Book Review: All the Beggars Riding

“Even our own stories, we’re unequipped and essentially unable to tell”

All the Beggars Riding, by Lucy Caldwell, is a tale told by thirty-eight year old Lara Moorhouse, an agency carer who has lived in London all her life. She is writing down her memories as a way to come to terms with how she was raised, and the effect this has had on her life since. What prompted the project was a television documentary Lara watched, on Chernobyl, made a decade after the disaster and focusing on survivors. Lara has been taking one of her patients to a weekly creative writing class where she listens in to the advice given. She finds that she learns a great deal about herself and her wider family by recreating their past selves.

The book is divided into sections that focus on: the inspiration for the story; Lara as a child; her mother, Jane; what happened next. As Jane died a year previously much of the narrative is an imagined account of events. Lara comes to realise is that all memoir is essentially fiction.

“it’s going to be impossible to get inside the past, to really be true to it. We can only see it from the outside, squinting back at it, and it changes utterly depending on the mood and circumstances and point from which we happen to be regarding it.”

Although trying her best to tell her story in a manner that makes sense to the reader, Lara struggles to write a linear narrative. There are too many interdependencies and unknowns. Children rarely understand their parents as people rather than in relation to themselves – and vice versa.

“lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory; the mind doesn’t work like that. We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.”

Lara and her little brother, Alfie, lived in a flat in Earls Court until Lara was twelve. Their mother was mostly their sole carer as their father, a surgeon, worked in Belfast more often than at the private clinic in Harley Street that employed him. It drew in wealthy patients wanting ‘an Irish surgeon’ for the skills learned in Belfast due to the Troubles.

The summer Lara turned twelve her family went on their only ever holiday – to Fuengirola. It was not a success. The fallout from this was that Lara learned the truth of her parents’ relationship. Her father, Patrick, had another family in Belfast. When, four months later, he was killed in an accident, the Earls Court flat was sold by his wife and the Moorhouses were cast adrift.

Lara’s anger at her parents for raising their children in this way colours her subsequent development. In confronting her memories and trying to piece together why Jane and Patrick acted as they did she seeks closure but also understanding. All her mother ever told her was that she loved their father. Lara needs to unravel how and why their family set-up lasted as long as it did without change.

The writing is fluid and piercing, getting to the heart of easily fractured relationships between parents and their children. All are individuals yet rarely treated in this way within a family unit. Alfie has reacted to the same circumstances very differently to his sister. Jane and her mother also had a troubled relationship that proved difficult to bridge. Across the generations, concern and expectation hammer in wedges. When Lara tried to talk to her mother, just before she died, she was met with resentment.

“You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you? Trap me with my own words.”

Parents cannot fully know at the time the lasting impact their actions will have on their children. Children cannot fully know the personal factors at play that drove decisions made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, both its voice and structure. A gratifying and resonant read that makes me want to seek out more of the author’s work.

All the Beggars Riding is published by Faber and Faber.

Book Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the debut novel of an author who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a poignant if somewhat oblique tale set in rural England where a woman is remembering her early life – spent in Nagasaki in the aftermath of the Second World War. An undercurrent of unease permeates prose that paints a picture of a protagonist trying to move forward despite memories shadowed by regret.

The story opens by introducing Etsuko who is being visited by her younger daughter, Niki. They do not mention the elder child, Keiko, immediately. The adult sisters had left the family home some years previously, moving to London and Birmingham respectively. The reader quickly learns that Keiko recently committed suicide and Niki did not attend the funeral. There are tensions in the family.

During Niki’s shorter than hoped for visit her mother recalls a woman, Sachiko, who she knew briefly during the early years of her first marriage, when she was still living in Nagasaki. The city was rebuilding following the devastation of the bomb, although the Americans had not yet all left. Etsuko and her husband, Jiro, lived in one of the newly built apartment blocks and were expecting their first child. The surroundings were wasteland, abutting a river. A few old houses remained and Sachiko moved into one of these with her truculent young daughter.

During this time Jiro’s father, Ogata, was visiting for an unspecified length of time. The reader learns that, traditionally, generations of family in Japan would have lived together.

Ogata is a retired teacher and expresses concern that a former friend of Jiro’s has written an article criticising Ogata and the education system the older man bemoans has been replaced by American style teaching. Ogata believes a son should be defending his father, something Jiro appears keen to avoid – although he does not admit to this.

“We devoted ourselves to ensuring that proper qualities were handed down, that children grew up with the correct attitude to their country, to their fellows. There was a spirit in Japan once, it bound us all together. Just imagine what it must be like being a young boy today. He’s taught no values at school – except perhaps that he should selfishly demand whatever he wants out of life.”

