Book Review: The Goddess Chronicle

goddess chronicle

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi, gods credited with the creation of the Japanese Islands and many of their elemental gods. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, of death and revenge. Much of it is set in an underworld where the spirits of those who died with regrets drift unhappily for eternity. They end up in this place as they were unable to make peace with their fate while living.

The book is divided into five sections; all but one narrated by a young woman named Namima who died young. The opening section tells her story, how she was born and raised on an island far to the south and east. For generations cruel customs had been accepted there, believed necessary to keep the majority of islanders from starvation.

Namima is the youngest of four siblings, closest in age to her adored sister, Kamikuu. Their family is privileged as it is they who must produce the island’s Oracle. On Kamikuu’s sixth birthday she is taken to live with her grandmother to begin training for this revered role. Namima learns that she is ‘the impure one’, but what this means is not explained until she turns sixteen.

The section opens with a great deal of exposition, describing the small island and the lives lived therein. Much of the culture appears shocking, such as occasional culling of the elderly and killing of babies not born within rules. The plot progresses slowly but nevertheless retains interest after the lengthy descriptions of setting. The islanders live daily with the unease of repercussions if caught in transgressions, something Namima risks when she falls in love with an outcast, Mahito.

“I had never encountered anyone with such strength. The rest of us lived such timid lives, fettered by laws, fearful of breaking them.”

When Namima learns what her role on the island is to be she rails against it. Mahito sets out to save her but with motives she only learns of after her death.

The second section is set in the Realm of the Dead. Here Namimo meets Izanami who she is to serve. A lengthy few chapters tell the creation story, how the many gods came to be. The detail provided did not seem entirely necessary for the telling of this tale.

Despite being a god, Izanami died. She feels betrayed by her beloved Izanagi and now kills any woman he marries. Namima empathises with these feelings of jealousy, desperate to know what became of Mahito yet struggling to accept that he will have moved on with his life.

The third section opens in the underworld where, each day, Izanami chooses one thousand humans who are to die. She remains bitter over what happened to her and how Izanagi remains in the land of the living, still siring offspring.

“She continued with her task, silently and listlessly. Determining who would die was, in truth, a chore that left an unpleasant aftertaste.”

Namima now learns there is a way she could briefly visit the land of the living. Izanami advises against such a course of action. Ignoring this, Namima sets out to try to return to the island, albeit in a different form. Through this quest, Namima changes the direction of others’ lives.

The fourth section explores what became of Izanagi since Izanami died. Many centuries have passed and the god is growing tired of his immortality. Having travelled, as is his wont, he is returning to visit his latest wife who is due to give birth. Unashi, his loyal servant, has misgivings about this plan being more aware than his master about what befalls the women he marries. When Izanagi presses Unashi to share this knowledge, the pair concoct a plan to try to break the cycle.

Although this section pulls together the threads of the story, it does so by imbuing further characters with a death wish. When choices in life appear limited, suicide is accepted. Throughout the story, life is given little value until lost, and then it is only selfishly desired.

The final section returns to the underworld where there is a showdown between Izanagi and Izanami. Love turning to hatred due to jealousy has also gripped Namima.

“I suddenly made a terrible discovery. Spurred by my hatred of Mahito, I found myself longing for someone to die. Wasn’t this the feeling that had gripped Izanami when she was first locked up in the Realm of the Dead? Hatred is terrifying.”

The denouement offers a certain dark satisfaction. This carries with it a disturbing undercurrent as to why.

Previous releases in ‘The Canons’ series have been tightly woven, imaginative retellings. By comparison this was ponderous with much detail beyond what was needed for clarity. Although containing interesting elements, the length seemed unnecessary.

Any Cop?: An embittered tale of selfish desire that cast on this reader a perturbing shadow.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Glide

glide

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I rarely read psychological thrillers these days as I found plots were merging, making individual storylines forgettable. Many were of a similar length with a predictable structure that made them appear formulaic and, at times, padded. I picked up Glide only because I enjoyed the author’s previous work (plus page count is slightly shorter than is typical). I’m glad I did.

Narrated by Leo Coffin, a photographer who teaches at a nearby college, the story is told in short and gripping chapters. Leo has been with his Norwegian wife, Liv, for around five years. When the tale opens he is making her a birthday cake, wanting it to be ready and waiting when he picks her up from the airport later. She has been on a regular trip to her homeland, to visit family and order new stock for her business.

