rayna is assaulted on her way home from school and falls pregnant. In an attempt to avoid a scandal she quickly marries. The union is not a success and her husband leaves to work in the northern diamond mines. Financially supported and mostly left alone, Rayna quietly shuns societal conventions. Leaving her son with the home help, she finds work and then has a second child.

The timeline moves forward through the decades during which Rayna becomes a grandmother and the political situation in South Africa alters in ways she struggles to accept. There is a perception of encroaching violence resulting in the white population living behind walls and installing increasingly high tech security.

Meanwhile, the Afrikaner children choose to speak English when together – the language of their parents now associated with school.

The story enables the reader to better understand the differing backgrounds of contemporary white South Africans. Prejudices portrayed are not just based on race. The penultimate section, detailing Willem’s time at the New Dawn Camp, is a chilling indictment of homophobia. It also serves to pull each strand of the tale together.

The writing is deft and compelling, illuminating a terrible history with quiet competence and humanity. Despite their flawed thinking, their skewed sense of the ‘natural order’, the characters are presented with a degree of sympathy – as the product of a blinkered heritage.

The author writes:

“The Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902) are no longer taught in British or South African schools. They are now almost fondly remembered as a great Victorian adventure, the stuff of Boy’s Own stories.”

“Camps like New Dawn still operate across South Africa. They are for white boys only and run by former soldiers […] who believe that one day white South Africa will rise again and finally right the historic wrongs of the Boer Wars.”

Any Cop?: It is horrifying to consider the cruelties so casually meted out in camps set centuries apart. Based on actual events, this story is both powerful and tragic. It offers a vital lesson in where prejudice can lead.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, is a collection of nine short stories, some of which are standalone and others interlinked. It opens with a triptych involving the writer of a highly successful fantasy series and her one time boyfriend who became a moderately successful poet. The jealousies and elitism of the literary world feature. There is desire for recognition and esteem but also commercial success.

Throughout the collection the protagonists are mostly elderly, looking back over their lives with a degree of regret. It is refreshing to have older people portrayed fully rounded – as more than a stereotype or the first impression they give.

The first story is Alphinland in which Constance is mourning the recent death of her husband, Ewan. An ice storm is blowing in and, for the first time, she must deal with the practicalities of the event herself. She still hears Ewan talk to her, offering advice that is prescient. Constance welcomes this interaction. When alive Ewan had been supportive if somewhat condescending of her achievements. She is a prolific author whose books have been developed on multiple media including a popular on line game. Despite its success, her work has long been derided by the literary establishment. Ewan struggled to take what she did seriously. Constance used it as a means of escape and a way to punish those who hurt her, including the woman she blames for the break up of her first serious relationship with a poet who regarded his own work as far superior.

The second story, Revenant, introduces the reader to Gavin and his much younger third wife, Reynolds. Gavin is bored and frustrated by the way she now treats him – like ‘a dysfunctional pet’. He believes women should ‘labour to be beautiful’, and hankers back to the years when they did so and then fell for his charms, accepting the inevitability of his advances even when forced. He is also frustrated that the poems he now writes are past their best. When a young student arranges to interview him he behaves badly – mainly because it is not his work that is the focus of her research.

The final story in the triptych is Dark Lady in which Jorrie indulges her fixation with other people’s deaths. She lives with her twin brother, Tin, who does his best to steer her wilder impulses away from appearing foolish to a casually critical public audience. When Jorrie spots that an old boyfriend, Gavin Putnam, has died she wishes to attend the funeral. Tin reluctantly agrees to accompany her. It proves an enlightening experience as adversaries come together and long held misconceptions are aired.

Lusus Naturae tells the tale of a child who contracts an illness that turns her into a monster. Aware that having such a being in the family will adversely affect her sister’s future prospects the family fake the monster child’s death. She must then live her life out of sight, something she is content to do. Over time, however, this proves a lonely existence. A quest for a mate puts her in deadly danger.

The Freeze Dried Groom offers up another man who feels frustrated that he cannot indulge his desires for the personal attention of beautiful and compliant women. Sam owns an antique shop, buying the contents of storage units as a means of sourcing stock. He also has a sideline. On the day his wife asks him to leave he finds more than he bargained for inside a newly purchased unit. The prospect of risk with potential reward proves hard to resist.

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from the author’s novel The Robber Bride. Elderly friends are concerned when an old flame makes a move on the gullible Charis, worrying that he has his eye on her recent inheritance. They had persuaded her to get a dog in the hope it would offer protection. They come to believe that the dog may be more wily than expected.

The Dead Hand Loves You is another tale of a successful writer affected throughout his long life by actions during his college years. Jack Dace is still best known for his first work, a horror story that was subsequently adapted for film. He has never felt quite comfortable with the literary worth of the novel that has provided his wealth, and how he is therefore perceived by those he wishes to impress. He is also resentful that the housemates he had while writing the book have benefited from his material success. He sets out to avenge what he regards as their unfair exploitation.

Stone Mattress is the tale of a serial killer – a woman who has made her fortune by seeking out wealthy but unwell husbands and then bringing about their deaths. Set on an arctic expedition, it was written when the author was on such an adventure as a way of entertaining fellow passengers with a story of how to murder one of their number without getting caught. It is a tale of revenge.

The collection is rounded off with Torching the Dusties, a troubling exploration of what could happen if young people grew so angry with the wealthy elderly, who they blame for making their world so bleak, that they decide to forcibly end their lives. Set in an upmarket care home, the secluded environment is put under siege when protesters cut off supplies and remove staff. The residents rally, but outside the protest is gaining support and momentum.

As may be expected from Margaret Atwood, these stories are skilfully written with many touching but also piercing asides. There is humour and wit, especially around the frustrated entitlement felt by certain men, and the literati. Although I prefer the development and depth of her longer works there is much here that can be dipped into and enjoyed. A well polished, engaging and worthwhile read.

Stone Mattress is published by Bloomsbury.