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

Robyn Reviews: The Midnight Library

Some books just speak to you. They seem to access a part of your soul that you weren’t even aware of; that you didn’t even know you needed. This is one such book. I’ve read other books by Matt Haig but none have affected me in the way that this did. I’m speechless. Everyone should read this. Everyone needs this magic in their lives.

This is a book about life, in all of its messy perfection. It’s a fantasy novel, in a way, but it also feels more real than most contemporary fiction. It’s almost impossible to review because it’s impossible to capture the feeling that it gives you – and you only get to experience a book for the first time once. I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone. I’ve rarely read a book and felt so profoundly moved.

“We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite.”

The Midnight Library is an in-between place, somewhere between life and death. The protagonist, Nora, wants to die; her life has gone in a completely unexpected direction and she no longer has the will to keep herself alive. But instead of dying, she finds herself in a library of endless possibilities – a library where she can live out every other possible life, all the lives that could have happened if she had made different choices, from the large to the small. As she explores all of her other lives, Nora comes to profound realisations about her own – and what it means to be alive.

Matt Haig is known for his self-help books, and whilst this is fiction it has threads of those self-help books running through it. I suspect part of why I love this is that I read it at the perfect time – when I was in exactly the right frame of mind for it. Those who don’t like their books to be too ‘preachy’ may not enjoy this – but I imagine that most will appreciate the cleverness of the story and how well it gives its message.

There are no perfect things in life, so of course this isn’t a perfect book. But it comes close. I encourage everyone to read this book – read it, and seek joy in the small moments that make up humanity.

“It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn’t make and the work we didn’t do and the people we didn’t marry and the children we didn’t have… but it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself.”

 

Published by Canongate
Hardback: 13 August 2020

Book Review: A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong, is part of the Myths Collection of novellas put out by publisher, Canongate, under the banner of The Canons. These (mostly) fabulous little books include ‘bold retellings of legendary tales, by the world’s greatest contemporary writers.’ I have so far reviewed:

The author of this latest read has been described as ‘one of our best living writers on religion’. Her style is factual but never didactic. She approaches her subject with insight and clarity, exploring how and why myths evolved with persuasive wisdom.

The book has seven chapters that take the reader from The Palaeolithic Period (hunter / gatherer communities) through to the present day. Opening with an explanation of what a myth is, Armstrong states

“mythology […] is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

“mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality”

There are recurring reminders that myths are not intended to be read literally. In tough times (and life has always included such times in abundance) they offer a means by which man may experience transcendence.

“Spiritual flight does not involve a spiritual journey, but an ecstasy in which the soul is felt to leave the body.”

“one of the essential yearnings of humanity is the desire to get ‘above’ the human state.”

I recently reviewed The Idea of the Brain: A History,  by Matthew Cobb in which he explores, among other things, how centuries of scientific research has sought to understand the biology of man’s ability to reason and feel – ‘how neural activity is turned into thought’. Armstrong explains that, for millennia, ‘myth and reason were complimentary’. A fixation on logical explanation can be damaging to man’s well being.

 “A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals.”

Myths – or beliefs – also help man come to terms with change, enabling personal growth and acceptance of mortality. Throughout history, as lifestyles altered, myths developed to match what was needed. Hunter gatherer became agriculturalist and then urban dweller. Alongside, myths evolved into religions.

Ever changing cultures require suitable deities. Although countries around the globe named their gods differently, many of the stories and characteristics were similar. They reflected what was needed. They served the psyche of the people.

The importance of ritual is explored. These also changed as cultural practices altered but remained a vital component in creating a sense of the sacred.

With the advent of literacy, philosophers questioned the rationale behind beliefs and their practices.

“[Reason] was indispensable in the realm of medicine, mathematics and natural science”

“But when they wanted to find ultimate meaning and significance in their lives, when they sought to alleviate their despair, or wished to explore the inner regions of their personality, they had entered the domain of myth.”

“[Reason] had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require.”

Moving on to the period of enlightenment, myths were abandoned. Instances of depression were recorded amongst advocates.

“we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place.”

In the present day the author posits that ‘We still seek heroes’. Perhaps this explains celebrity culture, although what is offered through them is unbalanced adulation.

“The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves.”

Armstrong suggests that literature could provide a solution.

“A novel, like a myth, teaches us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”

I would contend that it is not just novels that can offer help. In a time of great change and fear for the future, this book provided me with a much needed hopeful outlook. Bad things happen, but will pass. Emotions need not always have a logical basis or justification. The purpose of myths is to encourage man to become: better, kinder, more generous and considerate.

