Book Review: Three Gifts

Three Gifts

Three Gifts, by Mark A Radcliffe, tells the story of Francis Broad, a well meaning but anxious individual living near the coast in southern England. It opens on the day he expects to die, an event he anticipates with deep sadness but also acceptance. Francis bartered away a large chunk of his life in exchange for extensions to the lives of loved ones. What follows is the detail of why and how this happened.

Francis was raised by his loving mother in a degree of poverty. His father was often absent, first by choice and then by circumstance. Also residing in the family home was his grandfather whose incontinence made getting out into the fresh air appealing. From a young age Francis would go running as a way of dealing with his miserable schooldays and complex emotions when it appeared only his mother cared for him.

As adolescence approached Francis would run as far as a local beach, eventually plucking up courage to swim there. Swimming became another way of coping, and provided an introduction to a stranger who seemed to understand what the boy was going through. Despite his mother’s best efforts, homelife never became easier.

Eventually Francis escapes into further education. Here, for the first time, he finds friends. Life moves on. He connects with a loving partner and they have a daughter. Throughout, Francis is calculating how much time he has left before his agreed death date.

This is a story of a man, his friends and his family. From the first page it draws the reader in. Although gentle in many ways there is understated dark humour and much to consider. The characters are mostly decent but face many challenges.

The writing style brought to mind that of David Nicholls. There is economy in observations but also warmth and a comforting empathy. Sad things happen but always there is a backbone of kindness. Friendships endure in a way many can only dream of experiencing.

The central premise – that an individual may choose to trade years of their life to save the life of another – is a curious idea to explore with its conflicting elements of sacrifice and selfishness. Although its exposition here is a tad surreal, the author offers enough ambiguity to make this a point to ponder seriously. I particularly enjoyed how it was woven into the ending.

A story with the potential to appeal to a wide audience, compassionate yet never saccharine. There is much to consider in how best intentions can hurt those they are intended to help.

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

Book Review: Seek the Singing Fish

singing fish

“People could slash and seethe over who owned what chunk of land all they wanted but I understood it wasn’t theirs to begin with”

Seek the Singing Fish, by Roma Wells, tells the story of Artemila De Zilwa, a young Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the years of her country’s civil war. Told from her perspective, the experiences recounted are not for the faint-hearted. She addresses herself to Shi, ‘breath of life’, and describes the traumas she suffered as her ‘twisted voyage’. What we have here is an odyssey shadowed by the appalling cruelties man inflicts, even on his own kind – the commodification and destruction of lives by those seeking control.

Mila has a deep appreciation for and curiosity about the natural world. It is this that sustains through the many and varied aspects of situations inflicted on her. She compartmentalises memories, closing doors on some and opening others for comfort. The knowledge of creatures abilities and habits shared are fascinating – a highlight amidst the disturbing accounts of abuse and tragedy.

A prologue sets the scene for what is to come. Shi is told that Mila has a mangled face, disfigured by shrapnel – ‘I am beauty spoiled; Lanka corrupted.’ The first of the three parts into which the story is divided then covers her childhood.

Mila came from an intelligent and caring family. Her parents married for love, a choice that estranged them from their wider clans. She was closer to her father, an English professor who instilled in his young daughter a love of books and learning. He listened carefully to her and encouraged her interest in wildlife. Her mother favoured Mila’s little brother, Ravi. Both children appreciated the delicious food their mother could conjure from whatever ingredients were available.

The early pages explain the reasons why war raged all around. None were spared from the violence – the tit for tat torture and destruction. Mila’s father would talk to her in metaphors, trying to offer explanations for the madness of the conflict. Both he and his daughter understood that, despite the propaganda, more connected those fighting each other than divided.

“we look for differences in the Vedas, the Quram, the Bible and the Sutras when their ink runs with the same intent. After all, the very word religion means to bind in its Latin origin.”

As with so many in this time and place, grief soon fractures the family, each survivor dealing with the aftermath without support. They are then challenged by the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. The coming together of warring sides to cope and rebuild is short lived. Mila’s eyes are opened to the dark side of nature as well as its beauty.

