Book Review: The Cut

The Cut, by Anthony Cartwright, is set in the Black Country, where the skeletons of the industrial past are now regarded by those who have benefited from it the most as a blight. Cairo Jukes has lived in Dudley all his life. He feels indivisible from the land. His ancestors were amongst the men who dug the canals and tunnels, worked the foundries. None of these jobs now exist. Cairo works zero hour contracts cleaning up the old industrial sites ready for redevelopment, a tidying up and sweeping away for those who can afford the new order. He does what is needed to put food on the table for the four generations of family who share his home.

Grace is an award winning documentary film-maker from London. She travels to Dudley looking to interview locals about the upcoming referendum on Brexit, recognising that they are different from those she knows from her life. Most treat her with suspicion, veering away from her approach and the camera:

“She felt like there was some kind of invisible veil between her and these people. These people. And this is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on the scale of a whole country.”

Cairo agrees to be interviewed, speaking in an accent that, when played back on news cycles and Twitter, is given subtitles. What he says is ‘We’ve had enough’. He talks of ‘you people’, those who appear on the telly and believe what is happening is everybody’s fault but their own. Grace is drawn to this rough, unexpectedly cogent man.

The reader is offered snapshots of the Jukes family’s lives. Cairo’s daughter, Stacey-Ann, introduces herself to Grace as Ann. Judgements are made even over names. They are unused to talking to anyone like Grace. Her ways are foreign to them, and theirs to her. Despite their conversations, words cannot be found to bridge the gap.

It is this that the novel offers, a bridge between perception and reality. In packaging Brexit as a protest about immigration or even the EU the depths and complexity are disregarded, what is felt standing on a sun dappled mountaintop reduced to a sterile description of river and rock. Brexit was about how large swathes of the population are routinely admonished, their concerns dismissed.

“People are tired […] tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong.”

Grace recognises that there is a disconnect but struggles to accept that she may sometimes be the one to be wrong. It is easier to find others wanting.

“‘This place is a hole’, Franco says to her and sits down.

‘I’ve never heard you say that anywhere. Hungary, the border camps, Serbia, when you came back from Syria. Never. But Dudley is the end of the road for you. Look out of the window. It’s a sunny afternoon in the English Midlands.’ […]

‘Those people have got an excuse, a reason for being how they are, but these people,’ Franco says.

‘Ah, these people, she says, these people'”

Cairo feels increasingly impotent. He sees that many in the rest of the country want the likes of him gone, that walls are built with their well meaning ways. When Grace appears to offer him a new hope and then as quickly takes it from him, something in him snaps. The denouement, which was touched on at the beginning, is shocking.

The writing in this work is stunning. It is sparce, poetic in places, and bang on point.

Required reading for anyone who despairs of Brexit, or anyone tempted to glance at the Stacey-Anns of our world and then self-righteously opine. It offers a plot driven window into a clashing of cultures. It deserves the attention of all.

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

Book Review: In the Absence of Absalon

This post was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, is a book unlike any other I have read. Its protagonist is an unnamed investigator who is looking into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor, who has also disappeared. The reader is regularly reminded of these core facts.

The story, if it can even be called that, opens with the investigator standing outside a townhouse. By the close he has negotiated the entrance gate, traversed a small area between this and the front door and entered the house. The means by which he succeeds in these feats, and the digressive thoughts that go through his mind as he does so, are described in assiduous detail.

The investigator is confident of his ‘unsurpassed experience and training’, putting to use his ‘superior knowledge and deeply felt instinct’. The task on which he is embarking – gaining access to the house – must be achieved under pressure as he believes he is being pursued.

There is a thread regarding Absalon’s wife and possible links to another colleague, Knox, who owns the townhouse where the action, such as it is, is taking place. The investigator’s relationship with these characters may be pertinent, although little is made clear. This is despite his determination that all thoughts and considerations should be fully understood. His obsessive punctiliousness takes up much of the narrative.

The investigator observes, makes a point, offers clarification, explores other potential meanings and digresses to comic effect.

“people die all the time but let it never be said that he brought anyone’s death forward significantly by not taking an extra moment to define as precisely as he possibly could, the terms he was using to express himself during his thought processes.”

These thought processes include a consideration of how one can tell that a car is facing the wrong direction: a field study is suggested to ensure full and proper understanding; advice is offered on safe and visible clothing for such an undertaking; detailed instructions are provided on driver etiquette when traversing narrow roads.