The couple live in Massachusetts and the tale is set over the weeks leading up to Christmas. On that first day, Leo hears footsteps by the back door and opens it to find a stranger lighting candles on a store bought cake. The man is looking for Liv and explains he is her half brother. Leo is unsure how to react as such a relation has never been mentioned. Ingrained good manners compel Leo to allow the stranger to enter his home.

This supposed half brother, Morten, is tall and sporty, handsome and highly personable. Leo finds himself wanting to impress, enjoying the man’s company but remaining wary given Liv has never mentioned him. A sense of foreboding builds as the stranger installs himself in Leo’s space, awaiting Liv’s arrival. This increases when Liv is delayed without offering any explanation.

Morten’s charisma contrasts with Leo’s reticence. Wherever the former leads the latter finds himself following. Leo is kind and polite but he too has secrets. When he shares a nugget with Morten that he has not told Liv, alarm bells ring.

The bones of the story are about secrets partners keep – of their past and how this affects reasoning behind current decisions. Leo would like to have children with Liv but she does not want them. He feels he could better accept her stance if he understood why. Liv has never explained and they have argued over the issue. Despite such previous upsets, Leo still wishes to delve deeper.

What comes to the fore in this tense and engaging tale is how fragile a marriage can be. Love is so often based on a mirage constructed from perception, built on sands that can shift due to unexpected revelations. Secrets can come to seem toxic if held close for too many years. There is fear of reaction, of breaking a trust needed to anchor the relationship.

Breadcrumbs are scattered throughout the tale but these are well managed to ensure the reader is kept guessing. More importantly, the writing remains taut without resorting to sudden changes in character traits in order to get to the next reveal. Certain threads could have been embellished to add further dimensions but key plotlines are developed with dexterity and depth.

The denouement strikes a fine balance between tying up threads and leaving some questions hanging. I particularly liked what the author did with Morten.

The pleasure to be gleaned from reading a psychological thriller is often in the guesses a reader makes when led through the twists and turns of plot and character. As this is a book worth reading I do not wish to spoil it by going into greater detail. Suffice to say even when I guessed correctly the story still held my attention for where it would go next.

I must also mention the illustrations that accompany the text. The shadowy images perfectly complement the unfolding narrative. Given that Leo is a photographer, they are an inspired inclusion.

I would not say this is a perfect story in terms of every word and thread counting but it is certainly an engaging tale – most unusually for me I read it cover to cover in a day. That it held my attention during these distracting times is a credit to the skill of the author in constructing a captivating thriller.

Any Cop?: A highly charged and ultimately satisfying read.

Jackie Law.

Book Review: Learwife

learwife

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on Leir of Briton, a legendary king whose tale was recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Bard modified the ending of the story, turning it into the famous tragedy. In both versions there exist the machinations of an aging king and his three daughters. The girls’ mother, the queen, is assumed dead but barely warrants a mention. JR Thorp has taken this lacuna and filled it with a fascinating character – an astute and cunning wife banished overnight to a convent following the birth of yet another daughter when a son was desired.

Learwife opens with a messenger arriving at a northern abbey bearing news of the death of Lear and his daughters. The late king’s resident wife, fifty-five years old, the past fifteen spent in rooms from which she appears only when fully veiled, enters a period of mourning for the family she loved but who turned her away. No reason for this punishment was ever given. She was permitted to take with her just one young maidservant who has remained loyal.

The queen has befriended the Abbess but otherwise kept herself apart from other residents of the abbey in which she remains incarcerated. Now, assuming herself freed from obligation, she allows herself to be seen. She plans to leave and pay her respects at whatever graves Lear and their daughters may have ended up in.

Plans are made and thwarted, the queen discovering that Lear had never countenanced recalling her as she had always expected. Still, she continues to plot her departure until a deadly sickness strikes and the abbey is placed in quarantine. The balance of power within its walls shifts and the queen, newly emerged and taking an interest, finds she has become legend. She draws the nuns to her as she once did courtiers, recounting nuggets of her history and finding these women know more of certain gaps than she does.

The story is told from the queen’s point of view and permeated by her memories. The reader learns that she spent a portion of her childhood in another convent, confined until she was old enough to marry the boy she was promised to. She was there to be trained in obedience. It was not a happy upbringing. The hunger instilled could never be sated. She learned young how families regarded their surplus girl children.

“Overflow daughters, pious children of overstuffed houses, or the poor ones: to send a girl for a nun because a dowry was too dear is old practice.”

