Book Review: Sight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“how simple things would be if only I could know myself or others; […] but instead there is only this excavation, a digging in the dark: precarious, uncertain, impossible to complete.”

Jessie Greengrass’s short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, demonstrated her confidence and competence as a writer of innovative, piercing fiction. In Sight, her debut novel, the clarity and conviction of her prose is again in evidence. Written mostly in the first person, with occasional digressions to explore the histories of key medical advancements – x-rays, human anatomy, psychoanalysis – it reads as an intensely personal, non linear series of reflections. It is a search for knowledge, an attempt to make sense of the most challenging emotions – the multifaceted viscerality of love, desire and grief.

The story opens with the narrator “pregnant again”, watching through a window as her toddler daughter, and partner, Johannes, play in the garden. She feels the distance between them, a distance that she recognises will increase as her daughter ages. She understands that this is as it should be, that a child should be raised able to one day cope without parents.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is at the heart of the novel. The reader is offered snapshots of the narrator’s childhood, of time spent with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst who had raised her child alone. It was only later that the narrator came to understand that her mother was also a daughter, and that the grandmother was trying to help and protect her, especially when the mother’s errant husband finally left for good. At the time the young girl felt resentment that she was being kept from her loving mother by a grandmother who required the child to accept more independence.

The inner monologue by which the story is told may be introspective but the author demonstrates her ability to articulate the essence of emotion without hyperbole. Even when recounting the long months leading to her mother’s death and her subsequent grief – a time when she spent day after day in the Wellcome Library – she is seeking an understanding of how she reacted to events.

“The things which I learned without noticing all through that year recur to me still, those images from medical textbooks, the bodies dissected or described, the case notes and the cabinets and all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves, and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key”

The narrator is “young, adrift, bereft” when she meets Johannes. After a time, the possibility of having their child is considered. The narrator desperately wants to be a mother but fears that this is for selfish reasons rather than for the benefit of the being she would create. She also fears the inevitable changes motherhood would bring; the uncertainty of what she would become and how she would cope with this. Johannes is supportive, willing to accept whatever she decides but requiring that a decision be made to end the unsettling prevarication.

After her mother died, the narrator disposed of her possessions. She retained memories rather than mementos. Pregnant, watching her daughter she ponders:

“I wonder what they will keep of me, later; what off-cut memories will remain to be re-stitched, their resemblance to myself a matter of perspective. I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused.”

The depth of feeling and insights offered into the distances that exist in even the closest of relationships make this an intense, compelling read.

Any Cop?: The writing is rich yet pithy, the story stark in places yet emotionally resonant.

 

Jackie Law

Advertisements

Book Review: Behave

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Longlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Prize, Behave sets out to explain, from a rational and scientific perspective, why people behave as they do. As the author notes, it’s complicated. The reader must first learn about the neurobiology of how components of behaviour interact – the role of neurons, hormones, genes, evolution, culture, and ecological influences. There are many controlled studies to consider, the results of which offer better understanding but with limitations. The terms used are explained in some detail. Areas of the brain play different roles that must be understood before their impact on behaviour can be rationalised.

As an example of the writing style, from Neuroscience 101:

“some of the most interesting findings that help explain individual differences in the behaviours that concern us in this book relate to amounts of neurotransmitter made and released, and the amounts and functioning of the receptors, reuptake pumps, and degradative enzymes.”

Chapters explain the separate areas of the brain and how they function, reminding the reader that this is simplified as it is a continuum. It is then pointed out that all can change due to experience. Brain structure can adapt over time.

At close to 800 pages, around half of which is fairly technical, this is not a book that can be rushed. The main text regularly refers to notes at the back where the studies cited are detailed. There are also three appendices and an index. Footnotes elaborate on certain deductions reached by the author. It is dense but fascinating.

Examples of behaviours are given throughout, such as how a person reacts when they encounter another who is in pain. The distress this causes may render some incapable, unable to do more than deal with their own resulting suffering. Others will immediately rush to help. Individual reactions depend on brain function. How one judges another’s actions and needs, how they deserve to be treated, also varies depending on how ‘other’ they are judged to be.

Many of the studies detailed involve a variety of primates, some captive and others observed in more natural settings. The former allows changes in areas of the brain to be monitored, such as when processing rewards (the mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system). The results are familiar.

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.”