This is a concise and well written history offering many ideas to ponder. A recommended read, especially in these uncertain times.

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

Book Review: Another Planet

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Tracey Thorn is one half of pop duo, Everything But The Girl, the other half being her husband, Ben Watt. The couple met at Hull University in 1981 and have been together since – writing, making music, raising their three children. 

I had not heard of the author prior to picking up this book. I noticed the publicity when it (Thorn’s third memoir) was released in hardback but, put off by the photo on the cover, had ignored whatever was being said. What drew me to pay more attention was the premise, when I finally read it – a teenager growing up in middle class suburbia in the 1970s; my era. Aspirational parents were mentioned along with an ordinary, largely happy childhood. This is not a misery memoir yet the author rebelled. 

What is offered is an exploration of the stories we tell of ourselves – how and why we edit them – when family life appears felicitous to anyone else looking in, yet is the catalyst that drives a desire to escape, to break away from parental expectation.

Thorn kept diaries throughout her teenage years and these form the basis of her recollections. Always though she is looking back at the girl she was through the lens of her present day self – mid-fifties, successful in her field, a mother to adult children. 

The memoir is bookended by a day trip she makes to the suburban estate north of London where she was born and raised. Details have changed but much remains the same. She notices aspects previously missed despite the years she spent there. 

Interspersed with chapters that discuss her diary entries – what is written and, perhaps more importantly, what is not – are chapters giving background to: the place, life in the seventies, the pervading attitudes of middle class English parents who had lived through the war years. These offer a fascinating snapshot of a culture ingrained with stiff upper lipped snobbery and assumption that offspring will conform and provide a continuation of ideology. All this is presented with grace and candour. Thorn was bored and frustrated by her home life but recognises the influence it has had on her personal development.

“Always in the back of my head was a voice telling me to stop showing off. Don’t make a spectacle. Put that drink down. Shhhh.”

“If you didn’t talk about things, they weren’t happening. I was only thirteen, but I’d already learned the code.”

Thorn found her comfortable, conventional family life stultifying. Life in a commuter village surrounded by greenbelt left her feeling isolated from the excitement she craved.

“I was yearning for significance, looking everywhere for it.”   

“It strikes me that I’m talking about an imaginary place as much as a real one. If memory skews our perception, then the village I recall is semi-fictional, and I have to accept that my account isn’t neutral, or wholly truthful; it’s one-sided and irrational, constructed out of experiences and my reaction, sometimes over-reaction, to them.”

Thorn’s parents grew up in London but moved to the suburbs for what they believed would be a better life. Their social circle revolved around the groups to hand, their views aligning with those they mixed with. Thorn couldn’t bring herself to fit in with their values.

“But what if […] you’re being told you don’t have to believe in anything very much to join the church group, and no one seems interested in the arts, and everyone votes Tory and the golf club is racist, what then?”

Jan Carson wrote in The Stinging Fly of how seemingly endless boredom during hours spent listening to Presbyterian sermons led to vivid daydreams that inspired her early stories. Thorn also muses on the creative possibilities when formative years are spent bored and longing for escape from stifling prejudice.

“I’m thinking again about that idea that art flourishes in an unconducive environment, that suburbia is inspiring, surrounding you with ideas and people to reject.” 

For most of her teenage years, Thorn‘s concerns centred on boys, music, television and her social life.

“Current events rarely intruded into my little world, as I was a typically solipsistic teenager, and even when they did, my reaction was only to note the personal effect on me and my boring life.”

As she approaches adulthood, Thorn comes to realise that her parents and their peers were not as content with their lot as they liked others to think.

“The suburban dream suddenly seems creepy, as if its relentless NICEness is only pretend, and can’t survive without repressive conformity and wilful blindness.”

Although well written, candid and interesting, the format of this book sometimes lacks a smooth continuity. The reason becomes clear in the author’s end note. The book started as an essay and, over time, grew – “swallowing up some recent pieces of writing – reviews, articles and columns.” Thorn wrote these for other publications although points out they have been “chopped up, rearranged, in some cases rewritten” for inclusion here. Each chapter fits within her narrative but the story does not always flow as might be expected.

In many ways this is a typical story of life in middle class, middle of the road, family oriented England and, as such, offers a slice of life that garners little attention. Outwardly it appears so lacking in drama – teenage anger and frustration being routinely dismissed. As Thorn points out, many significant artists came from such backgrounds. As did many readers with whom this memoir will likely resonate. 

