Book Review: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

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

 

Not Thomas has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: How to Be a Kosovan Bride

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill, follows the trajectory of two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other becomes a Returned Girl, rejected when her husband accuses her of lying about her virginity.

The Returned Girl determines that she will not accept a marriage to a lesser man just for the sake of form. Instead she will pick up her studies and, despite the skewed entry system, try for university. Her family support her efforts, ignoring the looks and comments from their local community.

The Kosovan Wife quickly falls pregnant, much to the delight of her husband and his parents with whom they live. They regard her as a good girl, believing their son has made an excellent choice. The Kosovan Wife is grateful that, for now at least, he leaves her alone.

Interwoven with the lives of these two women are related tales of the previous generation during the Kosovo War. Many are still haunted by the cruelties inflicted by the occupying soldiers from whom they fled into the mountains, where they struggled to survive the hunger and cold. Those who returned often found that their homes had been destroyed. Although wishing to move forward, the older generation’s hopes for the future are at odds with many of the young women’s dreams of personal freedom, which traditional living precludes.

The Returned Girl is much taken by the idea of life in London. University offers her the chance to meet foreigners and secretly, scandalously, she dates boys her family do not know. She acquires an interest in politics. She starts to write down her relatives’ stories from the war.

The Kosovan Wife is also writing, as a means to escape the increasing unhappiness of her married life. She retells an old folk tale in which a good woman is wronged by a series of men. Unlike the Kosovan Wife’s experiences, these men are taken to task for their behaviour and thereby gain understanding.

The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. Whatever path taken, the glimpsed alternatives bring into question choices made. Tradition and poverty prove as constricting to women as closed borders.

This subtle exploration of the complexities of life in newly liberated Kosovo is presented in nuanced, engaging prose. A modern history told through its people. An intelligent, rewarding story.

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

Book Review: Let Us Be True

“When he was six years old, he had been taught that compassion was the only quality of any consequence, and tonight he had tied a knot along the smooth train of his life, and it would trail behind him, snagging over rough ground, staring back at him when he stopped to look, no matter how far he tried to pay it out.”

Let Us Be True, by Alex Christofi, is a love story – not a romance but rather a story of survival and its toll. The protagonist is Ralf who meets the beautiful Elsa in a run-down Parisian bar and embarks on an affair.

Ralf was born in Hamburg, the son of Emil – an academic who researched eugenics. Ralf and his mother fled to London as Hitler rose to power.

Elsa, a child of loyal Nazi sympathisers living in Berlin, carved out a life for herself in the aftermath of the conflict. She now seeks excitement but is loath to risk all she has achieved, even for love.

“They had all been prepared to suffer and be ruthless in service of a grand vision of the future, without seeing that all one is left with, in the end, is the past.”

The couple’s backstories provide insight into the life of ordinary Germans between the world wars. Given current events this makes for sobering reading. Emil’s story in particular moved me – a man who produced scientific evidence that nobody was willing to hear.

After serving with the British in the war, Ralf stayed in Paris rather than return to his mother in London. She wished for him to find a wife and raise a family, not appreciating how displaced he felt. In Paris he befriended Fouad, an Algerian Muslim suffering discrimination that the war should have proved indefensible. Fouad’s story is just one tragedy of many told here.

“We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”

Ralf falls passionately in love with Elsa but she tells him little of her history or circumstances. When he surreptitiously follows her and discovers the truth it comes at a cost. He descends into a destructive spiral, becoming involved in student agitation, eventually emerging to return to London following the death of his mother.

The writing is poetic in its stark beauty, the phraseology adept and poignant, evoking a past that has been lived, futures lost. The denouement rises from a settling tenebrosity whilst avoiding compromising the preceding character development. Life goes on.

An affecting narrative of studied elegance that seduces the reader despite its dark core. This, his second book, places the author amongst those whose trajectory I will now closely follow. Literature lovers, you want to read this book.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

Book Review: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose, is a fast moving thriller involving a teenage protagonist and a shadowy, ruthless organisation. It takes the works of artist Marcel Duchamp and imbues them with meaning. The puzzle to be solved involves artefacts, experimental drugs, and the nefarious profits to be made from hedonism.