Other studies of the brain’s reactions are more uncomfortable to consider, particularly when a subject observes those of a different race. The exploration of us/them is important and returned to frequently. At its most basic it is an innate desire to reproduce, to pass on copies of genes. The reader is reminded that subjects can learn and modify behaviour.

The topic is complicated as everything is linked to everything else, including the environment in which one exists. The difference between collective and individual cultures is explained along with the impulse markers of those who migrate. Psychology and anthropology have an effect but in drawing neurobiological conclusions there are limitations due to the size and makeup of historic sample data. Many recent human studies have been carried out on university students but did not balance for gender or race. In concluding the first half of the book the author states

“Instead of causes, biology is repeatedly about propensities, proclivities, interactions, modulations, contingencies, if/then clauses, context dependencies, exacerbation or diminution of pre-existing tendencies.”

The second half of the book, while still veering into technical explanations at times, is less demanding to read. The key points from the first half include what has been learned about the function of the amygdale and the frontal cortex – natural vs learned. The author notes of people

“we are just like other animals but totally different”

Moral decision making is explored along with the introduction of spirituality, the effects of proximity on moral intuitionism, entrenched bias, the impact of social groups and perceived beauty. It is clear that primates have us/them minds and that kinship matters. People act the way they do because of how their brain is structured, but brains can learn and change. Empathy is affected by attitudes to others, and if they are perceived to be to blame for their situation.

“our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end product of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic […] In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognisably different.”

Aroused empathy, or tunnel vision compassion, such as raising money for cancer research after a loved one dies of the disease, is shown to do more harm than good in the broader measure of such things. Help is more likely to be offered based on emotion rather than rational decision making.

The Rwandan Genocide killed more people than the Nazi Holocaust yet garners less attention. Irrational behaviour, including such violence, often relies on dehumanising. The brain confuses reality with metaphor, supporting symbols over people. Contact can decrease willingness to inflict or passively accept other’s suffering. Justice is shown to be difficult to achieve. Even when dealing with individual transgressors in the West

“every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate”

Wealth and stability are shown to affect behaviour, although these may not lead to improved acceptance. After basic needs have been met, satisfaction depends not on what one has but on how this compares.

“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.”

The book concludes on a hopeful note pointing out how much has changed over time. Hateful behaviours still exist but many of these are viewed through a cultural lens. War may bring out the worst in participants but it has been shown that individuals struggle when ordered to kill. Studies prove that cooperation is more beneficial for all than aggression, and that greater equality improves economic growth and stability (if only our current leaders could understand this). Whatever our neurobiological makeup, change in behaviour is possible.

As a personal footnote, I cannot help but feel discomfort at the animals held in captivity and used in the many studies referred to within these pages. I ponder the benefits achieved at the cost of their suffering. The increase in understanding that they provide may be of interest but will people, as a result, change how they behave?

Any Cop?: This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding book to read. The topic is fascinating and explored in detail. The biases of the author are clear but do not detract from what may be learned. It will likely appeal most to those with a pre-existing interest in the science.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The One Who Wrote Destiny tells the story of a family of immigrants across three generations. It explores the meaning of home, culture and inheritance. When the British Empire granted those it had subjugated independence, its architects did not acknowledge that what they had regarded as benevolence was in truth oppression. They instilled a vision of Britain as great and then baulked at the idea of being open and welcoming. Despite the serious issues being explored, the experience of immigration portrayed here overflows with humour. There are no heroes but rather moments of unanticipated heroism.

The story is told in four sections, each concentrating on a key character, all interlinked.

The first of these is set in 1966 when Mukesh, a teenager of south Asian descent, moves from Kenya to England and ends up in Keighley. Mukesh plans to continue his education in London, living with his good friend Sailesh who has been offered work as a juggler in the clubs around Soho. Mukesh is perplexed when he discovers that Keighley is 213 miles from the capital city. He is comforted when he discovers that other Gujuratis live nearby. Drawn to a beautiful girl, Nisha, who inspires him to write bad poetry, he stands near her house each day watching as she arrives and leaves, believing he is invisible. When he is hit by a bicycle trying to offer Nisha assistance they speak and Mukesh finds himself agreeing to perform in a show she is organising for Diwali. Here he has his first experience of violent racism. The pale skinned residents of Keighley are happy to enjoy the tea and anglicized curry from the sub continent but will not tolerate the open presence of its people.

