Book Review: Source

Source

“the book was musty, as if all the old words had gone off a bit, unused and trapped inside. Let us out! they might whisper. And the words in it might well be the key to unlocking the past. But the odour the trapped words gave off seemed to hold within it an accusation that it was the past itself that was tainted, no matter which words were chosen to describe it.”

Source, by Rosemary Johnston, is a short and beautifully written novella about a woman returning to her childhood home on the west coast of Ireland, to clear it out after the deaths of her parents. She is accompanied by her daughter who knows little about the toxic atmosphere that drove her mother to escape as soon as she felt able. In spare and evocative prose the author explores how our past haunts and shapes us, and how the words we use to communicate have a power of their own.

The woman, Kate, intends to throw away the contents of the old family farmhouse, wanting no reminder of the mother she grew to resent after her father left them. She values only a couple of books that had belonged to the father, who she remembers fondly. These fostered in her a lifelong love of language. Kate’s daughter, Lavinia, is both fascinated and appalled by the state of the house and its surrounds, struggling to imagine her London based mother living in rural Connemara. As the days pass Kate finds herself drawn back to childhood memories, and the repercussions of events she worked hard to put behind her.

The sense of place is skilfully rendered, as are the shadows cast by parents when they turn on offspring. It is shown that leaving home is only possible physically. Just as words carry their etymologies, so people cannot free themselves from their roots and memories, experience moulding but from a set base.

“[words] contain our histories. They tell our stories, our stories are written in them. Like genes, words give instructions. They can send the right or wrong message. Like genes, words mutate.”

What is a simple and engaging tale of family history rises above the ordinary with its brevity and depth. There are moments of tension but also redemption. A fine example of original storytelling that I wholeheartedly recommend.

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

Book Review: The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields, tells the story of Daisy Goodwin, a woman born in Canada during the first decade of the twentieth century and who lived into her nineties. It enables the reader to look at how life changed, particularly for women, during this period.

Daisy’s long life is ordinary if privileged – she enjoyed material comforts but achieved no fame or greatness. The author has written that she started out with the idea of creating a subversion of a family saga but ended up exploring autobiography – questioning if anyone can know the story of their own lives or if it is a narrative borrowed from impressions other people have of them.

“Each day as I sat down to write, I conjured up an image of a series of nesting boxes. I was making the outside box, Daisy was making the inside box – and inside her box was nothing. She was thinking – not writing – her own life story, but it was a life from which she, the subject, had been subtracted. This was the truth, I felt at that time, of most women’s lives.”

The book follows a more or less linear structure but includes recollections. Chapters are given titles such as Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Motherhood. It appears to be Daisy telling her story but with regular contributions from others – friends, family, neighbours. One chapter is entirely epistolary.

A family tree is included at the beginning so the reader is aware of what may be regarded as Daisy’s key life events from the off – births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Her story, though, does not focus on such milestones. With each chapter jumping forward in time a decade or more, they are mentioned in passing. Daisy’s children, in particular, may have considered themselves of vital importance in her life but they were merely one aspect of what shaped her trajectory.

It is interesting to consider how much of what happens in a life is choice and how much a reaction – coping as best one can with the unanticipated, particularly with regard to others. Women have children with no true idea how this will impact on their time and personality. Children live with their parents for, perhaps, a couple of decades before moving on with their own lives. Parents have a before and after that also shapes what they are and become. Partners do not always offer support or even stick around. Friends have their own concerns to deal with and understand only fragments.

“Why should men be allowed to strut under the privilege of their life adventures, wearing them like a breastful of medals, while women went all gray and silent beneath the weight of theirs?”

Daisy’s father worked as a stone cutter in a quarry – hard manual labour but requiring learned skills. Her mother died in childbirth so, as a young child, Daisy was cared for by others. She reconnects with her father and moves to America. Here she finds friends, attends college, meets her first husband. Although coloured by what some may regard as tragedy, Daisy’s early life is one of compliance more than unhappiness.

Daisy develops strong attachments but much of what she goes through – throughout her long life – is not the result of any long term planning. Her ambitions are vague and she appears content to do what is expected, making the best of the situations this leads to. Her second marriage comes about due to a rare action on her part but even this is not acknowledged – at least in the thoughts provided – as a fully formed objective.

At the end of Daisy’s life the focus shifts to how her children deal with a slowly dying parent and then the aftermath, when they come to realise how little they actually knew their mother. It is a reminder of how self-focused even close relationships are.

