Book Review: Bitterhall

bitterhall

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Fragments of an Infinite Memory

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I’m thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I’ve lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.”

Maël Renouard is a French writer and translator. He has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure. In this, his latest book, he muses on how day to day life has changed due to ease of access to the internet – smart phones providing a plethora of knowledge, news and entertainment on demand.

Across eleven chapters, the author offers short opinion pieces and recollections – vignettes that look at how sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people curate their lives and memories.

“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends one hasn’t seen in years? Time lost in search of lost time.”

He posits that views of the world and self have changed, and that internet apps have altered how we interact as well as how we anticipate and then record experiences.

The second chapter opens with a list of comments left below YouTube videos of hits from a number of past decades. The nostalgia evoked is, with almost equal frequency, a source of sadness and joy for users.

Such digital repositories have revised how people learn and live. And yet, there remains a hankering for what went before.

“someone told me that a few months earlier he had created a start-up that offered to print out SMS conversations on little scrolls (and perhaps soon bind them into books as well, he added); his business was flourishing beyond all hopes.”

As users move from physical to digital, what had once seemed commonplace becomes rare, such as letters sent by post. The author mentions the worry he had when required to send a paper document and, holding the sealed envelope, experienced doubt that he had included the necessary item. With email he could simply check attachments in his ‘Sent’ folder.

In later chapters there are musings on the rich man’s dream of achieving immortality by downloading brain contents – whatever that may involve. It is pointed out that this has largely been achieved already. Online we leave writing, recordings and images that others may access and interact with. He assumes these will still exist after we die.

The author discusses the idea that artificial intelligence is nothing like intelligence in humans – the latter requiring consciousness and intentionality. Articulating what this means can be challenging.

“In a sci-fi film, a police officer says to an individual he has just unmasked as a humanoid robot: “You can’t write a novel or a concerto.” The robot replies: “Can you?”

Our wariness at the prospect of artificial intelligence possibly rests upon an even greater fear than that of being annihilated, enslaved, replaced etc. by machines (though we are quick to portray this as an irreparable loss to the universe): the fear of being unmasked as ‘feeble, humdrum creatures, mostly incapable of creating anything at all.’

On memory, there are reminders that fears existed in ancient times, following the invention of writing, that human capacity to memorise may be adversely effected.

The internet may be a repository for: knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self.

Chapters explore how and what we photograph now that smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have required expensive and delayed processing. Before we visit a place the internet can provide us with pictures of what we will see, that we may then photograph to prove we have been there and immediately share on line with ‘friends’ we may never have met. Examples are provided of how Facebook affects users, even its detractors.

“More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.”

There exist people who have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. The possibilities offered by the internet are reflected in works of fiction, with stories changing markedly when set after the years when use became ubiquitous.

Chapter nine, a favourite of mine, offers up a series of highly enjoyable contemporary tales written in a style reminiscent of the ancients. These provide salutary lessons, of those seeking recognition believed to be unfairly denied, or those who deign to be above using online means to promote themselves – by mentioning this they do so anyway.

Some of the thoughts, ideas and conjectures are more complex but by presenting them bite sized they are easily digested.

Any Cop?: Although sometimes rambling and digressive, this is an interesting perambulation through internet usage and the changes generated. A playful yet well considered explication of a modern marvel so many rely on and now take for granted.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Silent Letter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“we’re this, we are a moment”

The Silent Letter is a collection of poems written as the author, Jaume Subirana, is reaching his sixties. They harbour an appreciation of the now – of everyday life’s vistas and minutiae. The language used is measured yet piercing, avoiding the guttural and the crude in favour of more gentle observations. This does not remove vivid emotion but rather exudes a personal, internal understanding of wonders to be found in any time or place.

The poems bring to life the beauty of nature and its ability to calm inner turbulence. Time is given over to watching raindrops catching light on a windowpane. Snow blankets the ground, bringing with it a feeling of peace.

“A silent pause next. Winter’s silent letter.”

Such visual pleasures are presented succinctly, avoiding the garish, leaving a contrail of enchantment in what many will fail to notice as they chatter and look forward to their next experience. The poems offer a cessation in the rush and noise – the fear of missing some opportunity that blinds to what is here already.

The words conjure an intimacy – gentle beauty. The images evoked are discrete while still touching the senses.

