Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

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

Book Review: V for Victory

Having enjoyed Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, I’d been looking forward to reading V for Victory so was delighted to receive a physical ARC during lockdown when most review copies were ebooks. This is the latest installment in a loosely linked series about characters lucky enough to have crossed the radar of the inimitable Mattie Simpkin, a glorious creation by the author. I enjoyed this tale at least as much as her previous works – and that is high praise.

The story is set in London during the closing months of the Second World War. Noel, Mattie’s godson, is now nearly fifteen years old and being schooled at home by an eclectic group of tutors. They are all lodgers at Green Shutters, the house Noel inherited when Mattie died. His guardian, Vee, goes by the name Margery Overs. She masquerades as the boy’s aunt and worries about repercussions should she be found not to be who she claims. In their salubrious Hampstead neighbourhood, the running of a boarding house – necessary for income – is regarded with disdain.

Another key character in the tale is Winnie, one of many wardens stationed across the city who help coordinate necessary resources when bombs wreak their devastation. Winnie was one of Mattie’s Amazons, along with her twin sister, Avril. The latter has literary ambitions which provide a delicious injection of humour. The author has a knack for dropping observations about human behaviour into every situation, gently mocking pretensions while whisking the reader through each scene.

The vivid picture provided of wartime London is one of the best I have read. And yet, despite the destruction and deprivations, this remains a tale of people – their daily challenges and concerns. The characters are far from perfect people but their flaws and foibles are mined to ensure the reader recognises why they have acted in ways that may be regarded with censure. The unlikable are those who look out only for themselves.

The various plot threads are engaging and rattle along at a good pace. Vee’s grey life finds colour when she is befriended by an American GI. Winnie’s experiences as a warden offer a grim evocation of the role – a stark contrast to the gilded life led by her sister. Noel’s settled existence is threatened when he is visited by a soldier with knowledge about his past.

There are standout scenes that particularly resonate. I enjoyed the literary party where it seemed everyone wished to talk about the book they had inside them – with no interest in anyone else’s conversation unless they saw an opportunity for personal advancement. The depiction of the rocket attack Winnie deals with is strengthened by the nuances of what is horrific but has become everyday.

The descriptions of people throughout remain entertaining. For example, of Avril’s husband, a kindly man working for the Foreign Office who adores his confidently beautiful wife:

“He was a very nice man, diffident and slightly bewildered, like a staid dog who’d been taken for an unexpectedly vigorous and sustained walk.”

The lives rendered add depth to an affecting story sparked by humour. Tension is added by the precarious nature of their existence. Death is as likely from a road traffic accident as from a bombing raid. Moments of happiness can be found by those willing to recognise and work for them.

Although often poignant, the tale offers hope and a reminder of the good in people from all walks of life. Beautifully written, this is a rare and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Miss Benson’s Beetle

This latest novel from Rachel Joyce is a gem. While I have enjoyed all her books that I have read – especially The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryMiss Benson’s Beetle is special. It is a story of grief, friendship, and the bravery a woman must muster if she is to lead rather than follow – the rewards of trying, whatever the obstacles faced.

The two main protagonists are recognisable and perhaps not initially admirable. They are developed into cracking creations.

Miss Margery Benson is a schoolteacher in her forties who carries a weight of heartache she has learned to suppress. The book opens in 1914 when, as a ten year old, Margery’s father shows her a picture of a golden beetle rumoured to exist in New Caledonia – a French territory comprising dozens of islands in the South Pacific. In that moment, something is awakened in the child that will develop into an interest in entomology. Before this can happen, her life is changed forever. A shocking event results in her leaving the rectory – the home she shared with her parents and older brothers – and going to live with two maiden aunts in their mansion flat in Kensington.

The timeline jumps forward to 1950. London has been scarred by wartime bombing raids. Rationing remains in place resulting in a grey and restricted existence. When Miss Benson’s pupils openly mock their lumpy and worn teacher during a lesson, something in her breaks. Hurt and angry, she reacts in a way she cannot explain, even to herself.