Mukesh is telling the story of how he and Nisha got together to their daughter, Neha. He repeats this each time they meet, his way of remaining close to the great love of his life now that Nisha is dead. In the second section of the book, set in 2017, Neha is told that she has terminal cancer. This is the same illness that killed her mother but Neha had not realised she could be at risk. Her adult life has been wrapped around her work in tech. She decides to explore her wider family history, to see if there is a way that knowledge may be used to escape one’s destiny. She hopes that in doing so she may help her brother’s future children avoid the same fate.

Raks is a comedian. After his sister dies he puts together a show that achieves critical acclaim. The break he had hoped for appears to be within his grasp until an error of judgement sends him off course and he feels a need to disconnect. He has ignored the warnings to stand up for his people, allowing himself to be manipulated by white men resentful of the diverse quotas they are expected to embrace. Raks travels to New York, and to Lamu in Kenya. Much of his section of the tale is told from the points of view of those he meets along the way. He and Neha had been to Lamu as children with their maternal grandmother. Before she died, Neha told him it was here that she had been most happy in her life.

The final section of the book is set in Kenya in 1988. Nisha’s mother, Ba, has left Keighley and returned to Mombasa following the deaths of those she most cared for. She is lonely and grieving but accepting of her destiny. When Mukesh brings his two young children to spend a week with her she begrudges their invasion of her quiet routine as she waits for death. Gradually the three find a way to be together. This week will prove pivotal in all of their lives.

The stories within stories are presented lightly but with subtle depths. There are entrenched views on all sides, subjugation and resentments sitting alongside tolerance and acceptance. The immigrant’s desire for assimilation in the place they choose to make their home is, at times, at odds with retained aspects of their cultural history. The dehumanisation they encounter is painful to read yet skilfully presented.

The idea of destiny adds interest but this is a story of family in its many colours and shades. It is entertaining yet never trivialises the inherent difficulties of each situation.

Any Cop?: An exuberant, full flavoured read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Trick to Time

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Having enjoyed Kit de Waal’s debut, My Name Is Leon, I was eager to read whatever she wrote next. Thus I was a little perturbed to discover that it was to be a love story – such tales tend to annoy me. I needn’t have worried. The Trick to Time is indeed about love but it explores the many hurts such fierce emotion generates, and how one may find a way to live with the damage inflicted.

The story opens in a coastal town in the South of England. The protagonist, Mona, is watching the sun rise from the window of her third floor flat when she notices a man doing the same across the street. They acknowledge each other, “like two characters in an opera”, before turning away to start their days.

Mona is approaching her sixtieth birthday. She lives alone, spending much of her time making high quality, collectible dolls that she sells in her toyshop and online. A local carpenter makes each body from wood which Mona then paints and dresses in bespoke clothes she designs and creates. The hair is human, sourced from a local hairdresser. Mona names each doll, talking to them as she works and chiding herself for such behaviour.

As well as making and selling dolls, Mona offers a service to women referred by a grief counsellor. There is a strong suggestion that she has experienced significant loss herself, the details of which are gradually revealed.

The tale is told across three points in time: Mona’s childhood in Kilmore, County Wexford, where she was raised by her father from the age of eight following the death of her mother; as a young woman working in a factory in Birmingham where she lived with other Irish in a boarding house before meeting the man she married; the contemporary setting as she contemplates loneliness and aging.

As a child Mona enjoys a carefree if somewhat solitary existence. When she reaches her teens she begins to yearn for more than the small Irish town can offer. Like many of her peers, she plots her escape.

Birmingham in the 1970s offers Mona the possibility of the life she has long dreamed off, until tragedy snatches it away.

In the present day, while out in town with a friend, Mona encounters the stranger she acknowledged from her window. Karl is a dapper dresser with impeccable manners and knowledge of fine living. He and Mona go on several dates, sharing elements of their histories yet not opening up about the most significant aspects of their lives. Karl’s attention leads Mona to ponder if she could love again.

If this were all I had been told about the book I would have had little interest in reading it. Love affairs, dolls, and an unfolding tragedy would not appeal. What makes it worth reading are the aspects and behaviours explored around these threads.