Lee considers herself to be invisible. Her dad walked out on his wife and daughter when Lee was seven years old and she reacted by starting to shoplift. This activity developes into a lucrative sideline and gains her the attention of Edie, one of the cool kids in her class at high school. Their friendship makes Lee feel that she belongs.

The girls dream of college but Lee’s stepfather points out the costs, unaware that Lee could now fund herself. Her ill-gained money comes to light when she is unfairly blamed for drug dealing. With her future in tatters she eventually ends up on the streets where she encounters The Station Master. His operations are a part of something bigger and Lee determines to help those whose well-being he sacrifices, for motives she cannot yet fathom.

There is a link with a rave scene that girls like Edie regard as the epitome of cool. As Lee delves deeper she is discomfited to discover that she has been watched for many years. She has something that the organisation wants, and it is more than her latest light fingered acquisition.

Contemporary resources are used to good effect with hackers, the dark web and mass surveillance enabling both sides to hide and search. It was refreshing to have a young female lead able to think and act for herself.

The taut and slick writing encourages the reader to keep turning the pages but my interest in the plot waned when I began to understand what the organisation was seeking – it has been done so many times before. There were false flags that fell by the wayside, threads left to dangle. I wonder if this is to be the start of a series.

Although easy to read I felt dissatisfaction with the tale. It started well, but I struggled to maintain interest in yet another secret society operating from within hidden rooms, beyond the law, for age old ends.

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

Book Review: Yesterday

Yesterday, by Felicia Yap, is set in an alternative, contemporary world where memory is limited to the previous day (monos) or the day before that (duos). In order to function adults are required to keep diaries where they write down significant thoughts and events. If not written down and subsequently learnt, there can be no recollection of actions or feelings.

Duos consider themselves superior and hold the majority of the powerful and lucrative positions. Intermarriage between monos and duos is rare and frowned upon. As well as the perceived intellectual superiority, few duos are willing to risk creating a mono child.

Mark and Claire Evans defied this popular prejudice resulting in Mark, a duo from a wealthy family, being disinherited. Now a successful author and aspiring politician, he is risking his twenty year marriage to his mono wife by indulging in an affair. When his mistress is found dead in a nearby river he becomes a suspect in a potential murder investigation. The police must gather evidence quickly before ‘live’ memories are lost. People choose what they write in their diaries so the records will always be skewed and incomplete.

Chapters narrate events from a variety of points of view. Sophia has recently been released from a mental asylum after seventeen years and now seeks revenge on those she blames for her incarceration. Claire suffers from depression, is appalled by her husband’s behaviour, but does not believe he is a killer. Mark is fighting to salvage the career of his dreams but has much to hide, especially from his wife. Hans, the detective investigating the murder, has access to the dead woman’s diary but struggles to accept that what he is reading could be true.

To enjoy this story it is necessary to suspend belief, as is of course the case for many fictional tales. There have been a number of thrillers written recently which deal with the memory loss of a protagonist who then suffers manipulation from supposed loved ones. This story involves an entire population of amnesiacs. Readers must accept that the likes of doctors have somehow found a way to qualify and do their jobs in this environment, that it is possible to make certain facts integral to being.

Aspects of the plot brought to mind The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Fay Weldon). I also enjoyed the occasional news report or excerpt from official guidelines which helped to put into context this society’s habitual limitations.

The tight prose skips along apace. The issue of memory is fundamental – how each person curates their experiences and subsequently presents them, how identity is shaped. Initially I found the characters lacking in depth in a way that reminded me of my first impressions of Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). As the story progressed this was shown to be fitting. The population are forced to rely on the veracity of their own written words to work out who and what they are. I pondered if this is so very different to more common forms of memory curation.

Although it took me some time to fully engage, the story developed into a thought provoking tale. Issues explored would make it an ideal choice for a book group. This was an enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: School of Velocity

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin, is a story of music, love, and the abiding impact of close childhood friends. Told in the first person by fictional pianist Jan de Vries, it opens at a concert where he is struggling to hear the music he needs to play above the cacophony that pounds inside his head. Back in his apartment he packs a bag, not intending to return.

The reader is taken back to when Jan starts at his first arts school near his parents’ home in the Netherlands. Here he meets Dirk who proceeds to woo Jan’s girlfriend. Dirk is wild and dangerous, in thought and deed. The quiet and diligent young musician is lured inside the outrageous and confident boy’s web, and finds himself smitten.