Unable to return to her teaching job, and aware that her life is somehow now empty of family and friends, Margery decides to follow what was once her dream. She will travel to New Caledonia and seek out the golden beetle, bringing proof of its existence back to the Natural History Museum. She advertises for an assistance and makes plans for an entomological expedition. The brash young woman she ends up travelling with, Enid Pretty, is not who Margery envisaged as her companion and helper. Unbeknown to both of them, a stalker is also making the journey to the remote archipelago.

The unfolding tale is beautifully structured and consistently engaging. There is humour in abundance as the women find ways to cope with an adventure neither of them is fully prepared for. The strength of the writing lies in the character portrayals – not just the main protagonists but everyone they encounter, and their varying reactions to the women. With the lightest of touches, the author adds depth and emotional resonance.

Woven in are several interlinked threads. These include: a murder mystery; a love story; snapshots of the expatriate British. Neither Margery nor Enid speak French – the modern language on the islands. They must be resourceful and determined if they are to have any hope of completing their dual quests.

The longest sections of the book cover the journey from England to Australia and then the women’s mountain odyssey in Poum. Their manifest differences come close to derailing the expedition yet also prove vital when differing skills are required to deal with unexpected challenges. The friendship gradually formed leads to heightened self-awareness as well as valued kinship. Hardships faced together create a bond neither anticipated.

The denouement is set in 1983 and is imaginatively rendered. This short section satisfactorily rounds off what is a wide ranging, poignant yet entertaining tale that will linger.

Miss Benson’s Beetle offered me even more breadth and gratification than expected. This is storytelling at its best.

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

Book Review: Expectation

“We fought for you. We fought for you to be extraordinary. We changed the world for you and what have you done with it?”

“Our best. We’re just doing our fucking best.”

Expectation, by Anna Hope, is a book that centres on three female friends and the complexities of their lives and relationships. It offers a reality check for those who believe close friendships exist under a perpetually glowing halo.

Set mostly in the early years of the twenty-first century, the three women attend university before the introduction of tuition fees. They live together in London before rent hikes make such carefree lives in the capital the preserve of the rich. Growing up, both they and their families encourage and take pride in their burgeoning potential. The women are not so well prepared for dealing with future disappointment or perceived failure.

Cate and Hannah meet in school where they are academic rivals. Whilst Cate is accepted into Oxford, Hannah ends up at her home university in Manchester where she meets the carelessly beautiful Lissa. Lissa’s mother is an artist, former teacher and activist. In raising her daughter she wished to instil an understanding that women can have lives outside the role of parenting.

The story opens in 2004 when the three friends are sharing a shabby townhouse in London. They are all single, enjoy good food and mediocre wine, attend small gigs and gallery openings, nurse hangovers with strong coffee. They are twenty-nine years old and believe they have time to become who they are going to be.

“They do not worry about nuclear war, or interest rates, or their fertility, or the welfare state, or aging parents, or student debt.”

“Life is still malleable and full of potential. The openings to the roads not taken have not yet sealed up.”

The timeline then jumps forward six years and much has changed. Hannah – married and financially successful – is undergoing her third round of IVF. Cate has moved out of London, to Canterbury where her in-laws live. She is struggling to cope with the exhaustion of caring for a six month old child who regularly interrupts her sleep. Lissa is auditioning for a role in a play that will enable her to leave her job in a call centre. Her longed for big break as an actress remains a dream.

Moving back and forth in time, snapshots are presented of key moments in the women’s lives: first meetings; holidays and wedding days; moments of conflict. A melancholy permeates the main, linear narrative. Each of the friends looks at what the others have achieved and compares their own life unfavourably.

“why should it matter what her friends are doing? Why should her happiness be indexed to theirs? But it is.”