Once married she gradually acquired the skills required to manipulate to her advantage, taking advice from Kent who became a trusted friend. Her first marriage was unhappy but in Lear she found a husband who valued her council. She encouraged him to be ruthless when needed, a trait that may have worked against her when she could not birth a live boy child.

“Who ever thought that gentleness is the nature of women! When it is such violence – that we come from, that we live within.”

Lear loved his daughters but regarded them as a useless legacy – another powerful man demanding a son that his wife, once beloved, could not provide. The queen wished to be valued by her daughters, to offer them the mothering she was denied. That she punished misdemeanours as she felt was needed, and would countenance no other woman influencing them, led to tensions whose cost she did not foresee despite her astuteness.

“Is there any pain like a child who does not want you anymore”

The denouement sees quarantine lifted at the abbey and the queen changed. She has made friends but also enemies, understandable given her behaviour. Within the cloistered walls there exists a microcosm of a kingdom.

This is a clever idea for a tale providing interesting historical fiction with breadth and depth. The language employed is not Shakespearian but fits well in the period and setting – both skilfully rendered. The restrictions within which a high born woman of the time must live – how she may use cunning to gain power but this may at times misfire – are only one element of what is a character driven narrative.

The telling, however, is slow paced. The reveal of the queen’s history is too often circuitous with gaps filled gradually and, by then, mostly predictable. The plot is impressive, as is the writing, but a tauter delivery would have been more engaging. That said, it is a book I am glad to have read.

Any Cop?: A beguiling new perspective on why Lear’s daughters behaved as they did.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Small Things Like These

small things

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a novel comes along that is a gift to readers such is the beauty of the language and the way the author captures the essence of family life and community in ways that are profound. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack comes to mind and now Small Things Like These. Although the latter has a more conventional structure, both focus on family men who understand and appreciate how fortunate they are. It is not that they are huge successes but their mix of good character, luck and hard work has offered them a chance to build a stable home life they value. The pacing is measured but never slow, the story told affecting in its honesty.

The protagonist here is Will Furlong, a coal and timber merchant living in a quiet Irish town. It is 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and times are hard with increasing job losses. Will is married to Eileen and they have five daughters. The family is well respected locally, with Will, especially, trying to offer kindnesses Eileen fears they can ill afford.

Will was raised by his single mother, suffering others’ attitude to this but cushioned by the benevolence of his mother’s wealthy employer. When he encounters the victims of the Catholic Church’s ‘laundry’ system while delivering coal to the local convent, it brings home to him what could have been his mother’s fate.

The Catholic Church in Ireland ran the schools and also many sideline ‘businesses’. What this involved was broadly known but most avoided thinking on it. Girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were derided as fallen, their families hiding them away for fear of the shame they would bring on those associated with them. Will considers all this from the point of view of his mother’s experiences but also as a father of five daughters who he is doing his best to raise well.

The threads of damage wreaked on communities by a powerful church are skillfully rendered as Will goes about his day to day business. Eileen may be considered the more pragmatic of the couple but each must live with the decisions they make. These have repercussions not just for them but on their daughters who are currently benefiting from what the church offers.

Here we have an author who weaves words together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story that is both powerful and poignant. The various lives depicted in the community may appear ordinary but behind this is an acceptance of a darkness that people avoid looking at for fear the shadows cast could damage them and theirs.

Any Cop?: Although exploring within the story how Mother and Child Homes and Laundries could continue for so long in plain sight, the writing is far from polemic. Rather it is a hauntingly lyrical account of one man’s conscience when doing right might damage the prospects of those he loves. In taut and piercing prose the author offers up a social history of rare acuity. It is a reminder that for evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Narrow Door

narrow door

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter and had been looking forward to reading A Narrow Door since she mentioned some time ago that her work in progress was a return to St Oswald’s school in Malbry. Whilst not a particular fan of Dark Academia as a genre, I very much enjoyed two of the previous books in this series – Gentlemen and Players and Different Class. The books are described as psychological thrillers and I was expecting the tense and taut pacing of the earlier works. Sadly, I struggled to engage this time round.

The story is told from two points of view and across two main timelines. Roy Straitley, the elderly Classics teacher now with worrying health issues, makes a return although he mostly serves as a listening ear, only occasionally adding a noteworthy opinion. The protagonist is Rebecca Buckfast, the new headteacher. It is made clear that appointing a woman to this role is quite shocking in such a traditional setting. She has taken the reins in the year that the Boys Grammar School merges with its sister school, Mulberry House, thereby admitting girls to the hallowed halls. In an attempt to create a fresh start after two difficult years, St Oswald’s has been rebranded an Academy.