Jan and Dirk become best friends, meeting after school and spending weekends together. As the school years pass they experiment with the pastimes many teenage boys brag of – alcohol, porn, drugs and sex. When they graduate they believe that glittering futures beckon. Although they will now continue their training in different countries, Jan is confident their closeness will endure.

Jan fills the gap created by Dirk’s absence with music, determined to fulfil his potential. Abroad Dirk becomes something of an enigma. When they meet again the balance of power has shifted, although Jan is unaware to what extent.

The writing is finely tuned and lyrical, presenting life with all its self-absorption and contradictions. Jan regards Dirk only in relation to himself, never considering the impact others have had along the way.

Jan’s development as a pianist is beautifully portrayed offering appreciation of the emotional depths music can provide for both player and listener. This depth is also present in the subtlety and insights of the prose. The story is captivating, affecting, a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: Glass

Glass, by Alex Christofi, is a gentle, intelligent tale that, in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, could have slipped down the cracks of more typical, cheap humour. It is the story of one young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. The protagonist is propositioned by older women, observes what teenage boys get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms, worries about losing his virginity and then his subsequent performance; yet his musings never descend into the bawdy or salacious. They retain a subtlety that enables empathy; canny observations succinctly expressed.

Günter Glass is twenty-three years old when his mother dies, leaving him to cope alone with a brother who he mainly argues with and a father who has turned to drink. Günter has lost his job as a milkman and spends his days studying Wikipedia in an attempt to further his education. It is here that he reads about a businessman who received an OBE for services to the Queen as her appointed window cleaner. He decides that this could be the career for him.

Günter’s grief following his mother’s death takes him to Salisbury Cathedral where he meets Dean Angela Winterbottom, a lady in need of a worker with a head for heights. It is she who is telling Günter’s story, following his death. Alongside the narrative are occasional footnotes which add a further layer of droll quirkiness to the tale.

Günter’s adventures as a window cleaner lead him into a number of regrettable, sometimes dangerous, situations. After being featured in the local newspaper he is offered a job in London where he shares a flat with an eccentric aspiring writer. Their conversations are sometimes bizarre but also piquant. Günter is aware of his lack of social skills and is trying to teach himself to fit in. His interactions make for amusing if somewhat poignant reading.

The story is told with wit and wisdom. Günter is overweight and regarded by many, including his father, as lacking basic intelligence. He may struggle to empathise with those he interacts with but he recognises the contradictions by which they live.

“It was so hard to act in the world without indirectly harming someone else, or contributing to the net misery brought about wherever humanity flourished. One couldn’t buy from fast-food shops, because they were cruel to chickens, exploited their workers and deforested the Amazon to farm cows, which in turn contributed to global warming with their imperfect digestion. One couldn’t buy cheap clothes because they would have been made in a sweatshop, but expensive clothes played into the hands of the fashion world, which peddled insecurity as their stock in trade. Besides, cotton was too often grown and wasted on T-shirts that were never bought, and fair trade only served to elevate a few lucky landowners. And if you were rich enough to be buying everything fair trade, you probably had one of those jobs that creates inequality in the first place.”

Günter mulls the workings of the world as he wades through each day. He may appear fat, foolish and difficult yet his thoughts demonstrate an acute if blinkered awareness. The Dean adds her own nuggets of wisdom.

“There is a story in the bible (Judges 12:6) in which two tribes are at war. In one tribe, people pronounce a word ‘shibboleth’; in the other ‘sibbolet’. They use this to identify the enemy, and to kill them, little realising the real tragedy that this is the sum total of their difference.”

Günter knows that he should eat fewer delicious waffles, a food his mother offered him, and partake in more frequent exercise. He decides to cycle to work and to visit his lady friend, pondering why people choose to go out running when they have nowhere to be. The Dean’s comment on this thought is typically pithy.

“Sisyphus was a (non-Biblical) king who tried to cheat death and was punished by being made to exercise constantly; truly, a modern parable.”

Although entertaining and engaging the joy of reading this tale was the understated depth and intelligent humour in the telling. Günter is a man derided, largely ignored and misunderstood, who does his own share of misunderstanding even those close to him.

The denouement is fitting, despite its poignancy. An impressive debut and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.