Hopes and love, sharply focused on a particular wedding day, fade. The paths the women’s lives have taken are not what each believes they deserve. They try to swallow the bitterness they feel, to cope with their current reality. They turn to their friends but do not find the succour they crave, which leads to resentment.

The brief portrayals of the older generation throughout the story offer wider context and understanding. It is only in rare glimpses that any of the characters can see the others as they see themselves. Parents are blamed and also envied. There is a longing for the success that was expected.

The writing is subtly evocative in its depiction of life’s challenges. The author is skilled in her use of language. The structure and flow are well balanced, although the pervasive despondency at times felt oppressive. There is a raw honesty in how the three friends regard each other and the mistakes they make.

An interesting study of varied relationships and the difficulties encountered when individual needs are not understood, acknowledged and met. Although the protagonists’ lack of contentment at times felt dispiriting, this was a poignant and candid read.

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

Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

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

Gig Review: Markus Zusak in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to join a large and appreciative audience, some of whom had come from as far away as Paris, to hear Markus Zusak talk about his latest book, Bridge of Clay. Markus was interviewed by Mr B from the bookshop hosting the event, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. As is my wont, I made notes throughout the evening and the following is a write-up of these. Much was discussed so this post is quite lengthy. I hope it will be of interest.

Markus told us that he started writing Bridge of Clay when he was nineteen or twenty years of age. He is now forty-three. The idea came to him during long walks around Sydney where he was living at the time. He wanted to write about a boy building a bridge and needing to do this well, perhaps better than he was able. He thought of the title, Clayton’s Bridge, then shortened the boy’s name to Clay. Bridge of Clay seemed apt as, whatever materials were used, the bridge would be made of the boy. Clay may be moulded into anything but requires fire for it to set. At this stage Markus even knew how his story would end – it doesn’t end that way now. He believed this was his best idea and set about writing it.

Somehow he couldn’t make the story work. He moved on to write other books but kept going back to Clay without success. After The Book Thief was so well received he had the time to devote himself to the story.

Markus was surprised by the reaction to The Book Thief. He hadn’t expected many people to enjoy a book narrated by death in which a large number of characters die. He knew that he needed to write another book and Clay was all he had.

Around 2007/8 the family structure in the story came into being. Prior to that it had been very different and had gone through many iterations. He introduced the five brothers – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy – when he realised that a menagerie of animals would be involved. He knew that one of these animals had to be a mule (all ambition is an ass) so set the story in the racing quarter of the city to enable this. From here Carey evolved. The original narrator was Carey’s sister but this didn’t work. The character was cut out.

Mr B asked Markus if his writing process is as fluid as it sounds.

Markus told us that he has all these ideas. He claimed not to have a great imagination but rather sets himself problems to solve. He wanted to include a mule so had to make that work. He came across a misspelled sign on a fence warning passers by not to feed a horse and decided he could use that. The feral brothers came from a picture in his head of boys running up a flight of stairs, goading and challenging each other. He needs to know what happens to characters – their backstory which makes them what they are.

The boys’ mother, Penny, started from the idea of nicknames. She was to be The Mistake Maker and it came to him that she would play the piano and love Greek mythology. Her journey to Australia would be like The Odyssey. Homer used nicknames. Markus’s wife was brought to Australia by her parents when she was six years old. Her parents couldn’t believe the heat, the size of the cockroaches. The chapter on paper houses developed from their stories of that time in their lives.

Markus aims to create memorable characters. Penny looked fragile but was incredibly tough. Although apparently based around the five brothers, it is the female characters who are the heart of Bridge of Clay.

Mr B asked about the origins of the fights on the running track.

Markus told us he always needs to train hard to be good at anything. Clay is training but nobody is sure what for – it turns out he is training to build a bridge. Matthew offers motivation but improvement stalls. Rory realises that Clay needs to hurt – to improve at anything it is necessary to make it harder. Markus remembers a teacher telling him that to get good at running on grass a runner should train on sand.

