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.