Settings are various, each valued for aspects that all could enjoy if they took the time to observe and absorb ambience alongside fixtures. Art is stepped into. Empty space offers relief between the impressive scenes depicted on the walls of a castle-cathedral.

The poems are presented in the original Catalan and then the English translation. Even those that cover only a few lines are given a full page. This spacing encourages the reader to pause and absorb each choice of word and stanza fully.

The collection is followed by a Vita Nova by Jordi Galves in which he describes Subrirana’s work, ‘as disconnected as possible from the blind gregariousness of mere sheep.’

It is a refreshing pleasure to read such carefully constructed and moving poems that remain accessible while avoiding both bland and fruitied phrasing.

“We sip a sacrament
of light and silence”

Any Cop?: In achieving balance and perspective – cultural resonance drawn from life, nature and simple observation – the author provides inspiration to pay quiet attention and live well.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Greensmith

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In amongst her other work, Aliya Whiteley has published an impressive number of novels. She first came to my attention when I read The Arrival of Missives and realised she produced original stories in a style I wanted to read more of. Her writing is playful and imaginative, mind bending and intoxicating. Her characters defy stereotypes yet remain ordinary alongside the various features that make them extraordinary.

Greensmith opens with an introduction to its protagonist, Penelope Greensmith, in the form of an online dating profile. We learn that she is a scientist in her fifties who is now somewhat lonely. A war is mentioned, one that caused her to flee to a remote cottage with her life’s work. She collects and catalogues seeds, building a flower bank that includes many species which may now be extinct. The Collection was started by her late father, who raised her following the death of his wife. Penelope’s grown up daughter, Lily, does not share her mother’s passion for the ongoing project.

With a basic background in place, plot gathers pace when a stranger, Hort, arrives unexpectedly in Penelope’s cottage garden. He wishes to talk to her about her Collection and the device used to prepare the seeds for storage – named the Vice. Although wary at first, the thought of the online dating app reminds Penelope she was looking for greater connection with the world beyond her current existence. When news of a virulent plague reaches her, one that is killing all plant life across the globe, she must decide on her future.

When considering life and its preservation, man has a habit of focusing on himself and, perhaps, other mammals. Yet all living creatures rely on plants for air and sustenance. If the plants die suddenly – in this case coating the world in green sludge – it will not take long for every other life form to expire.

It turns out that Hort is an inter-galactic traveller looking for a solution to the virus that is affecting many planets, not just Earth. He asks Penelope to become his companion – bringing along her Vice and Collection – to try to save her world. Hort is persuasive, and Penelope rather likes the idea of becoming a hero.

So, Greensmith is science-fiction. This requires a degree of world building, or should I say universe building, which the author tackles with a hefty dollop of humour. She gets around some tricky concepts by pointing out the limitations of language. How, after all, can something be accurately and fully described in English when nothing like it has ever been seen or experienced by any English speaking people?

The human brain has a habit of anthropomorphising – it sees shapes in clouds, faces on tree trunks or such items as potatoes. When confronted with beings and situations beyond her comprehension, Penelope copes by seeing them as something she can recognise and name – she is, after all, an expert in cataloguing. Her first aliens, other than Hort, are flamencos. She views their antagonists as lizards dressed in armour, knowing they look different to beings from other worlds who will define by their own standards.

Hort is harder to pin down. Attractive and enigmatic, reservations hover around his trustworthiness. Having left Earth with him, however, Penelope has little choice but to follow his lead. The one thing she will not give him free rein over is her Vice and Collection. Hort struggles to understand how he is not unquestionably her handsome hero in the film he creates of his actions and subsequent memories.

As plot is developed and progressed, the author’s writing style comes into its own. Each diversion offered is a delight as well as a further layer in the quirky world building. Penelope never loses sight of her goal – to save planet Earth and thereby her daughter. What she comes to realise is how insignificant one time and place is in the scale of the universe – yet how important the smallest thing can be in making life worth preserving.

“when the largest things made no sense, relief could reside in the smallest objects, the ones that needed so badly to be cherished, instead.”

The denouement ties up threads with aplomb, leaving a sense of satisfaction without compromising all that has gone before.