Boys are very physical. He wanted a contrast between the toughness they display and how much the brothers love each other (love runs through the family like a river). Boys don’t mind touching – elbows, shoulders, fists – but they don’t talk much.

Markus writes books from the inside out. He shows how the boys are and how they would like to be, juggling the rough and tumble with emotion. He didn’t want author quotes on the finished book but did think of having quotes from each of the Dunbar boys – “It’s a bit shit but you’ll love it”; “I can get you a good price for it”, and so on 🙂

Mr B asked about the objects, talismans in the story.

Markus is a collector of things. He and his children have a book of feathers. He is interested in memory and what is treasured. The lighter that Carey gives Clay has several meanings – don’t burn your bridges, clay needs fire to set. The monopoly piece is a reminder of a game played while their mother was ill.

Markus is always trying to write a book that maybe he’s not good enough to write. The book is made of him. He is at his happiest when writing and it is going well. Life is stories.

The real hero of this book is Markus’s wife. in 2016 she sat him down and told him, after a decade of trying, that he had one week to finish the book. When, after a week, it still wasn’t finished she told him to take a break from Clay, to write in his neglected blog. He didn’t want to. He started to write up all the books he would read when he finished. After four to six weeks he knew he was ready to get back to it. He started building up the chapter headings he had noted down in an attempt to progress.

He writes at home amidst the family chaos. Occasionally they will all go away for a few days. He remembers one day, it was very hot, he took off his t-shirt – something he never usually does. His son’s reaction amused him and he thought, I can use that. The writing came to life again. He realised that he was 85% done and six months later he finally finished.

One big change in that time was with Michael Dunbar – a painter who loved the work of Michaelangelo. Markus decided Carey and Clay would have a mutual obsession with a book about the artist, The Quarryman. This now has its own thread.

There is a lot going on in the story but every single piece means something and will make sense by the end. Each idea introduced is part of a jigsaw.

Markus had a lot of ambition for the book. We all live our lives moving forward but take everything that has gone before with us. He wanted the structure to be tidal. Beginnings are everywhere and there are many before the beginnings. This may offer a challenge to some readers but hopefully also rewards. In some ways he wants readers to finish and feel they have been run over by a truck – maybe need to soften that analogy – he wants readers to still remember the book in ten years time.

He has always had a good relationship with his editors. With Bridge of Clay, some of the queries he had to point out the answer was coming if they read on. This may not suit all readers but that’s okay.

Mr B was sent an early manuscript copy of the book that contained handwritten notes on illustrations which aren’t in the finished copy. He asked: why is that?

These were an idea that wasn’t included because illustrations weren’t needed. Words alone leave more to the imagination for the reader.

Mr B asked why in America the book is promoted as for YA while here it is primarily aimed at adults.

This is because Markus wished to stay with the same publishers as previously. He felt a loyalty. He doesn’t regard Bridge of Clay as a YA book but it is down to readers.

Questions were opened to the audience.

Markus was asked what he thought of The Book Thief film.

He didn’t expect the book to reach such a wide audience. Dealing as it does with death, when the producers wanted little kids to be able to watch the film it had to be made the way it was. The book is not for little kids. When film rights are sold the story needs to be handed over. Creative people have to be allowed to be creative. A book is a book (although there are elements in it he would now change – he was very young when he wrote it – he is still young!); a film is film (and it opened up a new audience for the book).

A teacher asked how to get young people interested in books.

Markus is asked this a lot and doesn’t know. It’s not his job. He would maybe point out that reading is tougher than football or TV – challenge them. Also, find the right book for the right person. Take them to a good bookshop such as Mr B’s.

Asked why Matthew was the narrator it was pointed out that this is explained at the end of the story. Markus did change the narrator regularly during rewrites. It couldn’t be Rory as he wouldn’t care enough. Henry is too flippant, Tommy too young. At one stage he nearly cut the brothers out but realised he needed them for colour – and to get the mule in.