Mila finds solace with an older friend made at a local market, and in caring for a stray dog. She meets Kai, a young fisherman orphaned and placed in the care of an alcoholic uncle.

“He reminded me of the elephants who’d undergone phajan, the training regimen used to beat and starve them into submission for the tourist industries.”

Their burgeoning love story is schismed by the war.

The second part of the book is set in London and offers yet another seriously disturbing aspect of human behaviour. Mila knows to keep her head down if she is to survive this life but is once again scarred by what she sees happening around her. For a time she works as a cleaner in a wealthy family’s home – invisible to them amidst their sterile surrounds.

“it was all for show; lifeless items to be admired but not touched. A gallery disguised as a house masquerading as a home.”

The third and final part of Mila’s story offers closure of sorts. There are elements of luck – timely coincidence – to achieve this. Nothing is sugar coated but this is, perhaps, the least satisfying of what is a desperately hard hitting account of man’s inhumanity.

Woven throughout the horrific descriptions of abuse are stunningly beautiful evocations of the natural world. Sitting alongside such challenges as living with PTSD, the Sri Lankan lagoons, even the parks of London, become oasis.

The language used to tell this tale is impressively rich but never cloying. Mila never asks for sympathy but rather seeks understanding.  While not always easy to consider man’s behaviour, there is much beauty to be found elsewhere when looked for. This story offers a metaphor for the lives we all must live – a way of coping.

A thought-provoking but always engaging tale interlaced with stunning imagery. For those able and willing to consider the myriad traumas of conflict, this is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Ghosts of Spring

ghosts of spring

Ghosts of Spring, by Luis Carrasco, tells the story of a few months in the life of an unnamed young woman who is living on the streets of a city during a bitterly cold winter. It provides a searing indictment of how blind the more privileged make themselves to the unwashed vagrants whose existence is too often regarded as an irritation. Even those who hand out alms rarely connect with the humanity of those they deign to help in order to salve their conscience.

There are moments of light when sincere small kindnesses are offered. There are also many examples of the gross behaviour some men will indulge in because their victims have no recourse to lawful protection or effective punishment.

Opening in the weeks leading up to Christmas, days and nights are described in vivid detail. There is cold and hunger but also the mind numbing repetition and security measures required for basic survival as a beggar. Shelters for the homeless are shown to be more dangerous than dark alleyways. The other option available – prostitution – may be potentially more lucrative but carries its own issues, as is laid bare.

“you’d never get a human being to do what they want us to do for anything less”

It is deeply depressing to consider the ways in which some men behave: the fellow vagrants who will ejaculate on a sleeping girls face, the pimps who provide transport and accommodation in exchange for control over all their charges’ activities, the supposedly respectable citizens who pay for attractive bodies they may abuse at will.

There are also better men who offer to share: food, a drink, some friendly company. When the young woman determines to change her life trajectory it is a kind elderly gentleman who sets her on a path she may not have found herself.

Alongside the main plot are underlying nuggets to consider. The young woman remembers when she had a bed and clean clothes – there are many reasons why the homeless end up on the streets. When she catches a bus to access its warmth, the driver thoughtlessly suggests she pay by card, a system still inaccessible to many. The young woman is judged for her smell and ragged appearance – hard to avoid given the day to day life she leads. She cannot afford period products yet still menstruates.

The latter part of the book threatened briefly to descend into saccharine bucolic until the denouement applied an emotional gut punch, raising the bar of the entire tale.

I knew from the author’s previous novel, El Hacho, that he was capable of weaving a powerful and affecting story in skilfully wrought prose that is succinct yet builds impressive depth. As in that work, Ghosts of Spring offers a strong sense of place amidst its sensuous evocation of the challenges the protagonist faces. Most of all it provides a lens through which to view those so many in society prefer not to consider meaningfully. A poignant, thought-provoking and recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved

passing of forms

“Looking back at the altar I see that my mother is crying again. Bea’s hand is on her shoulder and she is comforting her. I watch the two of them and they are little more than apparitions.”

The Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved, by Christopher Boon, is narrated by a man looking back on a traumatic period in his life. It is written as if what is being described is current, which gives the prose an immediacy, although can, in places, throw the reader as to when, chronologically, events are taking place. Details are rich in imagery with a wide array of language used to effect. With much to savour in the rendition, it is not a tale that can be rushed.

The story is told in three parts: Death, Disintegration, Dismemberment. The first of these details the deterioration of the narrator’s father as he slowly and painfully dies from cancer. During this time the son visits his parents regularly and witnesses the harrowing and grotesque effects of the disease. The account is blisteringly honest and repellent.

When not at the family home he lives in a house share and works at a wine warehouse. Here he meets Bea and they drift into a relationship. The narrator is much taken with the idea that the two of them could have a future together but is often distracted by the horror of his family circumstances. He is reaching for an elusive side to himself, unable to communicate his desires due to emotional reticence. In describing the burgeoning relationship there remains a detachment, a void he appears yearning to fill. The memories recounted are tinged with an almost suffocating melancholy.

The narrator is regretful that he cannot feel closer to his parents, to enjoy their company and converse with ease. It is obvious that he has always been loved and supported, yet he wears this as a yoke rather than a blessing. He remains unable to appreciate the happy lives the couple built for themselves over many shared years. Following his father’s death he cannot shake the feeling that any effort made in life is wasted. All will one day turn to dust, hard won achievements forgotten by others, valued possessions consigned to a skip.

The introspective descriptions include much detail on surroundings. The narrator closely observes objects while failing to see people as anything else. His recollections jump between the ‘now’ of the tale and his past – childhood, adolescence, the tentative steps into adulthood. The reader only knows he is looking back because of occasional mentions of future events. He is considering choices made and the shadows these cast. His memories, rich in detail, remain stunted emotionally.

“watching it all as through muslin such that the details of whether it was by medics or undertakers into ambulance or hearse remain murky yet still somehow vividly formed with the minutae of incidentals”

While deep in his grief, even if this is not in the form he imagined, a childhood friend reappears. The narrator’s inability to communicate thoughts and feelings with others results in unrealistic obsessions. He becomes consumed by his past and what might have been.

“Melancholy with remembrance and with the slow burning away of time”

What should be fun and beautiful experiences become devoid of meaning. He wallows in an invented future populated by a character he projected.

“I find it difficult to formulate meaningful responses because I’m caught up in this almost demented mythologising of her”

Fiction is often either plot driven or character driven. This is neither. The plot progresses slowly with details foreshadowed and then revealed gradually. The characters lack depth – as fits the failure of empathy in the narrator. What comes to the fore in reading this work is the richness in descriptions of observations – that ‘minutae of incidentals’.

The narrator revisits places that had resonance to try to resurrect what are blinkered memories. Throughout his life beyond childhood, the people he has interacted with are rarely valued unless players in his imagined future. When the facade he has built in his head crumbles, so does he.

There are complex and interesting layers in the tale: the impact of grief, the parent / child relationship, potential personality disorders, depression and its effects. Although still young at the time the story focuses on, the narrator is well educated and widely travelled, yet he struggles with day to day socialising – with reading people. There is much to mull from the history revealed as to causes of this.

An interesting work that may be appreciated for the intensity of language used and ideas explored. Not a quick or easy read but one that will linger.

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

Book Review: What Willow Says

what willow says

“you don’t need ears to hear the trees, you only need to listen”

What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle, tells the story of an artist grandmother and her hearing impaired granddaughter as they learn to communicate, aided by a mutual appreciation of nature. The granddaughter can lip read and grows increasingly adept at using sign language. The grandmother is doing her best to learn this latter skill. Their conversations mostly rely on a more primal understanding, on observation and resonance.

The story opens during a hot spell in summer. The girl wishes to play with other children in the neighbourhood. Some accept her, many do not. She is not averse to turning her deafness to advantage when opportunity arises. The grandmother admires her audacity. When alone the pair walk their locality as the seasons progress, seeking out untamed areas and sharing stories of time and place. Set in Ireland, these include many myths and legends – of flora, fauna, and the people they represent.