The strength of the story is in the author’s ability to take what is an ordinary life and inject it with enough interest and tension to maintain reader engagement. The characters may be glimpsed in snapshots but are fully three-dimensional, their concerns and conceits relatable.

Carol Shields is a powerful writer yet her stories flow apparently effortlessly. I have no doubt the themes explored in The Stone Diaries will continue to resonate with me for some time to come. A tale to enjoy and then ponder. Family relationships and friendships laid bare yet offered with love.

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

Book Review: A Long Shadow

A Long Shadow, by Caroline Kington, is a family saga set on a farm in the English West Country. It includes mystery, history and suspense. There are beautiful people and admirers vying for their attention. There are unpleasant characters and, by the end, the reasons behind their behaviour. There is the death of a farmer, Dan Maddicott, and a trail of clues to keep the reader guessing if his demise was accidental or something more sinister.

Before laying the groundwork for the main storyline, the reader is introduced to Susan who, as a teenager during the Second World War, fell pregnant to an American GI. Her cruel stepmother packed her off to a house of shame where such fallen women would give birth before handing their babies over for adoption. Susan plans her escape but ends up in an equally perilous predicament. The story moves back and forth between Susan’s subsequent life and that of Kate, Dan’s wife, at the start of the new millennium.

A third timeline details Dan’s life, cut short when he dies due to the discharge of a shotgun. Dan’s family have owned and run Watersmeet Farm for generations. Although an only child he has many cousins, two of whom, Max and Mary, he saw regularly throughout his childhood. Their visits to the farm ceased after an episode on a tenant’s property that inflamed a long running enmity. Jem and then Frank Leach are thorns in the side of the Maddicotts, but ones their landlords have little appetite to displace.

Dan lives within a close knit community and becomes the envy of his many friends. Until the BSE and then Foot and Mouth crises his farm prospered. The cattle he raises are regarded as of high quality. Dan wins the hand of the beautiful Kate who becomes his loving wife. We learn of their meeting and courtship; we are introduced to their two small children. That Dan’s death occurred shortly after he took out a life insurance policy has set local tongues wagging and causes his grieving widow to dig deeper into the farm’s history.

There are many supporting characters adding colour and shade. Dan has a loyal farm manager who supports Kate after her husband’s death. There are other farm hands who have varying inter-rivalries. Dan’s mother is calm and supportive and also a terrible cook. Kate’s mother in Cambridge is garrulous and selfish, blatantly favouring her younger daughter, the enchanting Emily.

Kate’s admirers include Max, an old flame. She grows closer to a widower who owns and runs a nearby farm. Her friends include Mary whose marriage suffers its own challenges. Acquaintances rally from across the country when Kate requires assistance. Despite the difficulties encountered over time by characters – domestic violence, alcoholism and homelessness, culls of livestock – at its heart these people have an enviable support network.

The tragedies, the comic characters, the question of how Dan died, keep the reader turning the pages. The writing is polished and well paced with a structure that maintains interest. The denouement tied up threads without changing characters’ behaviour.

There were few snags in the writing. I was, as ever, irritated by the need to mention a woman’s soft breasts. I was perplexed that pubic hair could be described as silky. Can people have button eyes? – I couldn’t picture what this meant. Such minor issues can be accepted when the tale, although in places idealistic, held its reader’s attention.

I enjoyed the moments of humour such as the older ladies’ competitive grandparenting. Emily was granted a great deal of power but perhaps men do fall so hard for a pretty woman who showers them with attention. Ivan was, unusually, an MP I regarded with a degree of empathy.

The setting offered an interesting perspective on farming with its never ending demands and ingrained duty. Taking Kate, a city girl, and placing her far from her burgeoning media career, much to the chagrin of family and friends, allowed the financial problems Dan encountered and then didn’t share with her some authenticity. The difficulty young farmers had finding partners now that women expect greater support and autonomy was just one of several asides to ponder.

This is a book worth considering if looking for a tale that is neatly written and not particularly demanding. Rural drama with sufficient variety and suspense to maintain reader engagement.