None of the final characters other than Clay were in the first version of the book. All the brothers are deceptive and offer flashes of insight. He believes in Matthew the most.

Q: What motivated you to keep coming back to the unfinished work?

This was the book he was destined to write – that sounds corny – he felt it was the book he had to write.

Q: What research did you do for the book?

Markus doesn’t look for facts but rather people. Ideas can leap out from their stories and be turned into something else. He uses them as stepping stones.

Q: What are you going to write next?

He may further develop a minor existing character, or look at the time after the setting of The Book Thief – at what would happen next. He is not contracted to anyone so can write for the joy of it and see what happens.

Q: A favourite quote from Bridge of Clay?

“It’s a mystery to me how boys and brothers love”

Q: Did Homer influence the style of writing?

Yes, that was deliberate. The rhythm and cadence, the epic nature. This is a suburban epic. All lives have epic moments.

Q: Does the book feel finished now, after being in your life for so long? Will the brothers grow old as your life progresses?

Markus may well revisit them. Characters don’t arrive fully formed, they have to be worked on and developed. They become akin to friends.

When his publisher suggested he must feel great to finally finish he admitted to feeling terrible. After the high of all the hard work it all felt flat.

Q: Do you have a nickname?

There are many nicknames in the family and all evolve over time. A friend called him Small and his son then became Little Small. His sister called him Golden Boy (here he is with his books) and when The Book Thief did so well this became Platinum Boy, and then PB – he doesn’t think this suits him at all but the stories behind the names are what interest. The dedications in the book are to his family and are their nicknames.

Q: Would you allow Bridge of Clay to be made into a film?

Markus doesn’t know. He loves books and loves films but who should he give it to? They might do something different with it which may work or may not. He would be just as happy if it isn’t made into a film.

Q: When writing are you a prolific reader?

No, but he likes a book with a good voice, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Good characters make good books.

Markus was then asked to sign books and the queue snaked all the way around the large church venue, several people deep, and out the door. Unable to delay so long I took my final few photographs and made my way home. It was an evening well worth attending.

Bridge of Clay is published by Doubleday.

You may read my review here.

Book Review: Bridge of Clay

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The best storytellers draw the listener or reader into their tale with a mixture of voice, content and anticipation. At each stage in the telling they must provide sufficient background for context but not become waylaid by irrelevant tangents. Their audience must remain eager to know what happens next, attention effortlessly retained.

Bridge of Clay is close to six hundred pages long so holding this reader’s full attention was going to be a challenge. I prefer short books, devoid of padding, where every word is necessary for pleasure and progression. Markus Zusak exceeds beyond expectations, and these were high given his last publication was The Book Thief.

Set in and around Sydney, Australia, the focus of the story is the Dunbar family. The narrator is the eldest of five boys. They are Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. They live in the family home with a menagerie of unusual pets. Their mother is dead and their father disappeared. Matthew has been breadwinner and de facto parent since he was in his late teens.

It is hard to pin down where the story begins because it is a family history with many players. The pivotal point is the bridge, but to understand why it comes to be built it is necessary to get to know how this family lived.

And so there is a beginning, because the teller must start somewhere. There is before the beginning, and the time around building the bridge. Each part of the tale relies on strands of history – of the boys, their parents, grandparents and key friends.

Somehow the author makes it work. The narrator’s voice is original, compelling and richly resonant. He takes us through the devastating challenges of loss but also the joy of being loved. He takes us through what it means to live.

The boys’ mother is Penelope, born in the USSR and a talented pianist. The reader learns how her father quietly plotted to give his daughter the chance of a better life, and the heartache caused bringing his plans to fruition.

The boys’ father is Michael, a small town Australian and talented artist. By the time he met Penelope his heart had already been broken, his aspirations irredeemably scarred.

