Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

David Nicholls is a fluent writer and storyteller who can draw the reader in with his gently probing insights and empathetic witticisms. Sweet Sorrow, his latest work, sits easily alongside his previous bestselling novels. The characters are relatable, their troubles universal. Events and people are recognisable from everyday life.

The story is set mostly over the long weeks of a late twentieth century English summer during which the protagonist, Charlie Lewis, leaves school and awaits his GCSE exam results. Charlie knows that he has not done well enough to move on to college and then university, a trajectory his always trying to be cool friends will rarely acknowledge they aspire to. Charlie is facing his uncertain future with a heady mixture of regret, excitement and trepidation.

In the months prior to his exams, Charlie’s family life was upended. He now lives with his unemployed father who is coping badly with depression. Charlie is worried, resentful and angry, but mostly he simply wishes to avoid parental confrontation. He needs to escape the oppressive atmosphere of home, to fill the long hours in each unstructured day and try not to think too much of the decisions he must inevitably make about what comes next.

A chance encounter leads Charlie to join The Company, a summer scheme where he must work with a mixed group of people who are very different to those he has previously befriended. Despite feelings of discomfort and detachment, he finds himself returning each day. There is a girl, Fran Fisher, and Charlie realises he is falling in love.

The joyous aspects of love stories are rarely of interest to anyone other than those directly involved. To engage the reader in such stories there need to be obstacles, misunderstandings and other problems to overcome. The author presents these aspects in the form of the difficulties inherent in being sixteen years old.

The book begins on the last day of school and introduces Charlie’s friendship group. These are boys who have ended up together through circumstance more than choice. They survive on insults and banter interspersed with regular rough and tumble. They each cultivate an image that they wear like armour.

“Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band.”

“while some girls circled […] the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable”

Charlie is all too aware that his school friends would relentlessly mock his involvement with The Company. To take part, and therefore get to know Fran, he must learn to behave differently. There is a class and cultural divide to surmount. There is the need to work out how to talk and be with a girl like Fran.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s home life is one of fear over his Dad’s mental state and what he may find inside each time he opens their front door. There is also an interesting sub plot involving petty thieving from Charlie’s part-time job. The tension this adds got me through some of the more repetitive touchy feely sections midway where my interest would occasionally wane.

There are laugh out loud moments alongside the poignancy. Fran’s recollection of an encounter with a boy she was once besotted with is filled with humour despite the appalling behaviour. Fran comes across as surprisingly self aware for a sixteen year old. Charlie appears more typical, and it is this that is the strength of the story.

“the greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear.
Good God, doesn’t anyone remember?”

For anyone who has ever been sixteen years old this tale will take them back to those days with all their anticipation and fear of ridicule. The narrator, Charlie, is looking back from a distance of two decades. He offers an impressive degree of clarity as well as nostalgia. He is contemplating the lasting impact of first love.

The Shakespearean elements of the story were deployed extensively. There is, however, acknowledgement that the bard’s writing will not be accessible to all readers – something the author attempts to rectify in key passages quoted. What is captured beautifully is the maelstrom of uncertainty, angst and passion to be found in groups of young people from any era.

Any Cop?: This was an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Advertisements

Book Review: This Brutal House

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a book appears that teaches me of a culture I had been unaware existed, perhaps because it has never been referred to by the tribe I mix with – proof of the echo chambers in which we often inadvertently live. This Brutal House introduced me to Voguing – a ‘style of dance or performance that arose from Harlem ballroom cultures, as danced by African-American and Latino drag queens and gay men, from the early 1960s’ (source: Wikipedia). The story is based in New York City and features people who compete in Vogue Balls for money and kudos amongst peers.

Opening on the steps of City Hall, five elders and mothers are beginning a silent protest at the inaction of the authorities in locating their children who have gone missing.