“Satisfied that the point had been made adequately clearly, even when judged against his more than exacting standards, he terminated this illuminating interlude so as to engage, once again, more directly, with his investigation.”

There are outpourings on the meaning of dead when applied to a bolt or a leg, a pondering on who can be said to cook a pizza that is prepared elsewhere, the means by which a key may be located and removed from the pocket of a pair of trousers that are tight fitting. The urgency with which the investigator approaches each of his tasks retains reader engagement despite how little is actually achieved.

Any Cop?: This is sapient, daring writing that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. It is convoluted, at times dense, and often absurd. Such inversion and introspection may not be for everyone. Those who engage will revel in the wit and perspicacity of its circumlocutory perambulations.

 

Jackie Law

Books: Northern Ireland through fiction

Last Thursday, from my safe Tory seat in rural Wiltshire, I voted with hope for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What the country got instead was Theresa May so desperate to cling on to power that she is trying to get into bed with Northern Ireland’s DUP. When I saw that my old homeland had returned MPs only from the two extremes of the sectarian divide my heart wept a little. That one of these parties should now have the means to influence UK decision making is a serious worry. The peace, such as it is, remains fragile and to help broker disputes Westminster is required to remain impartial.

Recent events in Manchester and London have triggered talk of a fear of terrorists amongst my English acquaintances. I remember how it was to grow up in The Troubles, with terrorist incidents an almost everyday occurrence. The British army wielded their guns on the streets of Belfast with intent. They drove around in their armoured vehicles as a warning and a threat. The local police routinely carried guns and had the power to hold suspects without explanation. Of course, the illegal organisations were well armed as well. They killed and they maimed with their bombs and their shootings, and when they took their fight to the mainland were paid attention.

In the past week that attention has returned. Questions are being asked about why Northern Ireland’s residents cannot vote for the same political parties as the rest of the UK. Questions are being asked about why they are not afforded the same choices and rights.

Much has changed since peace was agreed but religious inspired intolerance remains. There is the opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. There is also insistence on provocative marching that incites violence every year. Just as homes were set alight to drive out Catholics or Protestants back in the day, attacks are now aimed at immigrants. Although integration has improved there is still religious segregation in many areas, of housing and schools. It may no longer be necessary to subject shoppers to bag checks and body frisking before allowing access to the city centre but a few simple questions about background will still quickly reveal upbringing. Walls of all kinds remain.

Shankill Road peace wall

Fiction is a fine way to better understand cultural difference. For those interested, the following books offer windows into the lives of those living in the province. They are also excellent reads.

Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)
Vinny’s Wilderness by Janet Shepperson (Liberties Press)
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber and Faber)
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt Publishing)
Eden Burning by Deirdre Quiery (Urbane Publications)
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (The Emma Press)

I have heard that The Glass Shore (New Island Books), which is a short story anthology by various Northern Irish women writers (edited by Sinéad Gleeson), is also excellent. I cannot verify how strong its sense of place is as I have yet to source a copy to review.

For all the negative attitudes being highlighted by the past week’s politics, Northern Ireland remains an attractive place to visit. Warm welcomes are the norm for those who are passing through and recent development has provided much to see and enjoy. It would be a tragedy if Theresa May’s legacy was to break the hard fought for peace that has enabled such progress. As on the mainland, movement should be forward towards tolerance and inclusivity. Adherance to any religious lifestyle should be a personal choice.

 

Book Review: Greatest Hits

“Larry knows what it is to lose oneself for hours – days, even – in the act of creation; and to only understand, when the mind and body are finally calm once more, what it is that has been created. What, in that act, the artist is trying to make sense of, even though no sense can ever truly be made of this dizzying, maddening, impossible, beautiful life; and, of course, of its culmination, its crescendo and its inevitable loss.”

Greatest Hits, by Laura Barnett, tells the story of fictional singer-songwriter, Cass Wheeler, from her childhood growing up the only child of a London vicar and his depressed wife, through her rise to the heady heights of international fame, and then to her retirement from the music scene following personal tragedy. Along the way are exhausting months on the road, abandoned friends, broken marriages, and the apparently requisite over-indulgence in drugs of all kinds.

The structure of the story is wrapped around a series of sixteen songs representing Wheeler’s life. The lyrics – written by the author and real life singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams – have been put to music and will be released as a studio album to coincide with the publication of the book. This is not the first time publishers have collaborated to create associated music – I am aware of singles from Fahrenheit Press and Orenda Books. It is still, however, an interesting idea.