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

Book Review: A Perfect Explanation

“It was the starting that was the joy when no mistakes had been made, when the world was free and open, when nothing was said that needed to be unsaid”

Eleanor Anstruther grew up knowing the family story of how her father, as a boy, was sold by his mother to his aunt for five hundred pounds. These forebears were an aristocratic family whose wealth included large properties in Scotland and London. Children were important as heirs; the family inheritance to be managed and passed on. Although A Perfect Explanation is a work of fiction it was built around facts found in letters, court papers, medical reports and photographs. It offers a fascinating picture of a family bound by gendered tradition, in which truths deemed unpalatable, including parental favouritism, silently festered to the detriment of all.

The tale is told across two timelines – a day in 1964 and the years between the two world wars. The protagonist is Enid Campbell, a society beauty who later eschews company. Although pampered and selfish she regards herself as hard done by. The coldness of parents and their favouring of certain offspring repeat across the three generations featured. Mothers love their sons more than their daughters who are expected to do their duty without unseemly fuss.

Enid is one of three siblings. They were born and raised in the fairy-tale castle of Inveraray in Argyllshire. When her uncle, the ninth Duke of Argyll and husband of Princess Louise, died, Enid’s family had to move to a smaller property on the estate, thereby freeing the castle for her cousin’s occupancy. Enid regarded this as her first lesson in how anything she loved could be taken away. The next lessons were when her beloved brother, her parents’ heir, was killed in the war, and her father, who had always favoured her, died of illness. Enid was left with her domineering mother who she believed preferred her sister, Joan. Enid had married Douglas to spite her mother, an act she was told contributed to her father’s demise. She regretted that Douglas rather than her brother returned from the war.

Enid and Douglas have a son, Fagus, and a daughter, Finetta. Enid struggles with the demands of motherhood and grows to despise her husband while still expecting his support. Their son was born with hydrocephalus but the obvious signs are neither discussed nor treated. The condition makes him clumsy and he suffers a life changing fall while under Enid’s care. As well as the guilt she feels there is resentment as she believes she is being unfairly blamed.

With the young heir now damaged and therefore the inheritance Enid had expected to come her way in jeopardy she decides she must produce another son to prevent Joan being bequeathed their mother’s sizeable estate. The responsibility of providing care for a disabled child and a newborn baby – her daughter is largely ignored – tips Enid over the edge.

The book opens on a day in 1964 with Finetta preparing to make one of her regular visits to Enid who now lives in a nursing home in Hampstead run by Christian Scientists, a belief she turned to in an attempt to cure Fagus. We learn that Finetta has a son and a daughter but the same skewed parenting preferences as her mother and grandmother.

“She’d fed and bathed them both, divorced their father and sent them away to school as soon as possible. They had grown up.”

“Her daughter was a stranger who moved with a stranger’s mood; a thing that passed and left little trace, unlike her son, for whom she felt a love so crushing she could only watch him, constantly, whether he was there or not.”

Finetta is doing her duty towards her mother but takes pleasure in observing the limitations of the life of the ‘almost dead but not dead enough’. She regards any suffering Enid must endure as her just deserts. This visit though will be different as her younger brother, Ian, is to join her – the first time he will have seen their mother in twenty-five years.

Enid feels no gratitude at her daughter’s willingness to visit each Tuesday.

“Enid had done nothing to deserve such loyalty and she resented it. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want to have it pointed out that she was still a mother. It was as if Finetta did it on purpose, shoving the reminder of her existence as a punishment from which Enid could not escape, a revenge dripped week by week”

Now an old woman waiting to die, cut off from the wider family she scorned yet craved attention and sympathy from, Enid cannot still the memories of her past actions which caused the breach and led to suffering for all.

The interwar timeline takes the reader through these actions, when Enid had her babies and failed to meet her own and her family’s expectations. Despite the appalling way in which she treats everyone her story is told with a degree of sympathy.

There is darkness and tension in Enid’s perceptions and yearnings. She appears childlike in her jealousies, incapable of loving selflessly. Her feelings of entitlement and perceived lack of understanding lead to her wishing to hurt her mother and sister. She cannot cope with the demands made by her children. Always she wants without being able to give.

I have read many stories of minor historical figures and the troubles they encounter despite their privileged existences. This tale offers much more depth and nuance than is typical. The writing pulls the reader under the skin of each character from where they may view the pain of selfish frustrations. There are truly shocking moments yet they are never sensationalised. Rather there is a balance in the telling that allows the reader to form their own opinions. The complexities of family relationships and the pressures these create offer much to consider.

A riveting tale of grown children damaged by the relentless actions of their entitled parents. Well paced and skilfully written, this is a haunting, recommended read.