The child has a metal detector, the grandmother an art project she wishes to complete – ‘A Compendium of Native & Non-Native Trees of Ireland’, illustrations rather than a field guide. They collect their treasures on planned excursions. The child asks what sounds different trees make.

“All those years studying their structures, weights, and textures while missing their inherent languages. I do not know what the breeze brings through them or how their sounds differ”

The grandmother has known loss and is now eager to appreciate the unique abilities of her young charge, however much authorities may wish her to adapt herself to a prescribed ‘normality’. Medical professionals do not appear to understand that cochlear implants may provide improved hearing, but that the granddaughter would lose the world she now happily inhabits.

“Sometimes there is no one so deaf as a hearing person”

As the year progresses it is not just the child’s health care that unsettles. The grandmother receives a diagnosis that will be life changing for them both.

These bones of a story make for interesting and engaging reading but what raises the book to something special is the use of language, the evocation of the spirits inhabiting what some may regard as untidy spaces. There is both lyricism and the lightness of a dancer in the prose – what those who understand the discipline, as it interprets musical accompaniment, recognise as poise and strength to limn feeling and beauty. In music, the silences are as important as notes played.

Grandmother and granddaughter stand beneath tree canopies listening – to the leaves and branches, to the unseen root system that joins trees together. When felled, these roots remain to nourish new growth. It is a fitting comparison to the love and learning the elderly can offer a younger generation.

Although there is much beauty in the metaphors evoked, the author does not shy away from difficulties faced by the deaf community as they navigate a hearing world reluctant to pay attention. Neither does she avoid the subject of death – the lasting sense of loss, how those remaining must adapt to change.

In pulling these themes together amongst the imagery of trees, what seem human tragedies are granted perspective. The family story told is one of support and tenderness. The wider tale provides food for the soul that left this reader sated.

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

Book Review: The Beasts They Turned Away

“A man can walk the lane with the feeling that all he had thought was around him does not exist and never has, that it was only him, and the choices he has made.”

The Beasts They Turned Away, by Ryan Dennis, is set in a rural community in the west of Ireland that is struggling to survive amidst the changes encroaching from a modernising world. The story focuses on ‘the old man’, an aging farmer named Íosac Mulgannon. His mother would have called him Isaac but there were those in the locale who would have regarded this as suspicious.

“It was a time in the country when you couldn’t give your children English names”

Íosac grew up on the family dairy farm alongside his brother. He was a recognised champion at hurling and had a girlfriend whose photograph he still keeps behind the felt roof of his tractor. Now he is alone except for a child – a mute boy abandoned to his care with no explanation. The villagers, encouraged by their hellfire and brimstone spouting priest, fear the child is cursed.

The story opens with the disposal of a cow, carried to the ‘dead pile’ where its carcass will be dealt with naturally by local wildlife. Íosac farms as he has always done. He sees no point in paying for a vet to visit when an animal will die anyway.

Íosac’s day revolves around the needs of his herd – raising the calves and heifers, processing the dairy cattle, growing food for the animals. Milking his cows bookends each day.

“All of his adult life and most of his childhood. Same time every morning, every night. His mind and body diverge. The body knows what it will do, probably knows the mind is not to be trusted anyhow. Often the old man has gathered the cows from the pasture and set the milkers to wash and dipped the first udders before he realizes he has done so.”

The short chapters offer snapshots of days as the seasons turn. Íosac milks, he feeds, he ploughs his fields. There are visits to the town for groceries – the same items bought each day. Íosac goes fishing with an acquaintance. He attends events that are a part of town tradition. He visits the pub where he meets old neighbours, many of whom were farmers persuaded to give up their land to those granted a bank loan to develop new ways of working. One such entrepreneur is Young John who farms fields adjacent to those owned by Íosac. The old man hopes to die before his land is taken.

The locals are suspicious of the silent boy and Íosac’s attachment to him. The priest in particular nurses a hatred of the child. The language employed when the men interact is littered with expletives that denigrate women – cunt, whore, slut. The females living in the town play little part in this tale.