The story is set over the course of a day as Wheeler decides on the tracks to be released from her back catalogue in a new album being planned to enable her to emerge from retirement. As each song is selected the timeline moves to describe the events that provided their inspiration. Hints are dropped in the contemporary setting and then explained in these flashbacks. With a cast of characters spanning more than six decades it took concentration to remember who was who between the time periods.

Although polished and fluid I was not fully engaged until near the end. The contemporary sections felt like interruptions in what was an otherwise compelling tale. I did question why anyone would want fame, something that Wheeler herself noted when she saw the life an old friend was leading. Much is made of how artistic creatives cannot stifle their urges, even those that carry risk of self-destruction.

There is a poignancy to any life story as, over time, family and friends will inevitably be lost to abandonment, disagreement, and death. Words will be spoken that cannot then be forgotten, resentments form that damage all involved. Wheeler makes choices, repeats mistakes, holds grudges and must live with the consequences. The depiction of her as a daughter – to both the women charged with her care – and then as a mother, made for interesting reading. There was little new in this but it was perceptively portrayed.

Wheeler’s life with its hurts and privileges is rendered to demonstrate that success happens moment by moment and can be measured in many ways. Even if not convinced by the construction, this tale is well written. I will listen out for the album when it too is released.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Book Review: White Plains

“Every utterance in this book has been coddled, eggs in a pan.

It’s all been bent, deformed, calculated, a swindle. You can trust it a little but only, as admitted, a little. In the end the end is for me to have my way with you, get the better of you”

The author of White Plains, Gordon Lish, taught fiction writing at a number of universities in America. In reading about him elsewhere, his students have variously described their experiences of his classes as:

“I understood what he was offering—the special chance to become hugely conscious of how language can be manipulated to produce maximum effects. So often, in our naturally powerful speech, we only understand dimly how we are doing it, so that we are deprived of the good fortune of being in charge of it, rather than the other way around.”

and of him:

“an unbelievably crazy, manipulative, egomaniacal person”

This, Lish’s latest book, is subtitled Pieces & Witherlings. Divided into twenty-five distinct chapters, the bones of the narrative are based on his life, although it is defined as fiction. Presented in the form of conversations and monologues, the loquacious style can appear rambling with whatever point being made only vaguely. There is a constant meandering off topic, although this is obviously deliberate. The words used have seemingly been chosen to obfuscate and challenge. The author is playing with these words and with repetition.

“an incomparable compilation of words as to the meanings thereof, or a vast compilation of incomparable meanings as thereof to words”

Some of this circumlocution is presented as what is typical of conversation, where points can be lost as speakers vie for the attention of those supposedly listening. Some digressions can be difficult to follow, and there is a degree of literary pretention. What appears to be desired is an appreciation of the language used.

“I would have for you the right answer reposing in the right words”

This circular, introspective prose offers insights aplenty. There is anger at aging, poignancy when recalling the lingering death of a beloved wife. The recollections of family, friends and neighbours that have had decades to develop. The narrator describes himself as old and can appear crotchety as he struggles with failing faculties and unwelcome intrusions into his current existence.

In Begging the Question Lish is railing at the demands of his neighbours. On either side of his apartment are elderly residents who have also been widowed. There is a dispute over the sorting of recycling, a request to view tiles in a bathroom that Lish regards as an invasion that will potentially damage a carpet. This simple premise is woven into pages that bring out the aged’s feelings of entitlement, their resentment at what they regard as interference, their forgetfulness, angry demands, and the poignancy of living longer than those they have loved. This latter subject is also explored in What’s Wrong With This Book. Lish’s back pain is exacerbated by working from an uncomfortable chair. The chair, one of a pair, was purchased by his late wife. This furniture reminds the narrator of a time of happiness which he values, despite the discomforts that it costs.

No matter how carefully selected, words, when put in a certain order, can have their meaning, their implication, misunderstood. Each reader makes assumptions based on their own experiences, about the words and also their creator. Words have synonyms, nuances and varied interpretations.

“A fella turns around and the next thing he knows, they went ahead and took away one word and put a different one in its place”

The book itself is aesthetically pleasing. The cover is appealingly minimalist and contains attractive end pages. The print throughout is uncluttered and on quality paper. The meanings behind the text may play the reader from all angles but it does so in a manner that will entertain the discerning.

I needed a dictionary for certain words employed, a few were obviously invented. Likewise conventional spelling is occasionally abandoned providing a workout for the brain. Although experimental in places, White Plains offers a satisfying reading experience.