Any Cop?: Another Planet offers a softly spoken yet piercing history lesson – perhaps of value to the currently vocal looking back on the era with blinkered nostalgia. For those of us who grew up during the 1970s, it is also a trip down memory lane.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Girl meets Boy

Girl meets Boy, by Ali Smith, is from Canongate’s Myths series. It is woven around a retelling of the story of Iphis which originates in Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Also briefly included is a story based on the early life of Lilian Lenton, a suffragette who became ill due to being force fed while in prison. How women are valued (or not) is a recurring theme, although this is far from a polemic. Rather it is a love story in which gender is merely one aspect of attraction, yet a significant one to the uninvolved who observe and then worry themselves about societal appearance.

Imogen and Anthea are sisters living in their grandparents’ house in Inverness. Their parents separated when they were young and this has coloured their relationship. Imogen stepped into her mother’s place when she was only seven years old. She feels responsible for Anthea, and frustrated when her sister acts in a way she regards as irresponsible.

Both girls work for Pure, a company marketing bottle water as an aspirational consumable. When a graffiti artist daubs the office signage with a message suggesting that selling a necessary and natural product in this way is wrong, Anthea is smitten and questions her faltering role in the creative team. Imogen is proud of her own success at the company, won by agreeing with the boss and going along with the banter of colleagues. She hopes for a promotion and is horrified by her sister’s behaviour.

Despite the brevity of the tale many issues are covered including: foetal selection by gender, eating disorders, the male gaze, expectations of women’s role in the workplace. All of this is secondary though to the happiness found in a mutual love affair. The girls may have been scarred by the actions of their parents but they were nourished by the tall tales told by their fun loving grandparents.

“it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse.”

Given that this tale is based on Metamorphoses, expect transformations. When they come their contemporary relevance is highly satisfying.

In many ways a humorous and quiet story, there are many thought provoking aspects that will linger. An enjoyable addition to a series of concise reimaginings from established and well regarded authors.

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

Book Review: Cure

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Medical research scientists are required to be rigorous in their investigations but also open minded to the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from the results of clinical trials. Drugs that show early promise may not be as effective when tested over the long term on a wide variety of subjects. Side effects of treatments and surgical interventions can be as harmful as the problems they attempt to resolve.

While doctors may be eager to find more effective treatments, particularly for the growing number of chronic conditions, there are deep seated biases against certain alternatives: homeopathic remedies, mindfulness and meditation, distraction techniques, hypnotism, religious belief. What Cure sets out to do is to look at the trials that have been undertaken around such so called woo woo treatments and scientifically question their efficacy.

The book opens with an investigation into the placebo – pills given to patients that are known to contain no active ingredient, or treatment that has been shown not to work after accounting for the placebo effect in test results. Time and again trials show that many patients’ outcomes improve when given a placebo. The author asks why such a cheap and easy alternative is not offered when it could have clinical value. It is now known that the body is capable of producing its own powerful drugs, e.g. endorphins. The brain is a natural pharmacy.

“If someone takes a placebo and feels their pain melt away, it isn’t trickery, wishful thinking, or all in the mind. It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug.”

There are important limitations in the placebo as treatment; it is limited to the natural tools that the body has available.

“Placebos are good at influencing how we feel but there’s little evidence that they affect measures we’re not consciously aware of”
“Feeling great isn’t everything. We also want to be kept alive.”

Yet for those who do not feel great, placebos could offer a welcome improvement in the way they live. Certain patient groups, especially those with chronic conditions such as CFS / ME, reject that the mind can have such an important impact as they then feel they are being blamed for their illness. This separation of the mind and the body, and the biases such thinking uncovers, may be one reason why the treatments looked at in this book are often dismissed.

Another reason is the difficulty of obtaining funding for large scale clinical trials. Drugs companies are unlikely to support investigations into treatments that will lead to fewer expensive drugs being administered.

Living with long term stress has been shown to create physiological damage and to rewire the brain.

“people in a threat state take longer to recover to baseline once a task is over […] Over time, the extra strain on the heart can lead to hypertension. And as we’ve seen, repeated activation of cortisol can damage the immune system.”

The author investigates a variety of alternative treatments that attempt to train the body to deal with challenges and decrease the harm caused.

“Just as with physical exercise, if we put our bodies under a manageable amount of stress, then go home and rest, this eventually makes us stronger and more resilient.”

The effects of meditation and mindfulness are studied and compared to the effects of antidepressants. Once again, certain patients enjoy benefits yet many medical practitioners dismiss such treatments as nonsense, the proponents delusional. Prejudices are strong.

One problem with alternative and holistic treatments is the way modern medicine is practiced. In the UK an initial consultation typically involves a ten minute GP appointment with the expectation at the end that there will be a prescription or potential for surgical intervention. There may not be a pill for every ill but there could be minimally invasive and effective treatment if the patient is willing.