The opening draws the reader in immediately. There are introductions to other members of the teaching staff, alongside key pupils, bringing readers who are new to the series up to speed on internal loyalties and enmities. References are made to events that damaged the school’s reputation and therefore finances – these were the plotlines of the earlier books in the series. Aspects mentioned would be better understood if the stories were read in order.

Rebecca Buckfast has a high opinion of herself and is proud of her appointment, believing she has worked harder for it than a man would have to. She also admits in the first chapter that she has committed two murders. The rest of the book contains her life story, as she tells it to Roy. She is his boss yet reveals intimate details, including aspects of her sex life. To this reader such divulgences felt inappropriate. The author worked as a teacher so maybe such behaviour happens. Fiction, of course, is often not realistic. Nevertheless, the way this book is structured too often jarred.

The plot revolves around the fallout from a pivotal event that occurred when Rebecca was five years old. At the end of the school year her teenage brother, Conrad, disappeared from his school – the neighbouring King Henry’s Grammar – never to be seen again. All but his parents believe he is dead. The parents’ lives paused on the day Conrad went missing. This has shadowed Rebecca’s life. She believes her parents remained sad that the wrong child stayed with them.

Rebecca struggled as a single, teenage mother yet managed to qualify as a teacher. She met her partner, Dominic, when they both worked at the local comprehensive. He was unhappy when she accepted a role at St Henry’s. Roy grows more interested in the history she is telling him when he realises her time there coincided with that of his long time friend, Eric, whose reputation couldn’t survive damaging allegations that previously shocked Roy to the core.

As is to be expected in a thriller: breadcrumbs are dropped before reveals are made; certain characters turn out to be not quite what they seemed; memory skews what later pulls threads together; and our main narrator proves she is not averse to underhand measures to get her way. There are hat tips to contemporary issues such as the treatment of gay and transgender pupils. There is an excellent ‘prank’ by Roy’s favoured Brodie Boys.

I enjoyed the ending, and not just because I could now stop reading a story that seemed at times to move along glacially. This is not a bad book but is not as good as I have come to expect from the author. Despite all the revelations, too many characters lacked sufficient depth, their role coming across as inauthentic. My main gripe remains that I wasn’t captivated as previously in the series.

Any Cop?: A thriller that failed to thrill this reader.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles

northern irish writing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The body is our tool for understanding our social world, and the texts in this study not only foreground the complex ways in which our bodies come into contact with others and are ‘read’ but also help us interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.”

Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles is an academic textbook. Its author, Caroline Magennis, is Reader in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She wrote the book as part of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘New Horizons in Contemporary Writing’ series. All this is to say that it is not a publication I would normally be drawn to read. It offers a detailed study and critique of contemporary fiction by writers from the North of Ireland focusing, as the strapline suggests, on intimacies, affects and pleasures. As an avid reader of Irish authors, and having reviewed books for close to a decade albeit as a hobbyist, I found her reading and interpretations of books I was familiar with fascinating and educative.

The introduction explains the author’s aims in writing the book, and her criteria in selecting the fiction featured.

“The texts in this project have been chosen because they speak to the central concerns of the monograph: how small moments of intimacy can be transformative. They begin to rewrite and reshape the representation of intimate life in Northern Ireland.”

The various stories, so carefully considered, were written around twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Although ‘post-conflict’, they reflect a community that continues to live in the shadow of decades of violence and societal repression. Northern Ireland’s politicians have ensured that the province retains outdated laws that limit and condemn certain choices and intimacies.

The first section of the book considers intimacy further.

“This chapter will argue that recent novels and short stories demonstrate the richness of intimacy as a way to re-examine the experiences of Northern Irish people in the twenty-first century.”

Texts studied include Michael Hughes’s Country, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, Phil Harrison’s The First Day and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies. I say studied. The author offers a close reading but this is not the dissection readers may recall from school English classes. Having read three of these books I was captivated by aspects of the stories that I had missed.

Wendy Erskine has stated,

“I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues.”

Magennis explores within each text concepts such as: home, family, desire and its relationship with violence. Northern Irish children are described as “unfortunate heirs of someone else’s spite”.

The second section of the book considers pleasure. Texts studied include Billy Cowan’s Still Ill, Glenn Patterson’s The Rest Just Follows, Lucy Caldwell’s Here We Are and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Wild Women.