“it should not only be pageant queens whose faces grace the back of milk cartons but girls who are trapped inside the bodies of boys; those who break out of their incarceration by wearing make-up, boys who like boys”

Within City Hall is an employee, Teddy, who lived with the mothers for a number of years. Through his access to official records he now knows more about what happened to some of his missing siblings. He has not shared these truths with the mothers, wishing to protect them as they once offered him a home.

The mothers are not blood mothers but rather men who take in children needing shelter and who they may then enter in the Vogue Balls. Additional funds are raised by offering sexual favours. Although groomed by the mothers, the children are willing participants. Those who do not wish to dress up in drag and dance can help out in cloakrooms or take on other supporting roles. The children live with the mothers having been rejected elsewhere.

“They were wanted at home; needed until they failed to live up to expectations of manhood. Most were loved, even if they were seldom heard.”

Teddy is assigned by his employer to keep an eye on the growing protest. He is long used to looking out for the mothers’ practical wellbeing.

“Teddy, with better penmanship and turn of phrase, who could reply to the electric company and the rent control board in the language they wanted rather than the guttural tongue by which we were raised.”

The reader is offered glimpses of what is happening and why the situation has been created and then escalates.

“We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard”

“The city deems us rodents”

The story unfolds from the points of view of the mothers, the children, various City employees and, most of all, Teddy. He is well aware of the corruption that exists in government and aims to use it to the mothers’ advantage. He observes potential threats and suggests to his colleagues that visible support could be publicly advantageous. He walks the political tightrope carefully.

“When did our police force augment into a military mindset, after funds allowed purchase of the first armour-plated SUV, or the second?”

The chapters told from Teddy’s point of view provide interesting background to life in his mothers’ apartment where, as a boy, he was smitten by one of the now missing children.

“He knows that if Sherry had stayed around she would have moved on of her own volition, her attention mercurial, his dissatisfaction, ancestral and chronic. He would always be unable to mend what needed to be mended.”

When the police respond to reports of the missing, they question the children’s provenance and nature of relationships – why boys have been taken in by older men.

Underscoring the narrative is the question of what is being offered and what taken. Choices are made but by those whose circumstances lead to limited options.

The mothers regard their actions as philanthropic, at least on the surface.

“By nature we are crowd-pleasers, craving the approval of our own, wishing the children to be schooled in our ways, independent, but cut from our cloth. How else can any of the old ways survive?”

Within the various houses that the Vogue mothers run there is a hankering after baubles and couture which are regarded as signifiers of beauty at the balls. The children are trained in how to walk provocatively, dance and strike a pose. They seek attention and validation. The mothers compete to train the child who will win for their house. They beat and berate. I pondered how such behaviour differed from coercion applied by blood families to bring perceived honour above individuals being themselves.

On the steps of City Hall, the protesters seek support and acceptance by a mainstream that struggles to see beyond men wearing wigs, dresses and make-up.

As points of view shift each character is presented as both an emotive and rounded person with issues and sensitivities and then as a derided facsimile whose vision remains blinkered. No easy answers are provided to offset what are often flawed decisions. Family – blood and adopted – are shown to be as culpable as individuals, and government.

Two of the chapters are set at the Vogue Balls. The structure of these is repetitive and tiring to read but succeeds in getting across the intensity of the occasions.

The writing elsewhere is stiletto sharp yet with almost poetic insight in places, although some of Teddy’s later streams of thought may have benefitted from more succinctness.

Any Cop?: A layered tale with a poignant turning point that demonstrates how misunderstood most people are, even by themselves.

“They speak as children sending their parents away, only to wait anxiously at the door once the thrill of the first few nights has worn off. Willing mischief, but knowing they’ll tire of it.”

“Something crumbles in the knowledge that you are no longer needed”

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Ocean Vuong is an award winning poet and this is his first novel. I expected gorgeous prose. What I came away with was akin to being emotionally flayed.

