Book Review: The Hope Fault

I enjoyed Tracy Farr’s debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gauntso was happy when I received an early review copy of this, her second book. It is written in three sections and introduces the reader to an unusual family setup.

The protagonist is Iris who, over the course of a weekend, is organising the clearance of her old family holiday home in Cassetown, New Zealand. Farr has reimagined the Busselton suburb of Vasse as the location for her story. It is an up and coming area close to beaches and the Margaret River wine region. This is significant as the house was considered an investment by Iris’s ex-husband, Paul, when they made the purchase. It is he who wishes to sell. The proceeds will enable him to acquire a dream home to share with his second wife, Kristin, and their new baby girl.

I mentioned that the family set up is unusual. Arriving at the house with Iris is her grown up son, Kurt, back from university for the holidays. They bring with them fifteen year old Luce, the daughter of Iris’s best friend, Marti. Paul and Kristin arrive later in the day, with their recently born and much loved daughter, to help with the house clearance. Marti, Paul’s twin sister, will arrive the next day. All of these characters consider themselves family and appear to get on well. Iris has set aside the antagonism she once felt towards Kristin whose affair with Paul precipitated the breakdown of their marriage.

The first and third sections of the book are told from these characters’ points of view, the voice regularly shifting to enable the reader to better understand the effect of their words and actions on the others. In the background is Rosa, Iris’s elderly mother who lives in a care facility back in the city. The middle section of the book tells Rosa’s life story, moving through time from the present day to her birth.

There are many threads running through the tale. Geologists and map makers who work with the earth’s fault lines feature. These details are used as a metaphor for the fault lines running through the family. There is artistry: Kurt’s drawing; Luce’s music; Rosa’s writing; Iris’s embroidery. There are also dependencies – on alcohol and eating habits – alongside attention seeking and its effect. Kurt and Luce are particularly well rendered as they push for greater autonomy and privacy, the exasperation young adults feel towards the older generation is understood and conveyed.

The first section of the book covers the Friday and Saturday of the weekend, with the cast assembling and settling in. The narrative is kept sparse yet much is portrayed. Paul has decided that a final party will be held to which Iris has acquiesced. Through a first night dinner, the start of packing boxes and the arrival of party attendees the cast’s mindsets are unpeeled, their attitudes shared. My engagement in the story faltered as the second afternoon progressed but picked up as further threads were developed.

The second section, Rosa’s story, adds substance to the various histories so far revealed. What comes through is the way the elderly are treated, as if they have always been old, lacking in aspiration and individualism. With nearly one hundred years to cover only glimpses are given. The milestones of Rosa’s restless life contain secrets, achievements and a pivotal disloyalty. This relationship is given more pages than I felt it needed. I would have preferred more on how Rosa’s younger self came to be.

The third section returns to the holiday home and covers the Sunday and Monday of the weekend. Events of the previous night brought out a variety of irritations and weaknesses in the family members, yet most accept these as facets of people they love anyway. Iris worries about Kurt who is facing his demons. Luce is harbouring a secret, her mood volatile and resistant.

The rolling perspectives work well in portraying the mundane and how this affects different temperaments. Decisions made by adults as for the best have caused long term damage in their offspring that they struggle to articulate. What is regarded by the adults as an accepted weakness, a part of what makes the person as they are, is observed with disdain by their children.

Yet this remains a celebration of acceptance, the faults of each family member acknowledged and at times fretted over but not held against. By taking the reader through Rosa’s life we see that the children will move on, look back, and come to better comprehend. Eventually they too will see only an elderly relative in someone who was once a figurehead.

The writing offers touches of brilliance, insights that deserve further consideration. Although I found the pacing sporadic in places, my engagement wandering before once again being drawn in, the structure and premise provide an original take on family love, loyalty and affirmation. This is a worthwhile read.

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

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Book Review: Educated

I am generally wary of manuscripts bought by a big publisher for a vast sum of money. To recoup the investment there will likely be a wide ranging publicity campaign to ensure the book crosses as many reader’s radars as possible. I question if I am hearing about it because it is well written and worth reading or because it has been cleverly promoted. Whilst recognising that the publisher would not have made the purchase had they not believed in its potential commercial success, I can be a tad cynical about literary worth.