“The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate”

Appetites for pleasure face the restrictions and repression of ingrained moral conservatism. Opponents of change employ guilt and shame alongside the violence endemic in a patriarchal society.

It is noted that

“critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do”

In Northern Irish writing, “the expression of sexual freedom often comes at a cost”. Of course, there is hypocrisy, such as the Orange Order member who condemns prostitution yet visits brothels. Ian Paisley preached that the lusts of the flesh were sinful. One wonders at the quality of his personal life.

The third section, Skin, builds on aspects highlighted in previous chapters. Texts studied include David Park’s Gods and Angels, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Róisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet.

Jenkinson’s writing in particular appears explicitly erotic. She writes of female agency, of access to medical treatment, of loneliness. She gives voice to thoughts and actions traditionally shamed.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is given its own chapter, presenting as it does “the central themes that this study has been organised around: intimacy, touch and pleasure.”

“Burns examines the communal experience of shame, a public emotion which is particularly corrosive to self-esteem and which is monitored and policed by the community”

Living within a narrow neighbourhood where expressions of joy are regarded with suspicion, mental health issues intolerable (sufferers should catch themselves on), voicing of emotional states taboo.

Again, Ian Paisley preached that dancing was sinful, an opinion that has seeped through consciences resulting in what Jan Carson described as a tightness in her body, a constraint, that the Wee Sisters in Burns’ book had yet to inherit.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland this came across as radical – that women can matter in themselves.

The book is concluded with a short chapter titled Open Endings in which the author adds further context to the detailed yet always accessible study she has written. There is a reminder that more writers are producing work each year, and that younger writers will draw on different autobiographical elements when creating fiction, a progression from those who experienced life during the decades of sectarian violence. She voices an interest in the impact of The Troubles legacy across the next generation.

“As critics who have ‘skin in the game’, we must move away from centring the voices that we know and respond to because their experiences mirror our own and pay attention to the new writers who will reshape the cultural landscape”

A coda enables the authors whose work is featured to write of the intimacy, in its varied forms, that they included within their work.

I stated earlier that I found this study fascinating. Although detailed and academically rigorous it is not heavy. For those of us who indulge in careful consideration of the stories we choose to read it offers a lesson in how to do so better.

Any Cop?: With much fine writing currently emerging from Northern Ireland this is a companion work well worth looking out for when it becomes more economically available, as it will.

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Passage North

passage north

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“…she wouldn’t have been able to hear the music, which such films relied upon so heavily to set up the emotional valence of the scene, to tell the audience whether they should be sad or hopeful or anxious or fearful. She couldn’t have had any sense of the plot, any sense of why something was happening and what consequences it would have for the characters … to watch a film without listening to it was to experience it at a remove…”

A Passage North is an intensely introspective account of a few days in the life of Krishnan, a young man who has moved back to his family home in Colombo and is living an unfulfilling existence. The story opens with an evening phone call in which he is informed of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. Earlier that day Krishnan had received an email from an ex-lover, Anjum, her first attempt at communication since their relationship ended several years ago. It is around these two strands that the unfolding tale is constructed.

Krishnan moved to Delhi to complete his education and then study further. It was here that he met Anjum and started an affair that appeared to mean more to him than to her. She is an interesting character but the reader sees her only through Krishnan’s eyes. With hindsight he can observe that his hopes for a life with her could never have been fulfilled.

“…his response to Anjum was no different from that of so many people, men especially but women too, who seeing someone whose external appearance could sustain all their fantasies, proceeded to project everything they desired onto this person, acting surprised when they realized, weeks or months or years later, that the actual person was different from the image they’d formed, that the actual person had a history and an identity of their own that would not remain silent, responding to this discovery with indignation, as if they’d been lied to or misled…”

While Krishnan was living in India, a war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka that culminated in mass killings of indigenous Tamil people. Rani lost her two sons in this conflict, scars she couldn’t recover from. Krishnan decides he will travel to Rani’s home village to attend her funeral. It is during the train journey he takes that many of his ruminations are shared. The reader learns the detail of how Rani came to work for the family following a marked deterioration in the grandmother’s health.

Dissonance and guilt are described as Krishnan, a Tamil living abroad, learns of atrocities happening in a place he considers home while he remains safe far away. When his relationship with Anjum flounders he takes a job in the north of Sri Lanka, perhaps an attempt to prove his worth after his student dissipations. When this does not provide what he is looking for he moves south where he is now sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

The author employs long sentences in the narrative that go into huge detail on what Krishnan is thinking. As well as events impacting his family, and his relationship with Anjum, he reflects on poems and stories that, at a time in his past, affected him. This isn’t a glimpse into a young man’s thought processes so much as excavation.