Drugs for stress, depression and chronic pain are costly with damaging side effects such as risk of addiction. Trials have shown time and again that mind-body techniques can work better on many. Despite the evidence, stigma remains.

Religion is shown to have a placebo effect although only if compassionate and accepting rather than threatening. A sense of belonging – the importance of community and damage caused by loneliness – are also investigated. There is a beneficial effect on health when a patient feels they are a part of something bigger.

“the prolonged impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful”

The author is asking: if an alternative treatment works for a patient then why mock and dismiss it? It is clearly stated that a patient may not simply wish themselves better yet there are ways in which the conscious mind can influence outcomes and deal better with painful situations. There is also the argument that keeping alternative medicine within the NHS allows for regulation and the ability to offer conventional treatments as needed. The potential for harm is acknowledged, such as when proven beneficial medications such as vaccines are withheld for spurious reasons.

Each chapter contains details of a variety of patients’ experiences alongside interviews with clinicians and references to papers and journals in which studies are detailed. Throughout, the writing is warm and accessible, the tone clear and inquiring rather than dogmatic. The reader may decide for themselves if improvements in health are worthwhile even if treatment cannot always be fully, scientifically explained in the traditionally accepted way.

Any Cop?: This is a fascinating approach to a controversial subject. The author offers due diligence and a willingness to look for facts without prejudice. The workings of the mind may not yet be fully understood by doctors but this doesn’t mean it cannot be harnessed for innovative and effective treatments. The book offers a compelling and persuasive contribution to a wider conversation. It may change the way rational and informed readers view alternative medicine.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Godsend

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Killing our fellow human beings in the name of some religious teaching has been going on for as long as man has believed in one of the many gods available. Holy books may talk of compassion but they also endorse punishment for those who break their rules. It suits the arbiters when followers live their lives in fear of how they will be treated after death. Religion is about power in the here and now.

Godsend explores the skewed thinking of believers who are willing to kill and die for their god. It opens in California where we are introduced to eighteen year old Aden Grace Sawyer. Aden is angry with the small world she knows, especially how it has been treating her. Recently divorced, her parents view her subsequent conversion to Islam as a petty rebellion against their indecorous behaviour. They do not understand that Aden is using her faith to fill a void and give life purpose.

Aden’s father is a professor of Islamic studies and introduced his daughter to the religion, teaching her Arabic and how to read the Qur’an. He often talked of his time abroad as a young man learning in a madrassa. Aden has informed him that she plans to travel to the Emirates to do the same. Online she met a boy, Decker, and has arranged the trip with him. Unbeknown to her parents, their destination is a school in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. As a female, Aden would not be permitted to study in this place so she has cut off her hair and will present herself as a boy. She will become Suleyman Al-Na’ama.

Aden leaves America with no plans to return as she wishes to live in a country ruled by fellow believers. On arrival she shocks Decker by telling him they will no longer have sex. She strives to follow doctrine yet must hide behind the falsehood of her disguise. Keeping this secret grants Decker power.

Both Aden and Decker are naive but determined. They claim not to wish to become involved in the fighting over the border but under new influences this will change. Aden seeks an acceptance from others that has, in her short life thus far, eluded her. She doesn’t yet understand that as an American she will never truly be trusted in Afghanistan. If uncovered as a girl here she will, at the very least, be treated as a chattel.

The layers of the story explore the hypocrisy of believers as they cherry-pick which rules to adhere to. There are rivalries and jealousies as they seek personal glory or revenge. The jihadists regard America as depraved and impious. They are willing to die for a cause that they continue to sin against.

In a searing coming-of-age Aden learns that, despite her willingness to comply, she is as alone and derided in Afghanistan as she was in America. Her dreams of escaping the influences of her home country are violently shattered.

“- This war has nothing to do with America, she managed to stammer.
– There is no such war anywhere on earth, Suleyman, the captain said quietly. – America itself has seen to that.”

The calm and beauty to be found in religious observance is shown to be a veneer for intolerance. The pared down prose avoids the rhetoric and hysteria often associated with radicalisation and terrorism. The rhythm and pacing of the story take the reader on a deftly written adventure with a heart in mouth denouement.

Any Cop?: It is a tale to challenge perceptions of morality and its imposition.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Little Snake

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Little Snake is written in the style of a fairy tale, although it contains no fairies. It is a story about people and the effects of the choices they make – especially on themselves. Certain place names are used but the settings are universal. Man made borders are troublesome. All cities contain those who hoard and then worry about holding on to money and possessions they will never truly need.