It is rare for any book to make me laugh out loud as I did reading a scene set in a hotel bedroom involving a sash window. It is even rarer for a book to make me cry which I found myself doing during the penultimate scene. I had guessed early on what may be regarded as a twist but this did nothing to detract from the depth in the portrayal. Throughout I found myself pausing to savour the evocative writing and to consider the reactions and development of the many characters. All earn their place.

Any Cop?: The pace, structure and flow of the prose are skilfully balanced making this an easy book to read. The substance is more challenging, dealing as it does with grief. This is a tale of survival, piercing in its honesty, intense yet humane. It leaves echoes beyond the final page.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Music Shop

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Rachel Joyce, an author in the vein of Joanna Cannon and Sarah Winman, has a knack of succinctly capturing the minutiae of everyday behaviours with piercing insight. In just a few words she paints an image of an attitude, action or expression that conveys more than mere description. Her characters are not just brought to life on the page, they become close acquaintances, the reader investing in their outcomes, feeling their joys and pain.

This latest work opens in January 1988, in a town that is changing under Thatcher’s Britain. The unnamed music shop is a relic of the old. It is located in a rundown side street – a row of tatty shops and their upstairs flats along one side; houses, many divided and sublet, on the other. The shop owners live above their businesses. They are an integral part of a small community.

The music shop is run by Frank and his assistant, the accident prone Kit. They sell vinyl records, eschewing cassettes and the newly popular CDs. Frank’s modus operandi is to tell his customers what music they need to listen to, something he somehow feels from their presence. He enjoys helping others but keeps himself emotionally distant, afraid of being hurt again.

Frank’s sheltered little world is threatened by encroaching gentrification, and by the arrival of a mysterious woman who faints outside his shop window one afternoon. When Ilse Brauchmann returns to thank Frank for his help he realises he may be smitten. It is almost a relief when he discovers she is unavailable as she is already engaged.

The story is interspersed with flashbacks to Frank’s childhood. He was raised by his single mother, a wealthy and Bohemian woman who insisted that her son call her Peg, refusing to act as expected or conform to anything ordinary. Peg entertained a string of boyfriends but her true love was music. She shared her knowledge and passion with her son, but offered him little else.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music with lessons to be given once a week. Using the stories his mother told he opens up to this enigmatic stranger. Alongside their burgeoning friendship, Frank and the other residents of Unity Street are being wooed by property developers. When they refuse the financial incentives, threats are made.

The character development is astute and often humorous but the plot arc lacked sufficient depth to keep me fully engaged. Although billed as a love story this aspect felt contrived in places. The strength of the writing is in the quiet observations of people, and in the music – its emotional impact and the anecdotes shared. Those with Spotify can listen to The Music Shop playlist, an eclectic mix with links explained throughout the tale.

Any Cop?: Despite my reservations there is enough pleasure to be derived to make this a book worth reading. It is a gentle, hopeful story. The resurgence in popularity of vinyl and the decline of CDs provides a fitting coda.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Rainbow People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Rainbow People is the third and final book in the late author’s Metamorphosis Trilogy. The title alludes to the term ‘rainbow children’, described in the introduction as:

“a species of children who are different enough to make them distinct from normality by virtue of the intensity of their curiosity for how things work, or should work, in the world around them, combined with a gentleness and even ‘sweetness’ of disposition to others.”

The story explores reactions to the recent migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe as seen through the eyes of a man, Richard, a woman, Jenny, and a child, Sophie or Sophocles, who observe and discuss the crisis. The narrative structure is detached in style. Conversations are recounted, written down as he said/she said, along with the thoughts of those conversing – their remembrances of previous discussions.

Sparse background details are provided but these are fluid – the child, for example, is at times a boy and then a girl. An older man, Cyril, who is making a film on a beach, could be an acquaintance or Richard’s father. These details are unimportant in the message being relayed.

The first part of the tale is set on the Mediterranean coast near the border between Greece and Macedonia. The man, woman and child are walking towards a film crew. A group of actors are on the beach playing the part of refugees. The child takes off into the sea and is rescued, the performance filmed. The personal reactions of the observers are detailed alongside conversations about the crisis unfolding nearby.

“it may seem customary for people in trouble to be helped […] people who have been categorised as fugitives suddenly become those heading over a rainbow to a new existence – to one that is of a new nature – one which is reached by a recognition that sunlight and raindrops need not be opposites, but can together make something beautiful and the same.”

The reasons for human migration are discussed along with speculation on the preparations made by the migrants, their chances of success and acceptance by those already living in Europe.