In many ways Krishnan is so self-absorbed as to lack empathy. Habits appear almost child-like, such as the pleasure he derives from the rationed cigarettes he permits himself, his smoking of them carried out illicitly. While in Delhi his chosen behaviour was more openly accepted by him – drugs a common feature of social gatherings. Anjum comes across as taking more pleasure in the moment whereas Krishnan is seeking something he cannot quite grasp – experiencing at a remove without appreciating the nuances of his surrounds.

Although undoubtedly well written in a literary sense, the story has more density than depth. Krishnan may elicit sympathy with his lack of direction and unmet desire for fulfilment but he looks inside himself more than at the impact of what is happening beyond. He admires a landscape for what it makes him feel. He observes Rani’s funeral with almost scientific detachment. The philosophical ideas explored in the text are interesting to consider but the story lacks the element of engaging entertainment.

Any Cop?: A book that can be admired yet failed to captivate. Perhaps a worthy candidate for the Booker Prize but this reader would prefer a more enjoyable story to win.

Jackie Law

Book Review: An Island

an island

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An Island tells the story of Samuel, who is seventy years old when the tale opens. For the previous twenty-three years he has tended a lighthouse on a rocky islet, where he cultivates vegetables and keeps chickens. Requested supplies are delivered by boat each fortnight. Other than these brief visits, he lives alone.

Occasional bodies are washed up on his shores, refugees who have perished and who he buries. The authorities have no interest in those whose skin colour and facial features mark them as foreign.

The book is structured across four days that unfold in short segments with many flashbacks. On the first day Samuel finds the body of a man who turns out not to be as dead as he first appears. Although unwelcome, Samuel cannot bring himself to leave the incomer to perish. With some difficulty he moves the inert form to his cottage. When the man recovers consciousness they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. Samuel grows paranoid about the stranger’s intentions, especially when he starts to make himself too much at home.

Samuel’s backstory is gradually revealed when incidents remind him of events from his past. As a boy he and his family were driven from their rural valley smallholding by colonisers – the end of his peaceful and happy time. Those who survived the clearance fled to the city where they joined the ranks of beggars making trinkets to sell. At best this provided a subsistence living.

The unnamed African country goes through further periods of turmoil. The colonisers are replaced by a dictator who makes promises of improvement but feathers only the nests of himself and his supporters. Any who are caught speaking out against him are punished severely.

As a young man Samuel wanted to find a tribe he could belong to, latching on to a group of petty criminals and then a gathering of rebels. Neither, however, truly welcomed him. Given his circumstances and behaviour, it was no surprise to learn he ended up in prison for a time. Samuel had aspirations but little opportunity. However much he may have longed for acclaim, to make a difference amidst the poverty and turbulence, if he was to survive he could not be a hero.

“The films showed lovers, dance clubs, drugs and traffickers, as though that was all of it, everything. As though there were no history, and all the past was something that happened elsewhere, to be remembered by others.”

The brush strokes of Samuel’s past life help explain why he sought a solitary existence and struggled with trust. After his many challenging experiences, the island became his hard won refuge. When the stranger is thrust upon him he shows a degree of mercy but cannot set aside his ingrained fears, exacerbated by how hard he has worked to create a home. As the story is told only from Samuel’s point of view, the stranger remains an enigma. This works well in making him any man from elsewhere.

The author has crafted a subtle yet piercing portrayal of the costs of human subjugation and repeated rejection. Fear of the other has been inculcated, encouraged by those wielding authority. The writing is spare and evocative, the reader trusted to understand the whys and wherefores. Samuel’s island existence is rendered skillfully, his fears understood however abject.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement with which engagement is effortless. A thoughtful and lingering story that deserves its Booker Prize longlisting.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Beethoven

beethoven

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I do not write for the multitude – I write for the cultured!”

Ludwig van Beethoven has been described by some as the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Numerous biographies of the man have been written, creating an image of an eccentric genius. Laura Tunbridge states that she wished to cut through the myths and place Beethoven’s life in its historical context. She employs a structure of nine of his compositions, exploring not just the Vienna in which he lived and worked but also the audiences available at the time, whose willingness to promote and attend musical performances was key to building renown. Beethoven harboured a lifelong desire for cultural acclaim alongside the practical support of wealthy patrons.