Written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, the story is told in fragments jumping around in time and place. The key characters are three generations of Vietnamese immigrants now living in America. They are Little Dog – given a ‘despicable’ name because evil spirits will leave something worthless untouched – his mother and grandmother. There are men on the periphery, most of them demonstrating a propensity for violence. Poverty and violence permeate each page.

“freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey”

In writing his letter, Little Dog, now grown, is remembering his childhood. He was regularly beaten by his mother who was exhausted by her efforts to support her family through her poorly paid job at a nail salon. She in turn had been beaten by her husband, ending up in hospital before he was imprisoned. His attempt to bribe the police personnel called to deal with the incident, which would have been the end of the matter in Vietnam, is to no avail.

Little Dog correlates love with pain.

Throughout the letter are tales of cruelties man inflicts on animals. A monkey brain is spooned from a living creature in an attempt to improve virility. The raising of calves for veal is detailed.

Men are also cruel to each other. Little Dog’s mother suffers from PTSD as a result of her experience of war in her home country. Her father is an American GI.

As a teenager, Little Dog engages in sexual activity in which he encourages and submits to practices that physically hurt. The graphic imagery detailing these episodes verges on the pornographic – not something I enjoy reading.

Alcoholism and other drug taking is commonplace amongst peers and parents. These practices cause several deaths.

At seventeen, Little Dog comes out to his mother. She responds with a revelation from her past, another terrible experience she was forced to bear.

“We were exchanging truths, I realized, which is to say, we were cutting one another.”

The writing is visceral although in places felt overblown, perhaps because there was little let up in the horror of the fragments and their vivid depiction. The wounds that scar each family member run deep and are excavated from different angles, piercing and then piercing again. This emotional legacy infects across generations. Little Dog observes beauty and, with it, seemingly inevitable death.

Any Cop?: A harrowing depiction of a life containing much intimate and disturbing detail. Although not always easy to read, it is a powerful portrayal.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Porpoise

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in contemporary fiction writers re-imagining classic myths and tales. As I have read few of the originals I come at these stories with fresh eyes. Perhaps I miss clever references. Perhaps I out myself as being less well read. I have little time for literary snobbery or being told I should read any work. A book should stand on its own merits whatever its inspiration.

The Porpoise is based on the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Alongside older renditions of this tale, the version resurrected by Wilkins and Shakespeare is cited. Other, more divergent, interpretations have also been woven into this new take. Details change over time but the template remains the same: the beautiful daughter of a powerful man is no more than a device to set a young suitor on the journey where he will have his real adventures.

Opening in modern times the story starts with a plane crash in which the only survivor is a newborn child. Her father – a wealthy and powerful aristocrat who is devastated by the loss of his wife – raises their daughter, named Angelica, in what he considers protective seclusion. The description of her childhood is harrowing. When a young man, Darius, visits their home she is quietly desperate for change. The books that have been her solace growing up lead her to believe that Darius will orchestrate her escape. Her father understands the scandal this risks and sets an assassin on the young man’s tail.

“there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life”

Darius flees and, in doing so, travels back in time. He becomes Pericles and is warned by advisors that he must leave Tyre. There is a shipwreck. He encounters and impresses a princess. Further tragedies strike.

Timelines are intertwined. The reader is kept updated as to what is happening to Angelica. There are sections involving Wilkins and Shakespeare. Characters observe the lives they are leading as their past or future selves through dreams. They feel what is happening even though they do not always understand.

It is a story of fathers and daughters, of grief and the cruel madness that grows from acceptance of entitlement. Women are broken because men use them for pleasure. Any suggestion that the tables could be turned leads to fear.

“The world turned upside down, the weak given power. The revenge they could justify if they had the means at their disposal. A life would not be long enough to repay the debt.”

At some level these men know what they are doing is wrong yet they suppress such thoughts when they can get away with their actions. Roles are ingrained; challenging them can be life threatening.