The actors have not been fed that they may understand hunger, yet this is regarded as unnecessary, ridiculous, as are many actions surrounding the refugees.

“Even now, we seem to have learnt something of how ridiculous war is. But we are imbued with the idea that something should be done rapidly about a situation in which we find ourselves. And so we bomb people who we think must be causing the troubles”

There is talk of beauty, art and trust, of a need for tenderness as embodied in the actors’ reactions to the child.

The setting shifts to England where the man and woman plan a visit to the camp near Calais known as The Jungle. Richard muses that in a jungle the creatures have found ways to coexist, some living high up in the trees, some at ground level, all finding shelter. Their adaptation to the environment is achieved through instinct, without such planning and discussions as people in positions of power demand.

“the world’s large-scale problems, which were in almost everyone’s interests to solve, were brought to nothing by the strange obsession of humans that all this had to be explicable and validated by words”

Once in The Jungle, the trio observe the packed cars and vans in a traffic jam, all hoping to get to England. The child asks about sex and why her parents wanted children. Her mother answers:

“We wanted to change the world. And we got you.”

The child observes the people in the vehicles looking out their windows and wants to help.

“’What’s wrong with looking out of windows?’ Jenny said, ‘That’s all we do anyway.’ The child said, ‘You mean our eyes are windows.’ Richard said, ‘Or mirrors.’ The child said, ‘I don’t even know what I look like. ‘Jenny said, ‘No. Other people do.’”

As a story I found this a strange little tale although it does offer a window into the reasons behind the refugee crisis and the foolish behaviour of governments.

The book concludes with a postscript, by Shiva Rahbaran, in which she writes of meeting the author and their subsequent discussions. She asks:

“Can humans learn from their mistakes, and evolve into higher beings that can ‘become a rope over the Abyss […] a bridge and not a goal’ and thus save themselves from extinction? This question has been at the heart of Nicholas Mosley’s literary experiment for the past twenty-five years.”

Any Cop?: At around eighty pages in length this is a short work that offers much to consider. The philosophical debates were of interest although the author took as a given the need to save mankind as a species, despite his environmental negligence. In a book seeking to create bridges, to hope that those who come after will evolve into something better, perhaps this is fitting.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Things We Nearly Knew explores the lives of the regular clientele at a bar in a small town in America. The narrator and his wife own and run the establishment. Over time the regulars come and go, people move on, circumstances change. The story told here is set over a nine month period which saw the arrival and departure of one such drinker.

Arlene first showed up in February. She ordered a vodka Martini and asked after a local man named Jack. With no surname to offer it wasn’t much to go on. She demonstrated a marked reluctance to share much about her history saying that she came from many places.

All the customers start out as strangers. The more often they visit the more facts can be gleaned. Still though, the narrator only knows whatever customers are willing to tell, or what others might say about them. How well can anyone know another person anyway?

Davy, for example, may or may not have been married. He has pictures of kids in his wallet but they might not be his, he has never said. More is known about Nelson who has lived in the town for many years, as have the bar owner and his wife, Marcie. They went to school with Mike, another regular but one they would describe as a friend. Later Franky will arrive, much to Marcie’s displeasure. He left under a cloud and she would have preferred if he had stayed away.

The men are drawn to Arlene with her red lips, dark hair and slinky dresses. Davy will become involved with her, as will Franky eventually. And then, after nine months she will leave for good, her tenure at the place a much mulled over memory.

The narrator did not always run a bar. Once he was a teacher. He and Marcie keep no secrets from each other, but no one shares everything about themselves.

There are glimpses of personal histories, teased out by the casual interest of the curious alongside a reluctance to fully engage. The middle aged are survivors of their past – there will always be elements they would prefer not to have to share. This is made harder when others talk freely of events, when they were also there.

The voice of the narrator is anecdotal with an undercurrent of regret. He is recounting the months at his bar which revolved around Arlene but with widening ripples. He and Marcie have been through a great deal together and will be affected by the fallout from these events. Some things may be better left unsaid.

The writing is concise with an almost abrasive view of human interactions. There is a distancing from emotion, a numbing of the senses. The mysteries are solved with an outlook of stoicism for the pain life brings, and leaves in its wake.

Any Cop?: This is a compelling read but a somewhat bleak perspective.

 

Jackie Law