With Educated I was also wary of it being a memoir, not a genre I am drawn to, having been disappointed by the inventions and exaggerations that came to light after publication of such titles as A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. Veracity matters if the reader is being asked to accept the words as fact, a work of non fiction, if they are to engage with the author having experienced the story being shared.

What drew me to Educated were the questions the author was asking about how to define oneself having escaped from a family whose existence revolved around a religious belief. As I know from my upbringing in Troubled Belfast, the complex emotions of family loyalty and love are severely tested when measured against the damaging indoctrination of a trusting child. Added to this, the religion in Educated is Mormonism whose tenets, as I understand them, appear at odds with the psychological well-being of, particularly, women. The author’s father was also an end of the world survivalist. I was sufficiently intrigued.

The story is told in three parts: childhood; Tara’s first years away from the family home at the largely Mormon, Brigham Young University; her continuing education at Cambridge in England and, briefly, Harvard. Throughout she is trying to find a way to live within the confines of her family’s blinkered faith whilst discovering that there are other, more rational, ways of thinking.

The first section takes up about half the book. Tara was raised in Idaho, on land owned by her wider family, many of whom lived nearby. Her father earned his money from selling scrap metal and building barns. Her mother added to the family coffers by selling herbal medicines and practising as an unlicensed midwife. Father did not trust the government and believed that the end of the world was imminent. He stockpiled food, fuel and weapons, did not register his younger children’s births and kept them from attending school. The seven siblings were expected to help out at home, including in the scrapyard where many accidents occurred. Even the worst injuries were treated by Mother. Modern medicine was regarded as poison. If God wanted people to live they would be cured with faith, salves and tinctures.

By the time Tara reached puberty one of her brothers had become unbalanced – possibly due to brain damage following one of the many accidents the children suffered, or perhaps inherited mental instability – and viciously attacked her each time he doubted her purity, such as if she talked to a boy. To survive she learned to switch off from the emotional and physical pain inflicted, exacerbated by the knowledge that her parents would not accept that their son was wreaking such damage. By this time several of her older siblings had got away, including one to college despite the limitations of being largely self-taught. He encouraged Tara to follow the same course.

The second section details the years the author spent at BYU where she began to learn of the world history her family had ignored or skewed to support their prejudices. Each time she returned to their home she was put under pressure to conform. A good Mormon woman will marry, submit to her husband and bear his children. A university degree is not required for such a future.

Despite her lack of formal education, Tara wins a scholarship to study at Cambridge, which is covered in the final section of the book. It is here that she begins to truly find herself beneath the many layers of guilt and self-blame that her family inflicted throughout her formative years. Still though she hopes to reconcile the dual aspects of her life. The mental toll this takes proves devastating.

Up until this point the writing is fluent and compelling. Although a memoir it reads as a story, a page turner that is effortlessly engaging. The final few chapters feel more typically memoir, with a slower pace and repeated reflections. A conclusion was required and is achieved but left me wondering how much of Tara’s story was left untold.

Occasionally the narrative points to notes that draw attention to discrepancies in Tara’s memories compared to those of other family members. When the contents of emails are shared it is made clear that these have been paraphrased. I ponder how much has been edited to avoid legal repercussions. Names have been changed but such a closed community will recognise themselves within this self limiting world, presented through a troubled lens.

Tara’s achievements are admirable and her story is well written and worth reading. I remain aware that, as with any personal memories, their curation will be coloured by the circumstances in which they are shared.

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

 

Book Review: Her Mother’s Daughter

Her Mother’s Daughter, by Alice Fitzgerald, tells the story of a woman’s unravelling from the points of view of both her and her young daughter. It is a tense and often uncomfortable read yet is chillingly compelling. The depiction of the mother as seen through her daughter’s eyes will likely give any parent pause for thought as they try to instil in their offspring what they consider acceptable behaviour.

The tale opens in 1997. Clare is ten years old and her little brother, Thomas, is six. They live in London with their mummy, Josephine, and their daddy, Michael. It is nearly the summer holidays and Clare is counting down the days until they travel to Ireland. Each year they go to stay with her daddy’s relatives, spending long, carefree days playing with their cousins. This year they are also to visit her mummy’s parents for the first time. Clare is excited about meeting grandparents as those on her daddy’s side are dead.