Father and son are in agreement over the role of women – that they should be subservient. Etsuko is living in the manner expected and claiming she is happy. Women who know her question this assertion.

The plot progresses quietly through day to day activities yet offers a depth that resonates. Etsuko is concerned by Sachiko’s apparent neglect of her daughter. Sachiko is eager to leave Japan and is consorting with an American in the hope of achieving this. Her daughter is unhappy with the proposed changes and the turbulence of her mother’s promises and plans.

Scenes from the lives of each character provide evidence of attitudes in Japan at this time and how quickly and radically these had changed. So many in the city had lost family members in the war. Dialogue demonstrates how little could be directly expressed due to ingrained cultural behaviours.

Etsuko’s recollections are shaded by time that has passed and knowledge of where her actions led. Now she finds herself emotionally distanced from Niki and, once again, unsure of how to proceed.

It is impressive how such a short novel can convey so many facets of desire and behaviour – the cost of attaining an outcome and then living with the consequences. Although story development can at times appear cryptic, I found this an affecting and satisfying read.

A Pale View of Hills in published by Faber and Faber.

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

Book Review: Being Various, New Irish Short Stories

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Being Various is the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories. In her introduction to the anthology, guest editor Lucy Caldwell ponders what makes a writer Irish. Must they be born on the island? Live there? Have parents who raise them to identify with their Irish heritage? She writes:

“I wanted to look, too, at where the new ways of Irish writing might take us. The fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration.”

Each fiercely intelligent tale from the impressive who’s who of contributors offers a window into the differing impacts Ireland has on those steeped in its culture and prejudices. All the stories were commissioned especially, from writers whose work was first published after the Good Friday Agreement. It is a showcase of contemporary Irish literature.

There are tales that draw the reader in then leave them with ambiguous endings. ‘Stretch Marks’ by Elske Rahill tells of a difficult pregnancy that causes the suffering mother of four to feel she is a failure. ‘BrownLady12345’ by Melatu Uche Okorie looks at modern dating from the perspective of an immigrant who is lonely but unsure what they are looking for or how to achieve the desired connection. ‘The Swimmers’ by Paul McVeigh contains a disturbing undercurrent as a son tries to please his father. The reader is left to interpret each thread of suggestion for themselves.

Clarity is captured through Magic Realism. ‘Pillars’ by Jan Carson explores mental health following marital breakdown, when acquaintances are uncomfortable acknowledging such issues, even when they are made glaringly obvious. ‘The Lexicon of Babies’ by Sinéad Gleeson offers a picture of segregated privilege through state accepted competitive parenting – this odd little tale is beautifully fable-like. ‘Echo’ by Stuart Neville is poignant yet fierce – the story of a family unravelled by grief and the subsequent conspiracy of silence, violently enforced by a mother whose culpability remains veiled. ‘The Eclipse’ by Darren Anderson employs powerful imagery to portray the last days of an elderly woman whose mind has inexorably deteriorated. The love and care provided by her relatives is rare amidst so many depictions in this collection of the damage caused by family. ‘The Adminicle Exists’ by Eimear McBride is an emotive cry for help from a woman whose partner needs care yet poses a threat to her safety. ‘Wings’ by David Hayden is a painfully sad tale of the conspiracies and denials surrounding childhood abuse. ‘Lambeth’ by Jill Crawford offers an excellent depiction of the complexity inherent in an area’s gentrification. There are levels of wealth and poverty, threat and safety. Change may be resisted but is, and always has been, inevitable. ‘Alienation’ by Arja Kajermo is an unusually honest portrayal of Ireland from the point of view of a foreigner. Visitors may be welcomed but those who choose to stay face: prejudice, passive aggression, rejection for looking or acting different. ‘Colour and Light’ by Sally Rooney is fabulous story telling. Set in a seaside town it tells of two brothers, close in some ways yet rarely sharing anything of themselves, and a woman who briefly passes through their lives.

There are tales within this anthology that particularly resonated and others enjoyed but with less impact. Only one struck me off key – ‘The Downtown Queen’ by Peter Murphy. Its subject was memories – of a time when the narrator was part of an in-crowd enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll. He interacted with famous musicians and their coteries in the early, raw days preceding meteoric careers. The tale felt to me to be trying too hard to be knowledgeable and artful – something that may appeal more to those with an interest in the 70s music scene. My negative reaction may be a dislike of the protagonist as much as the writing. I am rarely impressed by those who name drop for anticipated audience effect.