There is also a girl is involved, an apprentice jockey named Carey. She and Clay share their love of a book, The Quarryman, which also has a history.

All this we learn in fragments. It is the necessary context to enable the reader to understand how the five boys ended up alone, viciously fighting each other as a day to day occurrence. Matthew worked hard to keep his brothers together after the loss of their parents. When their father reappears asking for help and Clay decides to leave, it is an end that feels like betrayal.

The reader needs to understand Clay’s reasoning, and it is this that Matthew aims to convey in typing out his story on the old typewriter, dug up from a garden where it lay buried for years alongside a dog and a snake. Clay grew up listening to his mother tell him the family stories. He has now tasked Matthew with their excavation and reveal.

There are reasons why beloved boys become vicious young men. Hurts manifest in differing ways. All may not be as it first appears.

Every life is filled with endings and beginnings. Yet still they continue, however difficult each day may feel.

The short chapters switch between the various threads, progressing each along different timeframes and points of view. Even the best meant actions and decisions in life have cause and effect. Bad things sometimes happen, traumatising survivors in misunderstood ways.

The writing is lyrical, powerful and spellbinding. The threads weave in and out around Clay’s pivotal secret. This reader suspected the truth early on but this in no way detracted from the pleasure of reading. The storyteller has perfectly balanced the crescendos, tragedies and reliefs throughout his tale.

Any Cop?: A book to savour, a reading pleasure, a voice that will linger – this is storytelling at its best.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Ladder to the Sky

A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne, tells the story of Maurice Swift, a handsome Yorkshireman and son of a farmer who is determined to leave his upbringing behind and become a renowned author. When the tale opens he is working as a waiter in West Berlin. Here he meets Erich Ackermann, an aging Cambridge professor whose latest novel has just won The Prize. To satisfy his publishers Erich has taken a year’s leave of absence to perform on the expected circuit of literary events across Europe and America, promoting the book that has unexpectedly brought him fame. He is drawn to Maurice as a moth to a flame, the young man’s good looks and knowledgeable admiration of Erich’s work unlocking desires that have lain dormant for decades.

Erich agrees to read some of Maurice’s writing and is disappointed to find it skillfully constructed but mundane. Unwilling to lose touch he offers to employ Maurice as his assistant on tour. With this foothold the aspiring writer enters the rarefied world of the literati with its jealousies, conceits and ruthless ambition. Always on the lookout for a story idea, Maurice encourages Erich to talk to him about his experiences growing up in Germany under Hitler. Erich harbours a terrible secret that he decides to share.

The plot jumps forward in time to a beautiful and secluded villa on the Amalfi Coast where Gore lives with Howard. Key figures from the world of literature, the arts and politics along with those who believe they will benefit from mixing with these supposed titans have all passed through. Now Maurice has found a way to receive an invitation to stay. Like other aging authors, Gore is tempted by the young man’s mix of admiration and contempt, his confidence and allure. There is much verbal sparring, name dropping and one-upmanship highlighting the tensions, pretensions and sensitivities of authors who, even when revered, are forever alert to the danger of eclipse by newer rivals’ work. Maurice may have by now written a book that garnered wide attention but the cost was high and lacking the esteem he seeks.

A decade later Maurice is married to Edith, an up and coming writer, but has not yet found the continued success he believes is his due. The couple have recently moved to Norwich where Edith is to teach creative writing at UEA while adding the finishing touches to her second novel. Maurice has no firm plans but hopes to pick up ideas, perhaps from her students. What he discovers will catapult him into the world to which he aspires. He will not allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story continues in New York where Maurice founds and runs an exclusive literary magazine, seeking out new writers and granting him access to their ideas. By the end of the novel he is living in London and being courted by a young writer himself, a situation he intends to work to his advantage.