Josephine is considered beautiful but has put on weight since she had her children. She is constantly dieting and frets over Clare’s girth. Determined to raise children she can be proud of she berates them for any ill-mannered or exuberant behaviour. When they show happiness at being with their daddy, who allows them treats and to relax and play as they wish, Josephine feels sidelined and resentful.

Clare is on constant alert for her mother’s moods which are volatile and oppressive. She enjoys the evenings they spend as a family when her parents drink, dance and appear happy. Michael does what he can to help his wife but must work long hours to provide for his family. He tells the children that the holiday in Ireland is just what they all need.

The timeline goes back to 1980 when Josephine left Ireland. She carried with her a memory from the night her little brother was born, a terrible secret she tried to share with her mother at the time but was told never to talk of again. Free from the drudgery inflicted on her as the eldest sibling, by a mother who never showed her the love she longed for, Josephine relishes her new life in London. When she meets Michael she determines to create for them the home she craved.

The fallout from that pivotal night in Ireland is hinted at but never fully explained. Likewise exactly what Josephine tells Michael before they marry remains hazy. What is clear is that Josephine feels she is shouldering a burden that nobody else acknowledges or understands. She feels underappreciated in the home she has worked so hard to make clean and desired.

In attempting to warn Clare of the darker side of life as a woman, and to encourage her daughter to show some gratitude for the sacrifices Josephine considers she has made, the mother frightens her child and transfers many demons. Josephine appears blind to the unfairness and potential damage caused by her behaviour, so caught up is she in her own discontent.

The holiday in Ireland is mostly fun for the children whilst with Michael’s family but turns sour when Josephine must confront the parents and siblings she has not seen for seventeen years. Clare and Thomas struggle to fathom the darkening atmosphere, and then the crisis that follows them back to London. Their mother struggles to hold in her anger at the gift of a puppy she didn’t want but is expected to care for.

“All day it’s at it. Clawing for a piece of me, like the rest of them. There will be none of me left.”

Although Josephine’s parenting may appear toxic it is hard not to feel some sympathy. The question remains as to what damage it will have inflicted on Clare.

The child’s voice is mostly well done for the ten year old depicted. The underlying tension is well balanced with moments of happiness which are transient and brittle. Neither Michael nor Thomas are fully developed – the story is about the women.

This is a deft evocation of the damage caused by family. It is a disturbing yet engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

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

Book Review: The Photographer

This review was written for and originally published on Bookmunch.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel is proof that a consuming and fully detailed story may be told in under two hundred pages. The depths of the novel are to be found as much in what is implicit as from the elegantly crafted prose. There is insight and interest, flavour and nuance. Such writing deserves appreciation.

Set in Germany around the time of the Second World War, the protagonist is a young woman named Trude who lives with her controlling mother, Agatha. The generation before suffered hardship due to scandal which Agatha and her war scarred husband toiled to put behind them. Agatha is determined that her daughter will be the fruit of their labour.

Trude understands that her mother wants only what is best for her yet has a need to live her life for herself. When she meets a young photographer named Albert, who makes her feel joyously alive, she ignores Agatha’s derision for this boy ‘from the gutter’. They marry, travel and have a child who they name Peter.

Albert and Trude have a somewhat turbulent marriage, the negative aspects of which drive Agatha to intervene. She regards her actions as necessary for the good of her child and beloved grandson. The result is Albert being sent to fight in the war leaving his small family to seek a means to survive without him. Trude must decide how to deal with her mother’s betrayal.

The war reaches its conclusion and there follows a massive and confusing exodus from east to west. In a refugee camp near Hamburg the family are reunited but much has changed. Peter is not the son Albert envisaged, the child is unused to the presence of a father. Between them stand Trude and Agatha who must make difficult choices with the balance of their family, the direction of their futures lives, at stake.

Told from each of the imperfect characters’ points of view this tale offers a candid look at family dynamics and hurts caused as assumptions are made. At its heart is a love story, not a romance, that spans the three generations. Pragmatic decisions have led to difficult truths being accepted. The challenge is to leave them at rest.