Any Cop?: For a collection of twenty-four stories, to enjoy all but one is pleasing. The quality of the writing is high, the subject matter piercing. There is humour amidst the darkness and a clear reflection of the Irish spirit in all its shades. This is as good a collection of short stories as I have read this year.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Milkman

Although I have a few on my TBR pile, it has been several years since I read a Booker Prize winner. This year I couldn’t resist. Not only is the author from my hometown of Belfast but her story is set during the early years of The Troubles – the era that I grew up in. Also, I enjoyed her debut, No Bones, so was confident I would get on with her writing style. The final push that encouraged me to seek out Milkman was a respected fellow reviewer telling me this was my sort of read. All the stars aligned when my local library was able to provide me with their newly shelved copy.

Milkman should not be rushed. It is not a difficult read but the stream of consciousness narrative imparts a great deal of information that benefits from unhurried digestion. By the time I was around sixty pages in I had also realised that this story is packed full of dark humour. The community portrayed is recognisable and authentic but their accepted behaviour can, with my now comforting distance of time and place, be regarded as risible.

Very few people are named throughout the tale. Rather, they are referred to by their position within families or how they are alluded to by neighbours. The narrator is middle sister, one of ten siblings, and she is looking back on events that occurred when she was eighteen. Her age is significant. Although an adult and working she is not yet old enough to view the world outside her personal cocoon through the lens of lived experience. She copes with the relentless violence and oppression that surrounds her by not paying attention.

Middle sister likes to read while walking, behaviour that is regarded by her community as beyond the pale. When an older, married and powerful paramilitary – Milkman – makes it known that he is stalking her she has no idea why he has singled her out or how to get rid of him. Rumours quickly circulate that they are having an affair.

Middle sister’s mother is appalled, although she can’t quite work out if this is because her daughter isn’t yet married or because she is now the subject of gossip which ripples out to include her other non-standard behaviours. Like most matriarchs in the locality, mother has lost children to the political situation, or due to their transgressions from the strict code of conduct demanded and enforced by casually violent men. Women are expected to marry young and then produce lots of babies. Until they do this, the men feel justified in claiming they can’t help but try to claim the women’s time and attention.

“they don’t see you as a person but instead as some cipher, some valueless nobody whose sole objective is to reflect back onto them the glory of themselves.”

As well as reading while walking, middle sister attends an evening class in the city centre. Her teacher tries to broaden the pupil’s horizons but such thinking is viewed with suspicion. In a small and introverted society, admitting to the possibility of alternative ways of living is dangerous.

Middle sister’s late father had suffered from depression, an illness his wife found embarrassing.

“Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on.”

Stoicism is expected as the community exists within an atmosphere of entrenched pessimism, a loss of trust and hope. To be happy was a risk because how then to cope when the cause of this happiness was removed, as would inevitably happen. The country is regarded as having a long heritage of darkness, fear and sorrow. Those few who do not feel downtrodden, who are not compliant, are exceptions.

“it was hard to deal with the threat she posed by going about completely holding her own.”

When middle sister protests that she is not having an affair with Milkman, that he has approached but never touched her, she is not believed. In this time and place any young women complaining, ‘he did this to me while I was doing that’, would be regarded askance and have demanded of them, ‘and why were you doing that?’

As the rumours gain momentum and start to affect her health, middle sister notices that there is more going on around her than she has been aware of in her short, blinkered existence. The trouble she had feared bringing down on her secret, maybe boyfriend and on her family if she didn’t comply with Milkman’s demands are not the only dangers they all face.

In amongst the constant surveillance and violent, often botched reprisals from both sides of the political divide are the amusing antics of the youngsters, particularly the three wee sisters. Hospitals are feared so the older women, who may appear at times absurd in their behaviour, come together when needed. A fledgling feminist group is viewed with contempt but also bewilderment. All of these threads add colour and depth to the streets that middle sister must navigate.

The writing is witty and perfectly pitched to both challenge thinking and to entertain. Although plainly set in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the 1970s, the place is not named. Thus the depiction may be more widely representative of any closed and judgemental community. The author shows her skill in making this tale uplifting despite the many negative behaviours it observes in passing. It is a meaty, delicious and satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Normal People

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is a refreshingly linear story set between January 2011 and February 2015. It has two protagonists, Connell and Marianne, who get together during their final year at school. Connell is popular, sporty and intelligent, enjoying his place within his wide circle of friends. Marianne is bullied and derided, a loner who somehow copes as her homelife is worse. They agree to keep their burgeoning relationship secret. Connell does not wish to lose his social standing by association.

The ebb and flow of these two young people’s love affair is explored in forensic detail over the years. The setting moves from their hometown of Carricklea in Galway to the city of Dublin where they attend a prestigious university. Here the affluence of Marianne’s family offers her a stepping stone to acceptance. Connell feels out of place and almost friendless, unmoored by his change of circumstances. Both had hopes of escape and reinvention. The realities of changing a personality prove hard to sustain.