The decades over which the story is set allows for tight plot progression, the pace of which effortlessly maintains reader engagement. Despite Maurice’s behaviour, the terrible actions he justifies to himself as necessary, there is much humour. Authors are often asked where they get there ideas. This tale provides an interesting study into who owns intangible and regularly reinterpreted inspirations. The denouement is ace.

I would offer a comparison to an amalgamation of Patricia Highsmith and Sebastian Faulks but wonder if this would somehow irritate the author who may prefer simply to be recognised as the talented writer he undoubtedly is. Having read this book readers will likely view the authors they queue to meet at festivals and events in a different light. Expertly constructed it provides engrossing literary entertainment, and a deliciously subversive dig at the author’s world.

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

Book Review: Old Baggage

In Lissa Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Heart, the reader is briefly introduced to Mattie Simpkin, an elderly lady who was once a suffragette. Old Baggage is set a decade earlier and offers further details on the life of this idiosyncratic character. Neither book relies on the other for its story but, having enjoyed the earlier work, I was delighted by the links that exist.

The tale opens in 1928. Mattie is walking across Hampstead Heath when she is assailed by a memory, her momentary distraction enabling a thief to make off with her handbag. In attempting to waylay the malefactor she injures a girl who then threatens legal action. Mattie’s good friend, Florrie Lee, steps in to help, offering the girl, Ida Pearse, a position in the house where she lives with Mattie. Florrie works as a Health Visitor and is the more practical and empathetic of the pair. She grew up in a poor household whereas Mattie came from a wealthy family. This disparity is more significant than Mattie can realise. The causes she cares about are linked to female equality and aspiration which can be stymied by family circumstances as much as legislation.

Mattie went to university in a time when these institutions refused to confer a degree on a woman, however well she did in their exams. As a suffragette she was imprisoned and badly treated leading to a lifelong contempt for upholders of law and order. When she sees how little Ida knows about the rights Mattie has spent her life fighting for, the older woman decides this is indicative of an important matter that she can address. She places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting girls to join a club which she will use to propagate her views. As she says to a friend:

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is not the only suffragette looking to influence the young people of London. The idea for the girls’ club was inspired by an encounter with another old friend whose outlook has moved towards Fascism. The two groups, which the ladies set up, hold their meetings on the Heath and soon become rivals leading to a confrontation. Mattie has been foolish in her dealings with the attendees at her club – favouring one for personal reasons – with cataclysmic results.

The minor plot threads and contextual references add depth to what is an entertaining and accessible story. Mattie is a wonderful character, her drive, intelligence and willingness to take responsibility for her headstrong actions and their consequences an inspiration. Florrie offers a different perspective, quietly supporting and mopping up after her friend. The varied milieu offer a stark reminder of the importance of the welfare state.

It takes skill to write a book that is congenial and captivating whilst offering the reader interesting topics to chew on. The attributes and actions of the characters demonstrate how multifaceted an individual can be, and how often one judges on incomplete information. Old Baggage is funny, tender, fervent and affecting. It does not shy away from important issues but neither does it preach. It is a joy to read.

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

Gig Review: John Boyne at the Marlborough Literature Festival

Last weekend I attended the Marlborough Literature Festival – you may read about my first day experiences here. Day Two was more straightforward as traffic had returned to manageable levels in the town. I was also familiar with the venues, knowledge that helps anyone prone to unnecessary anxiety.

Unless an author is of particular personal interest – Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel come to mind – I tend to eschew larger events, prefering the intimacy of a bookshop venue. However, having so much enjoyed his latest work – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (you may click on the title to read my review) – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen to John Boyne speak. Plus he is Irish. I do like to support writers from my home country, even those as successful as him.

Held upstairs in the town hall, this event was chaired by Tony Mulliken who has worked with the National Book Awards and The London Book Fair. He appeared to be enjoying the ensuing discussion as much as the audience.

Following introductions, John was asked about the impact of the success of his fifth novel, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, and what he thought of the popular film adaptation. John admitted that it changed his life, enabling him to do what he had always dreamed of and become a full time writer. He told us that he liked the movie, that he had worked on it himself. He also pointed out that a film doesn’t change a book, but it does bring more readers to the author’s works.