Any Cop?: This is a tale that is clever yet lightly rendered, offering much to consider within a universe created from witty concepts playing with recognisable features. It is science fiction that focuses on the fun side of storytelling, with a hat tip to how astonishing our natural world is. A timely yet always entertaining reminder that Earth deserves wider protection – not management – for the good of us all.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Inside the Beautiful Inside

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bethlem Hospital began as a priory, founded in the 13th Century. By 1400 it had become a refuge for strangers in need. Over time, Bethlem specialised in caring for those considered insane. By the 17th century, the asylum was well-known enough to appear in dramas and ballads – used as a way to explore the popular question of who was mad, who was sane, and who had the power to decide.

When the second version of the hospital was constructed, in 1676, it was unlike any asylum seen before. Its opulent exterior was compared to the Palace of Versailles. However, the hospital was built on rubble – it didn’t have proper foundations. Because the ornate façade was so heavy, it immediately cracked at the back. Whenever it rained, the walls ran with water.

The new hospital was, quite literally, putting a pretty face on what many Londoners saw as a messy, distasteful problem. Visitors would pay to view the inmates and wonder at the grimness of their lives. Going to the hospital was meant to be an instructive reminder to keep baser instincts in check lest they too be committed.

Inside the Beautiful Inside is set in the crumbling Bethlem during its final decades, before it was torn down and rebuilt again elsewhere. The protagonist is an American marine, James Norris, a real life seaman who was an inmate from 1800 to 1815 – he was incarcerated for an unnamed lunacy. In this fictionalised account of his life, Norris served under Captain Bligh – of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – and was a friend of Fletcher Christian. The story opens with Norris saving Christian’s life whilst at sea.

The timeline then jumps forward to the day Norris is taken to Bethlem. Here he must endure under the cruel regime of the keepers and a drunken surgeon, tasked with patient care. Convinced that Christian is also an inmate, Norris is determined to wreak revenge on the man he now blames for ruining his chance of a happy life with a woman he spurned.

The appalling conditions in the asylum are brought to vivid life in the narrative. Norris survives by going inside his memories, particularly of happier times with a young Welsh woman, Ruth, who he hoped to marry. He has, over the course of his life, lost all those he cared for: mother, brother, lover, friend. By reliving his key memories, the reader learns of each of these relationships, albeit in fragments.

Norris’s eventual outcome was determined by three prominent reformers who were concerned by the condition and ill-treatment of patients in lunatic asylums. They used an illustration of Norris – mechanically restrained in an extraordinary device designed specifically for him after a series of violent incidents – to garner public interest and thereby orchestrate change.

The reasons for these incidents are used in the story to add depth to Norris’s character and subsequent actions. Told from his point of view, veracity is always in question. Norris holds tight to his memories as they are all that keep him going through the pain and degradation inflicted on him and his fellow inmates. Over the course of his time in Bethlem, Norris’s grasp on reality is severely tested.

Fascinating though it is to travel inside the head of someone living through such appalling circumstances, this was not an easy read. The memories Norris shares add colour and credence to his actions but life in Bethlem remains unremittingly grim. Although not a long book, I was eager for it to end. The denouement made more sense when I looked up what happened to Norris in reality.

The author has chosen to make Norris a victim who survives in part due to strengths derived from his life as a hardened seaman. That he hankers after a more domestic existence – one he eschewed due to jealousy and pride – made his predicament poignant but, in some small measure, self-inflicted. His time in captivity brought to the fore his regret at not valuing what he could have had.

The story offers an interesting history but not so much the psychology I had expected from the synopsis. The voice adopted for Norris garners sympathy – how could it not – but too often comes across as disjointed. Perhaps my not entirely favourable reaction is down to unmet expectations derived from the book’s publicity material – that and my lack of engagement with the style of writing.

Any Cop?: The treatment of those society regards as insane has a long and shocking history. I feel I learned more about Bethlem in general from this tale than about the inmate narrating.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Glass Hotel

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“What kept her in the kingdom [of money] was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”

The most important thing to say about The Glass Hotel is that it was a pleasure to read. The characters are fully formed and complex, doused with a realism that keeps the reader interested in their fates. They each have a purpose in the unfolding plot that adds nuance and depth. There are many inter-relationships and passing cross-references to parse, enabling a consideration of varying perceptions. I enjoyed the author’s habit of dropping titbits from the future as the timeline moved back and forth across decades. This served to provoke curiosity in how the character would reach the future development in their life trajectory.