“She has grown up as a woman. She has been taught to flatter, to please, to depend, to give away, to make herself small and quiet. She has been told to be soft so that men will always have a means by which they can hurt and control her, that ring through the nose which men call femininity.”

The beliefs of the ancient world are referenced with their superstitions and blood sacrifices. When death seems near it is to within, rather than a deity, that the victims turn.

“Perhaps this is what all prayer is, when the ceremony and the theology are peeled away, a serious stillness in which one talks quietly to one’s own best self.”

Such best selves are ultimately selfish. The love so strongly felt is for how the recipient makes the lover feel. When faced with the power of wealth and social standing one’s best hope is to be overlooked, somehow hidden from the notice of those who seek to control behaviour for personal benefit.

“the wisdom that comes with knowing you could be prey”

One wretched scene involves young boys and their burgeoning need to prove themselves strong and fearless. Artistry is recognised then sacrificed, its value secondary to a more primal need when amongst peers.

After the adventures, the risk and the losses, there must be a denouement. It felt contrived although may well be based on the stories from which this one has grown. The author offers alternatives while pointing out the difficulties these would bring. Happy ever after is not how life is lived.

There is a short digression that explores an afterlife in which comeuppance is not as expected. It added to a tale where death, or near death, is a perpetual driver. The men portrayed rarely acknowledge the damage caused by their behaviour. When faced with consequences, regret is for what is now happening to them.

Any Cop?: The layered and interwoven structure works well in drawing attention to key issues and bringing accepted horrors, particularly in the ancient setting, a contemporary empathy. The fluid writing offered moments of insight. Although at times unsettling, this was an enjoyable read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Perseverance

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

What?

I am a one-word question,
a one-man
patience test.

What?

What language
would we speak
without ears?”

Raymond Antrobus is: a poet; a teacher; a son; British Jamaican; Deaf. All of these attributes colour his writing in this, his latest poetry collection.

The Perseverance explores not only experiences lived, or shared with the author, but also the effects of heritage and culture across generations. He writes of how language is used and how this varies in time and place. What does not change is the near universal insistence that those who communicate by signing adapt as best they can to enable understanding by the hearing.

“How do you write me when I am visual?

“How will someone reading this see my feeling?”

Antrobus writes of his father with whom he had an, at times, difficult relationship but who he cared for during the two years prior to the older man’s death. He writes of his wider family in Jamaica where he visits regularly. Themes of grief and dementia are touched on alongside misunderstandings and the search for forgiveness.

Poems that explore the D/deaf experience are both enlightening and powerful.

“I know the deaf are not lost
but they are certainly abandoned.”

In ‘Miami Airport’ an official is accusatory and unsympathetic even when he realises the traveller cannot hear.

“you don’t look deaf?
can you prove it?”

A sequence of poems written for Samantha share the story of a Deaf Jamaican woman whose mother believed the Devil had taken her child’s voice. There is a lack of appreciation that the deaf have their own language, and anyone can learn it.

Many of the poems are searing in effect. Although not vitriolic there is no shying from the way D/deaf people are treated and how this can lead to isolation.

“Before, all official languages
were oral. The Deaf were a colony
the hearing world ignored.”

‘Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris’ tells of a man shot dead by the police when he was stopped and attempted to speak. His language was sign which meant moving his hands. In the moment this was translated as a threat to safety.

A need to belong, to find acceptance, is a recurring theme delivered with finely balanced potency. A mixed heritage can sometimes lead to dual rejection. It is possible for deafness to be regarded as difference rather than disability.

Any Cop?: Notes at the end of the book explain the inspiration for each of the poems included. Although of interest these were not imperative. The writing is accessible; the subject matter and emotion clear. The author takes the reader into his territory. Awareness gleaned is a sobering reminder that to fully understand a situation it must be lived.