Moving on to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John explained that this was a story about love, invisibility and anger at how his protagonist, Cyril Avery, is treated. Set over seventy years – ten chapters in seven year leaps – it opens when Cyril is still in the womb. John did not wish to portray Cyril’s pregnant and unmarried mother, Catherine, as a victim but rather as a strong, independent woman. He prefers to write his female characters in this way.

John then read from the book. This was one of several readings, each of which had the audience in stitches. The story weaves humour and pathos with a warm, impressive adroitness. Its author proved himself a fine, live entertainer.

John explained that although he plots his novels in advance he then allows them to develop. His plan for this book was to tell the story of a seventy year old man looking back on his life. After he had written Catherine’s denouncement by the church, he found the tone of his writing changed. A particular type of humour evolved with Cyril’s adoptive parents. John enjoyed writing in this way, deciding that readers did not need six hundred pages of misery. He hadn’t really done humour before but the change of direction opened a floodgate in his head and he enjoyed the process.

Irish people will know of the teatowels and bar towels and other touristy paraphenalia featuring the eight great Irish writers, all men. He decided that Cyril’s adoptive mother would be an author horrified by the thought of popular success, whose latest novel would suddenly threaten to put her face on such ephemera. Her husband is a dodgy banker whose foolish actions upset the family equilibrium. Both these characters provide much humour despite their sometimes casually cruel behaviour.

The book is historically accurate featuring an emerging homosexual growing up in a country where being gay is still illegal. John was asked what personal echoes exist in the book. He pointed out that all writers feature shadows of themselves. He wanted to write about how terrifying and misunderstood the AIDs crisis was having experienced the fear of it as a teenager in the 1980s. He also talked of the fear of the twenty foot walk, from bedroom to sitting room to come out to parents, and the huge repercussions on all their lives from there. John mentioned the pressure put on gay men to ‘try’ sex with a woman, the suggestion that maybe they might enjoy being married. Few considered how cruel this would be to the woman.

To develop Cyril’s character, to allow him to grow up, Cyril had to be taken out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland. When he eventually returns, having finally experienced love, the country has changed. The decriminilisation of homosexuality along with the revelations of the extent of abuses within the church allowed more liberal attitudes to develop. There was mirth from the audience when John mentioned the ongoing support of his country’s European friends.

In discussing endings, John does not feel a need for happiness so much as authenticity. He does though enjoy placing well known real public figures in his books and representing them in a certain way.

John was asked about his influences and mentioned John Irving, for his sexual misfits, and Dickens, for his orphans. John enjoys writing children without adults to solve their problems.

Another question asked was why Julian, Cyril’s best friend on whom he had a crush, could not see that Cyril was in love with him. This was because everyone loved Julian, he was used to being adored. Also, it was the 1950s when such behaviour would not be expected. Cyril did not feel he could be honest with Julian which demonstrated a lack of trust in their friendship.

John was asked about how he treats priests in the book. He wanted to start with the hypocrisy. He didn’t want it to be another church book but it is set in decades when the church was still a major social force. John grew up living next door to priests and nuns. He was an alter boy. These were not good memories.

Asked about the notable Irish voice throughout the story John was asked about translations and how this voice could be retained. He talked of the skill of the translator in capturing nuances. He also pointed out that he could not read the translations so would never know.

Did John set out to write a social history of Ireland or to write about Cyril? Both. He wanted to highlight the massive changes in attitudes in Ireland through the eyes of a particular person.

Has John been approached for film rights for this book? Yes, in a way. They have been sold to Ridley Scott as a ten part series. Of course this is no guarantee that the project will be taken further.

I found this a fascinating talk as well as being a highly entertaining event. If you haven’t already read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.

I will be writing about the final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival in the next few days.