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

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 Reunion of Ghosts

1653402_10200155816174195_7405666565807761053_n

A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell, is a novel of poignancy and dark humour. It tells the tale of three, middle aged, Jewish sisters living in New York at the turn of the century. It is written as their suicide note.

Throughout their lives these sisters have believed that they were condemned by a family curse. Their great grandfather, a Nobel prize winning chemist, was responsible for the development of a product used to kill thousands in times of war, a product so deadly that they believe it continues to poison the world today. Each generation of the family since has had members who have committed suicide, a legacy that the sisters intend to emulate. This book tells the story of four generations of their family. It is a history passed down to them and experienced by them; the repercussions have coloured their lives.

Despite the shadow of death that pervades the tale this is not a depressing story to read. Puns and perceptive observations add wit and wisdom. The voices given to the sisters is stereotypically Jewish despite their claims to have no interest in the faith.

The prose is full of insightful asides that caused me to pause periodically to digest. In their efforts to try to come to terms with themselves the sisters dissect every experience looking for coincidences, reasons, proof that the family curse exists. These thoughts and discussions offer the reader a window on not just the lives that the sisters lead but on life.

They are incredibly close, living together in the same sprawling apartment that their grandparents furnished with the family heirlooms brought to America when they fled Europe and Hitler. The sisters still organise the kitchen cupboards as their mother and grandmother did. Even in the mundane they seem unable to move on.

This is a fascinating story that weaves fact into fiction with aplomb. It takes historical figures and real events as a basis from which to create a mostly fictional family history. It explores the damage that can be caused when troubles are considered to be preordained and deserved, and when such thoughts are given credence by others.

I enjoy family sagas, and this one is deftly written. Perhaps it was the unfashionable idea that death is simply an inevitable part of life that appealed, that it is not to be feared and is available as a choice. What should not be ignored is the brutal impact such choices can have on the living.

The final chapters added another dimension to the tale and created a satisfying denouement. The pathos of these sisters’ lives was perhaps that they never tried to live in any other way.

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

Book Review: The Good Children

good children

The Good Children, by Roopa Farooki, is a tale of four Punjabi siblings and their attempts to carve out lives for themselves in the wake of an abusive childhood. Physically and mentally manipulated by their beautiful, wily mother throughout their formative years, they were required to follow the paths chosen for them: the boys to become doctors and the girls to become trophy wives. All were expected to live to bring honour to their parents, to be good.

The book is set in Pakistan, England and America; the different cultures and expectations of those around adding weight to the inner battles that each of the siblings must fight throughout their lives. All recognised the damage that their upbringing had inflicted, yet despite their best efforts none could entirely overcome what had gone before.

The author has done a fabulous job in drawing the reader into the world that she has created. The differences in expectation of a traditional family living in Lahore may seem shocking to a Western reader, but it is presented in an understated yet powerful way. It becomes real and believable, the reasons for the traditions understood if not agreed with. All can empathise with the guilt that a grown up child can feel when they have negative feelings of any kind towards a parent.

The time period covered, from 1938 to 2009, gives ample opportunity to explore each of the characters lives. Chapters are written in the voice of each sibling, allowing the reader to consider thoughts and perceptions from alternative perspectives. The book has depth and clarity, is challenging but never off putting despite the many difficult topics broached: rape and domestic violence; racism, sexism and homophobia; cultural clashes and the effects on children of parental choices.

I particularly liked the comparative scenes, such as when the daughter raised in Pakistan, who expected servants to see to her every whim, irritated her all American cousin when his parents pandered to her whims. I also enjoyed the way the author used clothes on many occasions to illustrate character development, such as when the sisters wore traditional costumes which spoke of wealth and privilege in Pakistan yet looked garish in the West, or when the children mixed and matched western and traditional garb to create their own styles.

The book is beautifully written, enabling the reader to enter a world that can so often be portrayed as primitive or barbaric, and gain an understanding as to why it may be perpetuated by some. It is not a difficult read, but should not be rushed. Each member of the cast is worth getting to know, each can tell the reader something of the impact of an individuals actions on others.

I value a book that teaches me empathy and understanding of different cultures and lifestyles, and The Good Children does so in spades. It is never moralistic or judgemental, but tells an intricate tale of love and loss across cultural, sexual and generational boundaries. It is so much more than just a family saga, it is a story of survival, of life, and the price that must be paid for living with ones self.

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