I was made to consider the point of fiction. The straight road may get the traveller to their destination quickly but when the journey is from birth to death this may not be desired. Most will welcome distractions, such as is offered by literature. This book provides a diversion that should not be rushed, one that is worth taking.

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

Book Review: Tin Man

“And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”

Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, is a hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. It opens with a night out at a community hall in 1950 when young mother-to-be, Dora Judd, wins a painting of sunflowers in a raffle, her first ever act of defiance. The timeline then moves to 1996 when Ellis Judd is living alone in a house that has stood still in time for several years. He works nights at a car plant in Oxford. He is struggling to survive.

Ellis’s life, like most people’s, has had its ups and downs. He once had a best friend, Michael, and a wife, Annie. He dreamt of being an artist until his father got him an apprenticeship at the local factory, a potential job for life. Ellis is good at this job where he is accepted and respected. He understands that he has made choices and must somehow learn to live with their consequences.

The story takes the reader back through Ellis’s memories: of his beautiful and loving mother; his distant, angry father; and to Michael, his charismatic friend. Michael came to live with Mabel, his grandmother, when he was twelve years old. Both boys were made welcome in Mabel and Dora’s homes, treated as if their own.

Michael was the exuberant, risk taker in the friendship but it was Ellis who enabled him to shine. When Annie arrives on the scene she is determined not to come between these two young men. The weight of life’s continuing experiences increasingly stunts all of their abilities to fly.

Following on from the short prologue, the book is written in two parts telling the story of Ellis and then of Michael with intersections offering depth to each other’s tales. The language throughout is artistry in prose. The imagery feels so rich it is almost decadent. The grief is raw and heart-rending to read.

The author has woven a love story that is intensely moving yet avoids all the cliches and banality typical of the genre. It does nothing for effect even though deeply affecting. Despite presenting each life lived with a stark actuality, this is a tale oozing colour and possibility.

I have read many excellent books this year but have no hesitation in saying if you buy only one then let it be this. A glorious, heartfelt read.

“I look at these young men, not in envy but in wonder. It is for them now, the beauty of discovery, that endless moonscape of life unfolding.”

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

Book Review: Broken Branches

Broken Branches, by M. Jonathan Lee, is the story of a family inheritance which brings with it a curse. Ian Perkins, his wife Rachel and their young son Harry had a happy family life until they moved to Cobweb Cottage. Built in the nineteenth century, on land owned by the Perkins family, this remote property had been handed down from father to son for many generations. Ian was raised here but left when he was eighteen. As stipulated in the trust under which the land and cottage were held, his elder brother, Stuart, gained ownership when their father died. Several years later Stuart put a shotgun to his own head, blowing out his brains.

Now Ian and Rachel move through their days barely speaking. They are sleeping in separate rooms. Ian believes that if he can just get to the bottom of the family curse that he had heard spoken of, although never explained, when he was growing up then he can make sense of what has gone wrong with his marriage and rectify the situation. He spends his days sifting through old photographs and papers, researching his family history. Rachel, suffering miseries of her own, treats his efforts with contempt.

In the front garden of Cobweb Cottage is a huge sycamore tree with branches reaching out towards the house. The shadows it casts have always discomfited Ian. Soon it is not just the tree but also the house that is disturbing his mind. The more he finds out about his ancestry the more convinced he becomes that a curse exists.

The story is told along two timelines – the present day and Ian’s memories of growing up. By the time he left Cobweb Cottage he had developed resentments towards his father and brother which eventually led to him severing contact. Similar fallings out existed in the previous generation.

Many horror story tropes are employed in the telling of the tale, and acknowledged along the way. There are badly lit rooms in a creaking old house where shadows move and things go bump in the night. Items are displaced with no explanation. Icy draughts accompany ghostly sightings which Ian is unsure if real or a dream.

Although the author conjures the requisite tension, and I was intrigued by what the details of the curse may be, I found the obsession of the protagonist difficult to engage with. His belief in a curse seemed at odds with the other sides of his personality. The final reveals made sense of what had gone before leaving enough space for a degree of chilling uncertainty. This brought to mind the endings of several horror films.

And this story could be developed into a deliciously unsettling film. The soundtrack may even be provided – the mentions of the music played on vinyl during Ian’s research went over my head but may be better appreciated by a more knowledgable listener.

A tale then that intrigued even if it didn’t fully draw me in. Read it, but perhaps not alone after dark.

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