The book opens with three introductory sections. These set out: the financial struggles Beethoven faced, caused mostly by the Napoleonic Wars; musical terms employed in his compositions; the musical and family background in Bonn that shaped him, including his father’s wish that Ludwig be a prodigy in the manner of Mozart. On his first visit to Vienna, Beethoven captured the attention of the much lauded Mozart but then had to leave due to his mother’s final illness. He returned to the city for a second time to study under Haydn and did not return.

In Vienna, the ‘van’ in his name was wrongly assumed to be equal to the ‘von’ used in Austria – of noble birth. This suited Beethoven well. From early on he believed that the music he created was of a high order and deserving attention. He cultivated friendships that granted him access to those he needed to impress to raise money and build prestige. He wished to be heard by ‘educated listeners’ who would appreciate the difficulties inherent in playing his compositions. He had no interest in creating ‘crowd pleasers’.

“the practice of using the arts to assert cultural supremacy has been around for a long time”

There are marked differences between Beethoven’s early works and those from his later period. Some of this was down to changes in instrument design, allowing for greater range and a more robust sound. He worked through the ‘transition from creating music of ‘feeling’ to ‘art’’.

“Music was no longer to be merely an entertaining or interesting diversion but something more substantial”

Beethoven embraced this change fully, challenging what was possible. Given that performances at the time required musicians who would only have one or two rehearsals before playing to a captive audience, this approach could result in cacophony.

“His music could quickly reach the point when those who do not understand its rules and enjoy its difficulties would find no pleasure in it … complexity for its own sake”

The nine sections in the book offer as much musicology as exploration of the composer’s character and motivations. The history of the time is interesting but to fully appreciate the study of the music discussed one may need more of a background knowledge and interest than I possess. At times the discussion of musical terms and form became soporific.

The man himself does not sound appealing. Described as ‘sensitive, irritable and suspicious’ he comes across as arrogant and hypocritical. For example, he frequented brothels yet condemned his sister-in-law for sleeping with men she was not married to. He fought in the courts for custody of his nephew yet treated him terribly, resulting in the boy running away on several occasions.

As Beethoven’s music became ever more dense – and he, internationally famous – acquaintances would offer platitudes and practical help to gain access and curry favour by association. Others were more pragmatic, willing to offer criticism as audiences walked out of performances due to the chaotic and incomprehensible noise being made.

“its difficulty became a sign of its greatness. Effort had to be put in not only to play this music but to understand it too”

Unlike certain of his patrons, Beethoven was neither pleasant nor humble. He would sell exclusive, advance rights for his compositions to multiple sources. Money was a driver for this but also his belief in his own artistic worth – that it deserved greater recompense. Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ to be lauded a genius – especially by the self-appointed arbiters of taste and artistic appreciation. I pondered if, as now in many creative spheres, certain fans and critics saw in his art what they thought they should.

Beethoven relied on unpaid helpers as well as his numerous if not always reliable patrons. He fell out with many of his contemporaries due to the way he treated them. One may question if his musical output was heavy, dense or brilliant. At the time, much of his later work was too difficult to play so was not well received by audiences and performers in a changing demographic.

The author is honest in her portrayal of an artist who remains something of an enigma, a construct built from myths propagated over centuries. The reader gains a picture of a man frustrated in his personal life and believing himself undervalued. He was not unappreciated in his own lifetime but the plaudits poured on him rarely appeared enough to please.

Any Cop?: In picking this book to read I did not expect there to be quite so much parsing of the chosen musical compositions. This detail aids understanding of classical structure but I suspect I am not the intended reader. Nevertheless, I gained a better understanding of Beethoven’s life, character and motivations in what is otherwise an engaging tale. That I didn’t find anything to like in the man is neither here nor there.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Unwell Women

unwell women

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I read my way through Unwell Women in a prolonged and barely suppressed rage. Women and girls the world over know we are routinely demeaned – effectively silenced – and this account of historical treatment lays bare the toll it has taken on our health, mental and physical. The author presents the facts clearly, maintaining engagement and never shying away from topics rarely discussed openly – ‘women’s problems’ and how we are expected to go through life quietly, grinning and bearing. I pondered if male readers would have any interest or dismiss this well researched and presented account as a rant, females still being regarded as overly emotional – hysterical – and in need of calming down, by whatever means.