What is portrayed is brutal and elemental. A way of life is changing and Íosac resists. Surrounded by rotting infrastructure, he ignores mounting debts and the demands of modern welfare enforcers. When neighbours offer a hand of friendship he bats them away.

Tension builds as thefts occur in the town, including from the church. These are seen as a sign – of societal breakdown or the child’s curse. The old man provokes Young John, encouraging escalation in hostilities. Íosac has made choices and must live with them, must keep on keeping on, but knows at some point there will be a reckoning. When this comes in the form of attempts to remove the child from his care, he puts his life on the line – wanting it to end before he is forced to accept change.

The short chapters and pithy sentences build an evocative account of a man whose life’s work – all he has valued – is under threat. The mute child has given him a reason to continue, but he knows he cannot fight forever. He has seen what losing their farms has turned others into.

Íosac now asks only to be left in peace. The modern world demands its right to regulate. It is interesting to consider how the child and Íosac’s animals would be treated under the auspices of welfare bodies. Good intentions do not always lead to favourable outcomes for those affected.

The author has captured the insularity of a small town where families have lived for generations – the resentments that fester towards those who leave and those willing to embrace new ways of thinking. The tale is in many ways tenebrous and sorrowful, reminiscent of eulogy. Remarkable and beguiling, it proved a rewarding read.

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

Book Review: The Nacullians

The Nacullians are three generations of a working class family who live in an ex-council house in southern England. The city they inhabit is across the water from the Isle of White. The family took a ferry to the island once but then weren’t sure why.

Nandad and Patrice escaped Northern Ireland in the 1950s, for reasons shadowed by time and later told only for effect. They subsequently had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Bernard followed his Dad into the building trade, apprenticing as a bricklayer. Shannon fell pregnant when she was fifteen thanks to the attentions of the local, married, chip shop owner. Her son, Greg, is the only Nacullian grandchild.

The family are introduced in the excellent opening chapter. It runs at breakneck pace and is almost vicious in its humour. Remaining chapters then provide explanations, focusing on key events in the lives of family members. There are interludes to enable the reader to understand the city and how it helped shape its working class inhabitants’ characters.

“Some people here in the city don’t have a sufficiently well-developed sense of identity, so they have to hate someone to get a sense of who they aren’t”

The story is very far from those more typical tales of family pulling together, or even the misery stories of hunger or abuse. The Nacullians go about their lives with habitual acceptance, displaying disdain for each other more often than love in any guise. When, later in her life, Shannon loses the ability to talk in any understandable way due to a series of strokes, it becomes apparent that none of the family have ever understood each other anyway. Communication is limited to necessity. Anything further – any show of emotion beyond irritation – would likely be met with blank incredulity.

The menfolk are determined to be what they consider ‘real men’. They are casually racist, sexist and brutal towards outsiders. The women expect nothing better, only rarely rocking the boat by desiring change. While habits and behaviours may be unpleasant, what is presented is done with a dark humour and sharp realism.

The writing is both piercing and entertaining. It is hard to admire the individual Nacullians but still the author evokes a degree of sympathy. The story is told by a narrator who keeps their distance, making no attempt to read thoughts or delve into emotion that is not obvious from action. This detached style works well as the characters would likely be horrified at the idea of being seen as soft or compromised. Survival has required personal strength akin to the bricks of which their small house is built. Sometimes these have to be thrown at perceived enemies.

The tale spans the decades from the 1950s to the present day. The Nacullians drift through their lives with little energy or appetite for change. Politics and the wider issues of the day go unmentioned. Their interests are insular, habitual and rarely questioned.

Despite discomfort at some of these attitudes – redolent of many, however horrifying Guardian readers may find this – the story remained wry and compelling. There is a warmth towards his subjects alongside the author’s uncompromising depiction. It is a reminder that not everyone believes their lives require improvement.

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

Book Review: The Groundsmen

The Groundsmen, by Lynn Buckle, is a brutal and disturbing story about an Irish family caught up in a generational cycle of abuse. It is told from five points of view. The protagonists are all victims of a community unwilling to confront the actions of those living within their midst. Dark secrets fester but are kept.