Marianne’s simmering hurts manifest in ways that appall Connell at a time when he has found a degree of peace elsewhere. When a mutual friend is found dead the importance ascribed to seemingly significant decisions is brought into relief. Each is questioning their recent past and where they can go next.

Through the years the two friends come together and drift apart, their confidences and social circles changing. The story is an exploration of intimacy, influence and the causes of dissonance. Marianne expresses a wish to be normal but cannot shed the demons of her upbringing. The supporting cast of characters demonstrate differing perceptions and what normal means.

The writing is honest in its portrayal of university students with their shallow convictions and closely guarded fears. Marianne and Connell may have something special between them, including a rare ability to discuss emotions, but they are still individuals and not mind readers. There are passions and jealousies, ambitions that they dare not articulate for fear of ridicule.

A novel that shivers with the traumas caused by the experience of living. A meticulous and compelling rendering of love and its shade.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review: Days Without End

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Days Without End is a tale of war, between men and against hardship, yet is narrated with a lyrical optimism even from within the worst of the carnage portrayed. Set in nineteenth century America, where white settlers are intent on removing the indigenous population before turning on each other in the Civil War, the voice of the narrator, Irishman Thomas McNulty, is richly authentic. He understands that the world cares little for the lives of the dirty poor such as him, but that life still has a value for all who can find a way to live.

McNulty spent his early years in Sligo, Ireland where he watched his mother, sister and then father die from starvation due to the potato famine. Alone and desperate, he crept aboard a ship bound for Canada, somehow surviving the hunger of the voyage and then a deadly fever on arrival. He makes his way south where, sheltering under a hedge in Missouri, he meets another young wanderer named John Cole. From then on they face their hardships together.

“I only say it because without saying I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there […] Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole.”

The boys find work in a saloon before joining the army. For a set of clothes and the promise of food they do whatever is ordered. This mostly involves killing Indians, living under threat of attack, or passing time playing cards. Life on the frontier is one of peril – from enemy, weather and deprivation – but this is familiar and to be endured.

When released from the army Thomas and John travel to Michigan to join a minstrel show being run by the former saloon owner. They take with them Winona, a young Indian girl whose family they helped slaughter. These three set up as a family, until the major from their former unit asks the men to join a new regiment he is setting up in Boston to fight for Lincoln against the southern confederate army.

Although the fighting is barbaric, the day to day conditions endured also take many lives. The men must find ways to survive alongside those who consider the Indians, the people of colour, even the Irish to be vermin, better for all if eradicated. Thomas’s love for Winona, who he regards as his daughter, will cost him dear.

A tale of men and fearsome battles, yet the quality of the writing proves it worthy of a wider audience than may take interest in such base subject matter. The characters, period and locations are vividly painted; the brutality but also the beauty of existence emotively portrayed.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement worthy of its Booker longlisting. Despite this I am not entirely convinced it attains sufficient reach to be the winner.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man, by James Carol, is the latest thriller in the author’s Jefferson Winter series and the first of his books that I have read. The protagonist is a former FBI profiler, now travelling the world as a freelance consultant assisting in hunting down serial criminals. Winter’s backstory as the son of a killer and possessing an unusually high IQ makes him an interesting creation. In this story, set in Vancouver, he teams up with Laura Anderton, a former detective turned private investigator.

Anderton headed up the police team tasked with investigating a series of murders in her city, carried out annually on 5th August. Each of the three victims to date was gagged, strapped to a chair, and left alone wearing a bomb which, when triggered, tears them apart. The method of triggering is this killer’s modus operandi yet conflicts with serial killers’ understood ways of working.

With 5th August approaching once again, Anderton has requested Winter’s help in the hope that they can prevent another death. Having been forced out of the police by a negative media campaign she is eager to solve this case for herself.

Anderton and Winter are being payrolled by Nicholas Sobek, a wealthy and controlling businessman whose beautiful young wife was the killer’s first victim. Initially Sobek was a suspect but the subsequent murders made this difficult to prove. He is intense and determined, his aim being to punish the man who took what was his.

The writing is engaging with many twists and turns offering the reader chances to guess at motive and connections. Winter is not afraid to take risks that the police could not countenance for fear of compromising their ability to present evidence necessary to secure a conviction. This is not so much a high action thriller as a deadly game played by cold cunning and methodical intelligence. There is little emotion in the narrative and this strengthens the intrigue.

The varied cast of characters adds interest with interactions affected by attraction and repulsion yet remaining professional. I was impressed that the author felt no need to inject romance, common in crime fiction yet often unnecessary for plot progression.

I enjoyed this book and would now like to read previous instalments in the series. It is a compelling and entertaining read.

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

This post is a stop on the Quiet Man Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.