The tale opens in the garden of a small dwelling where a young girl, Mary, lives with her parents.

“Standing in her garden – which was on a rooftop and a bit bigger than a big tablecloth – she could look one way and see the very many sad, tiny houses of the squashed-in people. If she looked the other way, she could see the tall, sparkling buildings full of crocodiles and meadows.”

Mary is engrossed in a game when she encounters a beautiful snake. She decides to call him Lanmo. He understands how unusually clever she is and they become the best of friends. Lanmo spends time with Mary, accompanying her to school where the foolishness of the modern education system helps him understand why some people end up behaving so stupidly.

“’No’, said the teacher. “We should be proving that we are clever so that the National Test Assessors can assess us, and when we have been assessed we can move on to our next assessment.’”

Mary learns little of value at school. At playtime she is either ignored or rebuffed by the groups of “Very Attractive Friends”. When Lanmo sees how she is treated by her peers he is angered. Emotions are new to him, and challenging to deal with. He discovers that love causes pain. He starts to see people through new eyes and changes the way he behaves with some of them.

Mary reads books and then dreams of the adventures she will have when old enough to go exploring in jungles, oceans, glaciers and deserts. Lanmo’s job takes him all over the world and he cautions her about the dangers she may face. He talks of lions and bears. What will hurt her though are the actions of men.

Lanmo encounters many causes of such wickedness: the greed and thoughtless cruelty that grows alongside increases in wealth; the violence people in power invoke to maintain their positions; family members impatient for their inheritance. None of this makes a difference where Lanmo is concerned. Until he met Mary he had not cared how those he was required to visit had lived.

Lanmo returns to Mary on several occasions as she grows into a young woman. He observes how her home city becomes increasingly battle scarred and dangerous. He cannot protect her from damage and loss caused by other people’s choices which remain freely made. What he offers are continuing good dreams amidst the difficulties she must deal with.

Any Cop?: The story is deceptive in its simplicity, almost childlike yet keenly perceptive. Its message is not new but is beautifully rendered. There remains hope because each of us may choose to be kind, even if this means not adhering to the prescribed culture we live in. It is a tale for our times.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Sal

Sal, by Mick Kitson, tells the story of thirteen year old Sal Brown who runs away with her ten year old sister, Peppa, following horrific events at their flat in coastal Scotland. Sal is determined to keep her little sister safe and to ensure that Peppa does not suffer the abuse that Sal has endured for years. They have been unable to seek outside help as siblings put into the care system are too often separated. Sal has looked after Peppa since she was a baby alongside caring for their alcoholic mother. The threat of care has been used many times to ensure the girls do not report their mother’s neglect, nor the way her current boyfriend treats them.

Sal is not like other children. She carefully orders all that is inside her head and conducts research to gain in depth knowledge of facts that interest her. When her mind wanders she becomes disorientated and struggles to breath. She rarely smiles.

Once Sal decided she would need to take Peppa away for her own safety she set about preparing everything they might need. Using Youtube videos and other internet sites she taught herself new skills, gathered together necessary clothes and equipment, and planned every element of their escape in detail.

Sal believed they would be safest living in a remote forested area, building a shelter and hunting for food as she had watched the likes of Bear Grylls do on television. Her experience of the police convinced her that they are not clever enough to work out where the girls will have gone, so long as they limit the trail left and stay hidden. It is people who are dangerous. Missing city girls are not expected to be capable of wild living.

The tale is told in Sal’s voice so the reader understands the practical nature of her thinking. In flashbacks the reasons for the girls’ escape is revealed. It is a devastating indictment of a system that should be functioning to protect vulnerable children, dealing with causes rather than the effects.

Sal and Peppa’s life in the forest presents difficulties that Sal shows skill and creativity in attempting to overcome. Peppa is a livewire and lacks Sal’s wary reticence. The younger girl is more willing to trust and befriend. The forests of Western Scotland may be remote but they attract walkers and holidaymakers. The sisters have been reported missing and triggered a media campaign. They run risks if they are seen.

The story is beautifully told with characters introduced to demonstrate that human kindness exists and that even badly damaged people need not turn bad. The rule of law and authority is shown to be a blunt instrument that requires a humane interpretation, too often lacking.

This is a deceptively simple, nuanced tale that I sat up late to finish, needing to know the outcome of Sal’s actions and ongoing behaviour. It is a story that is both heart-warming and heart-rending.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Mick Kitson will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival with Adelle Stripe on Sunday 30th September 2018. For more information click here.

Book Review: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.

 

Jackie Law