Louis is a successful IT manager who moved his wife, Cally, and their daughters, Andi and Cassie, to the newly built suburbs of Dublin before the Celtic Tiger economy collapsed. Now Cally spends much of her day in bed. Teenaged Andi resents that she is left to look out for her little sister. Five year old Cassie copes with the familial disharmony by pretending to be a dog, burying objects that represent hurtful behaviours in the garden. Louis’s brother, Toby, is a regular visitor. Louis and Toby have always been close but the truth of their relationship is toxic.

The story opens on a typical weekend. Louis and Toby are getting drunk watching football on TV, internally fantasising about what they would do to women they know. The violent degradation inherent in their thoughts is sickening to consider.

Cassie is in the garden burying the remote control. Andi is checking the personal treasures she hides in her wardrobe.

Cally has escaped upstairs and is thinking with disgust of what her husband has become – the rank smell and diseased skin that he regularly forces on her.

When Cassie becomes too lively inside the house she is punished. She copes with the pain by going elsewhere in her mind, thinking of all the items on her childish want list. Her family cannot understand that much of her behaviour is a cry for love, regarding her as weird and a nuisance.

Andi seeks love on line, posting photographs of herself at the behest of a boy. Toby has noticed how his niece’s body is developing.

The following Monday Louis oversleeps making him late into work. On arrival he discovers that Toby has been sacked. Inappropriate images were observed on his computer. There is to be an investigation. Louis struggles to make sense of what he is being told. As the story progresses the reader comes to understand that these adults operate in a state of denial about consequences. Damaging behaviours have led to a spiral of sordid desires which they refuse to acknowledge.

Louis regards women as objects available for his pleasure, resenting any agency they acquire. Cally recognises that she should act to protect her children but, inured to a life of submission, is overwhelmed. Louis will do whatever it takes to hold onto what he believes is his by right. Toby has his own agenda.

The subject matter and detail made this a challenging story to read. The author remains resolute in portraying the extent of the degeneracy and wider culpability. This is savage social realism, the twitching net curtain torn asunder. It is searing in its plausibility.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher époque press.

Book Review: El Hacho

El Hacho, by Luis Carrasco, is a story of one man’s attachment to the land his family has worked for generations. Curro is an olive farmer in the Andalusian mountains. He was born and raised in the house where he now lives with his wife as they age. Curro has never travelled, even as far as the sea. Thanks to their toil, he and his brother, Marie, can feed their loved ones but there is little money to spare for indulgences, the temptations of encroaching modernity. Curro is content to continue in the traditional way but Marie hankers after change.

When the story opens the region is suffering a drought. Curro’s olives should be ready for harvest but are parched, the trees becoming unstable. Marie is unwilling to help with the back breaking work required to improve access. He observes the local tourists, the material trappings of his developing country, and arranges to meet a stranger.

Curro understands his brother’s need for something beyond their settled if demanding lifestyle. For himself he remembers their father’s words when a stranger visited:

“he glossed his hand over the valley to the south-east, over the pink lace of the almond blossom, over the white toe of the Montejaque village and beyond to where the land buckled in a granite ribbon. The dipping sun crept around El Hancho’s flank and fired the valley slopes with a copper glaze.
And what could I buy with ten times your offer that could give me more than this?”

Curro also remembers his grandfather telling of a long drought and the difficulties it wrought. His wife assures him that they will manage somehow even if the harvest fails. Curro supplements their food supplies with rabbits he catches in traps. Then Marie stops turning up for work.

The olive farm and landscape in which it lies are beautifully evoked. The rhythms of Curro’s life, his work and its value, are rendered in concise, vivid detail. There is acceptance of difficulties, recognition that others have coped with similar challenges in times past. The pleasures to be found in food, rest, companionship and location are relished.

The writing is canorous and compelling, the picture painted offering a reminder of what in life has true value. Although novella in length, the story told is powerful and enduring. This is a recommended read.

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