 

Jackie Law

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: Ordinary People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I first came across Ordinary People at a book festival event where the author was one of the speakers on a panel. Here I learned that the story is centred in South London, near Crystal Palace, and is about two couples with children as they experience relationship crises. This didn’t sound like a book for me. Then it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside several other novels I have recently read and enjoyed. I decided to set aside my preconceptions and give it a go.

It is a book in two halves. I quickly became absorbed in the lives of the lead couple, Melissa and Michael. The role of the second couple, Damian and Stephanie, is significant to the plot but plays a more supporting role. The writing brought to mind a contemporary Jane Austin and I was duly impressed. It is an engrossing story offering understated insights into the ordinary issues and frustrations of family life. These are presented unvarnished but with a degree of sympathy. There is an added dash of humour to soften any darkness explored.

We are introduced to M&M (as a friend refers to them) at a party to celebrate Obama’s election. This is hosted by two brothers who used to live in North London but moved south as they

“were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually”

Their guest list featured

“all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew […] less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality”

Melissa and Michael are also moving – from their small flat to a house south of the river. They want a garden for their children to play in. Financial constraints lead to compromises so their new abode is far from ideal. The area suffers regular knife crime. The house is old and Melissa soon begins to sense malevolence.

Before this becomes a key issue there are growing problems in the M&M relationship. Melissa feels that her essence is being suffocated by the demands of motherhood and takes out her frustrations on Michael. He in turn is saddened that his beautiful and vital young partner has turned into this disdainful and inattentive shrew who is no longer interested in him sexually, an important aspect of their affinity in his view.

Melissa misses the professional working environment – although we later learn she is harbouring rose tinted memories – and rails against the mundane requirements of the daily care of small children. She feels guilt at her boredom and at how easily she falls into the competitive conversations typical amongst groups of mothers at the places she goes to escape the confines of her home. When Michael returns from work each evening he is berated for not doing more to ease Melissa’s burden. Pointing out that he has to work to support them fuels her anger.

All this is portrayed in: bus journeys, visits to a park and soft play emporiums, meetings between friends. These friends include Damian and Stephanie who we are introduced to at their home in Dorking. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie adores motherhood and would be content were it not for her husband’s perceived obdurateness. Damian resents that they moved out of London – he misses the buzz of the city. His father died recently and this has affected him more than he realises. Added to this he harbours hidden feelings for Melissa.

There is an amusing scene when Stephanie’s parents attend one of their “monthly in-lawed roasts”. Stephanie’s father offers passive aggressive advice, making clear that Damian is not good enough for his princess. Although Stephanie defends him, Damian silently agrees.

“had he really fallen in love at all? Was it just that she had made him feel adequate and dynamic, that she was focused and forthright in her plans for her life when he was not”

At around halfway through the book I realised that the perceptive, amusing and dynamic pace had slowed and my interest was waning. When the pace picked up again the tone felt more soap opera than penetrative. There are arguments and foolish reactions. The couples splinter and reconcile. It is smoothly written but lacking the verve of the earlier portrayal.

A group holiday adds interest before the focus returns to London and Melissa’s growing fears centred on her house – the effect she is convinced it is having on her daughter. Michael is struggling to reconcile the woman Melissa has become with the woman he fell in love with.

The denouement is neatly achieved but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed. The initial potential – that elegant capturing of the nuances of modern coupledom, of parenting in the 21st century – was not sustained.

Throughout the story there are references to music that I could not appreciate as I knew few of the artists and do not listen to those whose names I recognised. I am guessing that this will appeal more to readers whose age better fits the protagonists (late thirties). The author has created a playlist for those interested.

Near the end of the narrative Michael Jackson dies. This bookending with celebration and then grief over well known people of colour fits with one of the themes explored – the differences in lived experience of the dark and light skinned British from the professional classes.

Any Cop?: I’m not going to condemn what is a well constructed and generally satisfactory read. The first half exceeded my expectations and made me glad to have picked up the book. The second half denied it the status of modern classic.

 

Jackie Law