What I wasn’t so impressed with was the denouement. By choosing to open the story with a brief reveal of the ultimate fate of a key character, I was left disappointed when the detail was added and a conclusion built. Having savoured the skill with which the author writes, I turned the final page and felt dissatisfied. Perhaps I was simply unwilling to go with the author’s suggestion of possibilities.

The glass hotel itself is a luxury destination on a remote peninsula in Canada, where the moneyed may relax and feel detached from their busy lives. It is here that Jonathan – who specialises in investments – meets Vincent, a bartender who grew up nearby. Their families, friends and business associates form the core of the pool of characters.

The story is set between 1958 and 2029, with certain years particularly eventful. How to make money, and why it is required, is a recurring theme. The focus is on those who were not born into wealth so had to find a way to acquire what they needed – to both survive and then live a life aspired to. There are explorations of the morality of choices made – how characters justify their actions, if only to themselves.

Vincent has an older half-brother, Paul, who harbours ambitions to be a composer and musician. He is also a drug addict, always resenting that Vincent got to live with their father. The dynamic between these two as they reach adulthood offers a fine study on the psychology of family.

Jonathan’s first wife – his confidante and mother of their daughter – dies of cancer. He is the owner of the glass hotel and visits regularly, seeking investors. His life revolves around his business although he enjoys his wealth, using it as a symbol of his success. When he takes on a much younger woman to be his new wife, it is mutually beneficial but not a love match.

Over the decades, the story follows several of Jonathan’s investors, some of whom regard him as a friend. The author touches on their lives lightly but always adding to development. These artists and businessmen rarely consider the financial cushion on which the rest of what they do has been built.

Money can be made and also lost, the impact of which inevitably varies. Certain characters need the respect they believe financial success accords them. Others find a way to move forward, but always with thoughts of what might have been. There is anger and also bewilderment.

Although the plot is engaging and offers much to mull over, this is a character driven story. Perceived success is depicted as a veneer; life as a state of flux, relationships mostly a masquerade. Roles played and compromises made affect self-esteem.

The writing is a master class in building anticipation, the structure aiding progression at an assured pace. The various characters may at first glance appear vanilla but by delving deeper into their psyches they offer up dilemmas more widely representative.

Any Cop?: I may not have felt satisfied by the ending, yet this was still a story well worth reading. Its complex themes never detract from the ease of engagement. A lingering thought provoking tale in myriad ways.

Jackie Law

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: The New Wilderness

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An independent press getting a title on the Booker longlist is a Big Thing for them, even if it can also create headaches due to the cost of complying with the rules the Booker sets on print runs and marketing. Oneworld Publishing, however, has a rare success rate – winning the prize in 2015 and 2016. When their latest release, The New Wilderness, was included on this year’s longlist I was eager to read it.

The story is dystopian fiction, a genre that is proving popular in current times – and worryingly prescient. It is an exploration of how people react when their comfortable world turns toxic. Acceptance is only challenged by individuals when conditions prove personally untenable.

The reader is introduced to a small group of volunteers who have left the City – where pollution is killing their children – to join a monitored study in the Wilderness. Here they survive as hunter / gatherers but must leave no trace of their existence. This means no constructing of shelters or tools they cannot carry. Rangers ensure that they follow the rules set out in the Manual, punishing them for any infractions.

Opening with a stillbirth, the harsh realities of the volunteers’ lives are quickly laid bare. The mother, Bea, leaves the bloody remains of her early born baby to the coyotes, returning to her husband, Glen, and daughter, Agnes, in the cave where the family sleep. Bea finds comfort in items brought from the City – against the rules, she has squirreled them away. Agnes watches everything, listening but not understanding her mother’s behaviour.

The world building is interesting and skilfully rendered. However, when the community sets out on a Ranger mandated journey my engagement waned. There are reminiscences along the way that explain how the original twenty came to be eleven. Although reliant on each other’s strengths and skills, the community members don’t appear to like each other, thinking only of themselves.

“It felt absurd to say, Jane was swept away in a flash flood along with our best knife in this very canyon. The people they were writing to would never get that, even though they’d been sad to lose Jane because she was a good singer, the thing they pined for to this day was that knife.”