Divided into three main sections, the first of these explores how medical knowledge developed from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. Throughout most of this period, women’s bodies remained a mystery. Each month they would bleed. They grew babies. They complained of pains men didn’t experience so were probably imagined. As their father’s and then their husband’s property, it mattered that females remained amenable, attractive, modest and faithful. They were vessels for men’s sexual satisfaction and, most importantly, procreation.

“They were seen as weaker, slower, smaller versions of the male ideal, deficient and defective precisely because of their difference to men … in writings that would become the foundations of scientific medical discourse and practise, unwell women emerged as a mass of pathological wombs.”

The required modesty cost lives. Women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies – sinful temptresses. In the powerful Christian world it was, after all, the first woman, Eve, who ‘ruined everything because of her desirous and disobedient ways.’ Girls and women were expected to remain covered even when seeking medical treatment, untouched by the always male physician. Ingrained shame and ignorance in medical matters led to them being regarded as unreliable narrators of their own bodily suffering. An early pamphlet written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century stated ‘the female body is inherently flawed and defective in many of its functions.’

Female healers and midwives existed. Educated women worked tirelessly throughout history to improve care but were routinely dismissed by men who retained the power to effect change.

“the male writers espousing this nonsense understood only too well that women had to be exempted from the hallowed halls of medicine if they themselves were to maintain their stranglehold.”

A great many aspects are covered in this comprehensive and gripping history, much of it disturbing and, at times, horrifying. When physicians were eventually permitted to examine women (their reproductive physiology was considered an inverted version of men’s) treatments offered for a plethora of misunderstood problems included operations to cut off clitorises and crush ovaries. Alongside the need to suppress female excitability – bad for the nerves in already nervy creatures – the ideologies of eugenics were emerging in medical aims and practice.

The second section of the book, covering the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, saw the slow emergence of hard fought for advances in women’s rights as well as medical knowledge. Doctors still regarded women as sexual objects and child bearing machines. Birth control was frowned upon, abortions illegal and therefore carried out in secret. Women reporting gynaecological pain were regarded as overly sensitive – neurotic and requiring rest away from any form of stimulation. Typical treatments offered for common ailments such as uterine fibroids, and cancers in reproductive areas, were often as dangerous as the problems they claimed to cure. Doctors were keen to further their reputations – for financial reasons as well as ego. Women – particularly those not valued, such as sex workers and the criminalised – were useful subjects for experimental procedures. Troublesome wives and daughters were readily presented for surgical interventions.

The final section covers 1945 to the present day. Although much more was now understood about how a woman’s body functioned, many female complaints still couldn’t be explained and were dismissed as psychosomatic.

“In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy … And the success of the lobotomy was measured according to how obligingly she resumed her household duties.”

Although much of the book focuses on the way privileged, often white, women were treated by the medical establishment over the centuries, chapters also cover attitudes towards Black and ethnically diverse women. There are accounts of how slaves were believed to have higher pain thresholds, and how entire communities in economically deprived regions were enrolled in clinical trials without being informed of potential side-effects. There may have been a need for family planning to improve maternal health, but birth control was regarded as a means of limiting procreation amongst those deemed eugenically undesirable.

I mentioned the rage I felt reading this book. Despite the impressive progress in medical treatment and knowledge, so many of the attitudes detailed here are still recognisable and widespread. They manifest as: banter, mansplaining, paternalistic teasing, bafflement when women do not appreciate a well meant gesture, anger when men feel underappreciated or disrespected. Women want to be treated as fully human, not simply a vessel available for sex and procreation.

I pondered the choices parents around the world make when offered the chance to gender select an unborn child. Boys are still widely chosen more often than girls. Biomedical research funding focuses on finding treatments for ailments suffered by men. Clinical trial subjects have, over decades, mostly been white and male. Unexplained chronic pain reported by women – even that with testable biological markers – is often dismissed with ‘withering glances, eye-rolls, smirks and heavy sighs.’ It can take years of suffering before tests are offered and treatment made available.

The medical histories detailed here are mainly USA and UK based. In these supposedly forward thinking countries, women still struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies. Access to abortion requires a doctor’s permission and is not available in certain places, such as Northern Ireland. Many of women’s illnesses remain a mystery and are not taken seriously.

The first step in finding a solution is recognising there is a problem, making this an important work. What we need though are advocates who will be heard, not silenced as shrill and hysterical. If history tells us anything it is that the treatment of unwell women is of little interest to men while their needs continue to be met.

Any Cop?: Read this book and be aware of how ingrained and widespread the prejudices are – then learn to listen when unwell women speak.

Jackie Law