Any Cop?: The writing is spare yet strikingly affective, touching the essence of each individual with precision. This is an impressive work of literary fiction that remains compelling and accessible. Like fine wine, it is best savoured and shared.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Doll Funeral

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The Doll Funeral, by Kate Hamer, is a story of ghosts and the lasting influence of family and upbringing. Its protagonist is Ruby who is informed by her parents on her thirteenth birthday that they adopted her when she was just a few months old. Ruby is ecstatic at this news – suddenly she has hope. If she can find her birth parents she may escape the vicious physical abuse regularly inflicted on her by Mick, the man she believed was her dad.

For as long as she can remember Ruby has seen shadow people, some only once but others come and go. Living in the Forest of Dean she has grown up surrounded by trees and finds comfort in their protection. She decides to try to summon her birth parents by copying mystical techniques she remembers from her late grandmother. What follows weaves a poignant tale of a child desperate for love with elements of the supernatural.

Ruby meets Tom who has been abandoned with his teenage siblings by their hippy parents who have travelled to India to find themselves. They live in a huge, dilapidated house where they are expected to survive on food farmed or hunted. With winter approaching these young people are now struggling. They also harbour a terrible secret.

Both Ruby and Tom have been damaged by their forebears. It is not just the direct actions of parents but the lasting impact of their upbringing and the wider prejudices of those who live in the forest that has shaped how Ruby and Tom have been raised. Each generation inflicts their values, beliefs and aspirations on those who come next. Psychological inheritance can be devastating.

The story is bleak, filled with restless ghosts and crippled potential. The fluid construction of the tale makes it easy to read but the unremitting darkness of the subject matter offered little prospect of cheer for any of the characters.

As a parent it is hard to read a book such as this without considering how one’s own children may have been affected by values passed on to them. Ghosts need not take physical form to exert influence.

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

Book Review: Starlings

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Starlings, by Miranda Gold, is an intense and evocative journey through the mind of a troubled young woman haunted by her family history. Sally lives with her elderly parents in their home in London. Her mother has been ill for almost as long as Sally can remember, suffering from debilitating paranoia. She is cared for by her long suffering husband, a man who has had to put his wife’s needs before his own and their children’s. Sally’s grandparents, now dead, were Jews caught up in the holocaust of the Second World War. The lasting effects of the trauma they suffered left its imprint on Sally and her younger brother, Steven. Steven left home four years ago, escaping to Brighton without luggage or plans.

The story is set over a twenty-four hour period during which Sally visits Steven, an annual excursion fraught with emotion. The sibling’s relationship, although close and happy in childhood, is now shadowed. Sally is afraid that if she raises certain topics in conversation she will lose what is left of the brother she remembers and loves. She clings to those memories and longs for their closeness to return.

It took a few pages before I found the rhythm of the prose. It has a depth that demands concentration but the reward makes any effort worthwhile.

Growing up Sally did not comprehend much of what was happening around her and her brother as they played. They were offered “a palimpset of stories and silence”. Sally ponders how many of her memories are based on first hand knowledge, how much is accurate and what she has missed from the snippets shared or overheard.

The adults survived in a kind of denial caused by fear. Sally’s grandfather was hospitalised when his wife tried to burn off the camp numbers tattoo’d on his arm. The children watched as she wielded her cigarette, yet heard it talked of as an accident. When the truth was suggested the speaker was talked down.

Sally is often told that she has her grandfather’s eyes and understands that this causes her mother pain. Her inability to prevent this adds to the hurts which permeate the family.

Internalising so much from the generations before has left Sally unsure of how to function in company. She longs to spend time with her brother, to leave the never discussed difficulties and the soundtrack of her mother’s demands behind. When the reality of her trip to Brighton does not match the plans she had conjured in her head she recalls other visits dogged by disappointments which she blames on herself. Her mind overflows with comments and questions that she dare not voice for fear of Steven’s reaction. She tries to fathom what his life has become when her own, it seems, cannot move on.

I found the story challenging but deeply moving. It reveals an effect of the holocaust that I had not considered before. Having discovered that it is inspired by the author’s own family history I am impressed by its lack of rancour.

The disconnect between Sally and the more typical Brighton nightlife offers a poignant juxtaposition. She longs to repeat actions that formed her happier memories. Her travel bag contains little, yet she is burdened with thoughts almost too heavy to bear.

The poetic imagery and loneliness of the protagonist create a powerful voice. This is a beautifully written book that I recommend you read. It is a story that I will be contemplating for some time to come.

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