To survive the Wilderness, the volunteers become wild. Animal skills must be learned. Behaviour is often base. There is little privacy – even to defecate or copulate. There are frequent battles of wills, displays of brutal self-interest as each seeks dominance. Deaths are accepted, although even in the City this had been a part of how they lived.

“Almost no doctor worked on emergencies anymore because there were no emergencies anymore. Because of overpopulation, emergencies were thought of more or less as fate.”

The story picks up urgency and momentum after the group leave the first Ranger post they are required to visit. Their exploits demonstrate how people turn feral. The focus moves from Bea to Agnes. Unlike many in the community, the youngster is happy with her life in the Wilderness. Despite her age, she seeks to be accepted and respected as an adult, something that is indulged – the few children are all granted greater clemency.

A story of this length needs occasional changes of direction and this comes with an unexpected encounter at the next location the community is sent to. As a result, the balance of power within the group shifts. At first this felt staged but the author’s reasoning soon became apparent – a continuation of the world building.

Outside of the Wilderness there is little of the natural world. Housing is dense with the population educated to work only jobs that are necessary. There are mentions of mines, servers and processing plants. Rumours of Private Lands, where people may live in comfort and plenty as they once did, are widely regarded as a fiction.

The community’s Ranger enforced, nomadic existence is called into question when members ask why they mostly adhere to the strict rules. Agnes in particular believes she could easily survive if granted freedom. She is angered by the adults’ overriding fear of being returned to the City – a place she barely remembers.

There are many disturbing episodes to consider. Humanity is not portrayed as benevolent. As reader sympathy shifts with greater understanding of the wider picture, the tension rises to prepare for the trauma of the denouement.

Any Cop?: What at first appeared a standard dystopia has the bar raised by the quality of writing and uncompromising approach to human self-interest. The world created is frighteningly believable. This is a widely accessible addition to the Booker list.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Pull of the Stars is set in 1918 Dublin. The World War has killed or scarred a generation of young men from all over Ireland. Memories of the Easter Uprising – a step towards independence for the country – remain divisive and raw. Meanwhile, in a large city centre hospital, Nurse Julia Power is working tirelessly to quarantine and treat expectant mothers who show signs of an unfamiliar and exceptionally deadly flu virus. As well as taking out large numbers of the wider population, the contagion has affected many of the hospital’s healthcare workers. Those who remain must cope with the overcrowding as best they can.

Over the course of three days, Nurse Power works with two women whose influence will linger. Doctor Kathleen Lynn (based on a real person) has ambitions to help the poor and destitute – including ‘unwanted’ children – but is on the run from the police. Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer helper on Julia’s small, makeshift ward, will open the nurse’s eyes to the horrors of the Catholic Church’s treatment of those who have no choice but to turn to it for succour.

Let’s pause a moment. This is historical fiction with a compassionate and talented nurse as protagonist. It includes a love story. There are obvious good characters and bad. On the face of it I would have little interest in reading such a tale. I picked it up as the author wrote Room. From that remarkable novel I was aware she could bring depth and grace to an unimaginably dark situation. Her characters thrum with the essence of all it means to live.

Nurse Power works the twelve hour daytime shift, handing over to a nun from a local motherhouse to see patients through the night. Unlike many of the nurses, Julia does not live in the hospital dormitories. Her brother returned from the war damaged but well enough that they may share a house, taking on mutually beneficial roles.

Thus we have a female, educated professional. She is unmarried but not alone. Her life does not revolve around a coterie of friends requiring her time and support. She is independent, practical and portrayed without recourse to her looks. She focuses on her job rather than a search for a partner. I found this refreshing, so rare is it to find such a character in fiction.

Given her background, Julia has had little social contact with someone such as Bridie, yet finds herself drawn to the vivacious positivity of her new assistant. Both must take on roles that would not be countenanced in more normal times – acting decisively rather than seeking permission from superiors. There are deaths among their patients, with beds filled again as soon as they are vacated. Births are as dramatic and potentially dangerous as ever with the added challenge of flu complications.

The narrative exposition brought time and place to vivid and exigent life. It was inevitable that I would compare this Dublin to our current times. The author states that her final manuscript – started at the centenary of a flu epidemic that killed an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the human race – was delivered to her publisher just as Covid 19 restrictions were imposed.

Yet it was not this timeliness that drew me in. I found myself intrigued by the treatment of women during birth as much as by the attempted management of a deadly and virulent contagion. It was clear that married women at the time were expected to produce babies with damaging regularity. Meanwhile, the unmarried were punished severely if they dared reproduce. The Catholic Church guarded its influence – the evils perpetuated not yet widely acknowledged. Women were at the mercy of their families, with shame falling on them if they dared admit abuse. The small ward on which Julia works becomes a microcosm of Dublin society. Here, though, there is no favouritism, although outcome varies by wider privilege.

All this is skilfully woven into a story of people and those charged with their care. Many social issues are touched upon – the writing style remaining engaging throughout. The denouement left me with questions but was made to seem plausible enough. There is much to chew over in the expectations of women – their choices (or lack of) and priorities.

Any Cop?: An enjoyable and well structured tale that has lingered beyond the final page. Although interesting to read of a pandemic during a pandemic, it is the character studies that provide depth. My expectations of the author’s storytelling talents were not disappointed. Perhaps best avoided, though, by the primigravida.

 

Jackie Law

 

Book Review: Waterways

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

It is said that most of us in Britain live within five miles of a stretch of canal. Many of these have fallen into disrepair. Some have been built over. Thanks to the work of enthusiasts, however, many remain navigable. There are now more boats using these manmade waterways than in their working heyday.

In 2016 Jasper Winn was approached by the Canal and River Trust – current custodians of the canals – about becoming their first Writer in Residence. His brief was to spend the next year making his way across the two thousand or so miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales – on foot, bike, boat and canoe – exploring their history and learning the stories of the people who live, work and play there. A partnership between the Trust and Profile Books would enable his findings to be published, providing an account of Britain’s canals including their culture and wildlife.

To start things off, the author spends three days as an apprentice on a narrow boat, discovering the basics of canal navigation. He then travels to the Exeter Canal – built to solve a local problem before there was apparent need nationally for the transport option provided.

“Sixteenth-century England didn’t have enough high-value, bulky cargoes to move around; there was no need to build anything national”

“For the 200 years after the Exeter Canal was built, the majority of the goods and materials people used, consumed and aspired to were produced locally.”

This changed when the industrial revolution increased the need for coal in city and other locations. Canals were built, underground as well as overground, to shift commodities from source to factories. The wealth generated along with increased migration changed the economy – ergo the population’s consumer habits.

The author purchases a fold-up bike and sets out to cycle along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal which is regarded as the first canal of the modern age. The history of this and subsequent canals visited makes for fascinating reading. As well as detailing the engineering achievements there is social and economic history – and a snapshot of what remains. Text is enhanced by the inclusion of many pictures showing canal life and key features.

The author also travels the canals in his kayak, navigating coast to coast in the north and along the route of the Devizes to Westminster race. He joins a litter picking party using paddleboards to reach detritus. He runs a half marathon along towpaths. To round off his year or so of exploration, he hires a narrow boat with a group of friends.

Interesting tidbits are interspersed with facts gleaned, such as: why towpaths change banks on long stretches of canal; why there are occasional ramps leading from canal floor to towpath; how, on a busy working canal, passing boats dealt with crossing towropes.

The author delves into the lives of those who built the canals – the navvies – as well as those who worked the boats and supported the industry and network. He writes of the dangers of life on the waterways, but also that it could provide a decent living. As he walks, cycles and kayaks he talks to those who use the facility today. He sleeps alongside towpaths in his bivvy bag. He enjoys the canal side pubs, especially those with live music.

Although the advent of the railways took much of the trade from working waterways, many remained operational well into the twentieth century. It is thanks to the vision of those who saw the potential of canals as leisure facilities that many of these were saved. Working boats were converted into houseboats offering affordable if peripatetic accommodation. As demand increased, costs rose, but canal dwellers still form an atypical if largely friendly and helpful community.

Any Cop?: Across fourteen engaging chapters the reader is provided with views of life on the canals across time and from a wide variety of perspectives. It made this prospective have-a-go boater rethink the wisdom of ever hiring a narrow boat. Nevertheless, it brought to life many aspects of the waterways I have long enjoyed touring.

 

Jackie Law