Book Review: The Swimmers

swimmers

“Loneliness had been one of the few consistencies in my life for the past year and a bit. It was a gaping, untouchable kind of loneliness that I’d never previously experienced.”

The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane, is set over five days in a New Zealand June that culminate in a woman’s death. The protagonist is Erin Moore, a twenty-six year old whose mother, Helen, is suffering from motor neurone disease. Helen left the family farm to attend university, something denied Wynn and Cliff, her siblings. She raised her daughter independently, meeting with the wider family annually for a traditional dinner on the Queen’s birthday weekend. Erin is now travelling to the farm, where her mother chose to return when she required more end of life care than she could afford and her sister offered to step into the breach.

The story opens with Wynn collecting Erin from the bus on which she has made her journey north. The younger woman had not planned on visiting, but then work obligations changed. She had indulged in an affair with her married boss that was abruptly terminated. She intends to stay on the farm for just a couple of days. This plan is altered when Wynn informs her Helen has decided to take her own life the following Tuesday. Over the course of the next few days, Erin must come to terms with this. The pressure it puts everyone under leads to a reassessment of familial relationships and preconceptions.

Narrated by Erin, the unfolding tale has elements of dark comedy alongside the pathos of individuals whose lives have not gone in hoped for directions. Erin recognises her own mistakes yet continues to make them. She comes across as caustic and brittle, wading through the mud of the days before the fatal Tuesday with unspoken desperation.

“I had also needed to do something brazen, something insane that would make what was happening with my mother feel a little less insane.”

Helen has been a critical mother but she and her daughter were a team. Erin didn’t understand the reasoning for her mother’s return to the farm as Helen had rarely spoken positively about Wynn – Erin had offered to provide the help Helen needed herself. A new side to the sisters is gradually revealed showing how complex sibling relationships can be. It becomes clear that the sisters have been discussing and then planning how Helen may bring about her own death for some time, only revealing this to Erin as the final countdown proceeds.

“Aunty Wynn was a pinball machine of emotions. I think she was concerned that she might say something wrong, or something right but with the wrong tone, or that her face might reveal how little she was holding it together.”

Although a secondary character, Cliff adds much to the narrative. For the most part he exists quietly, yet clearly takes in the nuances of everything that is happening around him. He retains his own interests, keeping somewhat apart from his sisters and their absent daughters. Nevertheless, he steps in when needed. He may not be able to prevent foolish actions but can offer help to mop up the messes made.

Wynn, Helen and Erin were competitive swimmers, the focus and dedication required brought in as an occasional metaphor for the strength they must now muster. This is not, however, necessary to the plot which is about losing someone to death who has already been lost to illness. While I didn’t warm to Erin, her predicament demands sympathy.

The writing is precise and succinct, relying on character development over plot tension. There are farcical elements in certain encounters, their crudeness or illegality disturbing but also thought-provoking. In viewing the siblings only through Erin’s lens, assumptions must be made about life choices depicted. Enough background is provided but the reader may crave a little more detail and depth.

A story that leads to the death of a family member is never going to be cheery. What we have here though is the basis of an important conversation many try to avoid. Death is inevitable – and with certain illnesses predictable. A tale that explores the cost and effects on loved ones who are left to keep on living.

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

Book Review: Trespasses

Trespasses

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

There have been a growing number of fine books published recently where the story unfolds amidst a backdrop of Belfast’s Troubles. Adding to these, Trespasses stands out for its powerful and forensic dissection of just how pervasive the sides taken during this time were in ordinary residents’ everyday choices and experiences.

It focuses on Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four year old primary school teacher who embarks on an affair with Michael, an older, married man who knew her late father. Michael is a barrister, a Protestant whose wealthy peers accept his philandering.

The bones of the tale, then, are commonplace in fiction – unwise sexual liaisons that lead to difficulties and recriminations. Let me assure you, however, this is not a story akin to others read. The threads woven are tangled up with how the Belfast community in the 1970s was so bitterly divided. Church and state propounded hatred and condoned the violent treatment meted out as maybe illegal but likely deserved. Fear and guilt were sown at every turn to ensure compliance.

Other than a brief prologue and epilogue, the action takes place in 1975. Cushla, a Catholic, enters her family’s bar on Ash Wednesday with the ‘papish warpaint’ of the day visible on her forehead. Her brother, Eamonn, demands she remove it lest their customers are affronted. The bar may be Catholic owned but it serves many Protestants, including army personnel from a nearby barracks. Being located just outside the city, it has thus far avoided much of the violence inherent therein.

The bar has a television set and the author uses news broadcasts as a means of conveying how normalised daily beatings, murders and bombings were. At her school, Cushla is required to start the day by asking the children she teaches to share a recent news item, the headmaster claiming they should be aware of the world around them.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

Cushla lives with her alcoholic mother, Gina, and is tasked with caring for her through Gina’s increasingly regular benders. When she is invited into Michael’s world it is an escape. Here she can discuss music, art and literature. His friends’ political views may be at odds with hers but Michael himself is more tolerant and sympathetic.

“Everyone else takes a position. Like ‘those towers are full of Provos and they deserve all they get’. Or ‘they’re lucky to be getting a place to live for nothing’. You don’t do that.
It’s depressing that you find that remarkable, he said.”

When Cushla tries to help the family of one of her pupils, Davy, whose father has suffered a life changing beating, it draws the attention of her employer and the hate filled priest who has unfettered access to the school and its pupils – who Cushla struggles to protect. Davy’s Catholic family have been housed in a Protestant estate where they are subjected to daily abuse, and worse. The sectarian divides in housing, education and available labour offer reminders of how the Troubles were perpetuated.

Residents of the city were subjected to constant surveillance with police and army using their powers to attack and intimidate. There were tit for tat murders carried out by both sides’ sectarian organisations. The story brings to the fore how it wasn’t just the horrific violence that became commonplace but also the hatred and bigotry casually spouted by otherwise ‘reasonable’, educated people. Cushla’s kind acts are regarded as insolence, deserving of punishment for not toeing the line expected. Eamonn is furious at the risk she thereby poses, not just to herself but the wider family.

This depiction of the mess that was Belfast during the Troubles serves as the base on which the various strands of the story are built. The author skilfully weaves Cushla and Michael’s affair through the loom of how insular the community they lived within remained. Locals watch and condemn. Much is not spoken of in the hope it will be suppressed or cease if not acknowledged. Children are groomed to take sides and then action, by puppet masters guarding their power bases.

Any Cop?: For those of us who grew up in Belfast during this time period it is a reminder of how much twisted behaviour was passively accepted. The story is of the people depicted and how their lives were affected. A poignant and, at times, rage inducing love story written with mastery and depth.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Former Boy Wonder

“Even though I know I shouldn’t, even though the last time I did this I swore I never would again, I get up and go to look for the past”

The Former Boy Wonder, by Robert Graham, tells the story of a man going through a midlife crisis. It is narrated by Peter Duffy, who is approaching his fiftieth birthday. His once glittering and lucrative career as an Access All Areas music writer is on the wane with interested readers turning to blogs and similar free internet content rather than paying for specialist magazines. Peter’s marriage to Lucy has turned stale. Their teenage son regards his father with resigned contempt, considering him an idiot. Given the tale being told, the boy’s summation is hard to disagree with.

The story opens in the 1970s. Peter’s father, a professional comedian who becomes a renowned television personality, leaves the family home in Bangor, Northern Ireland, for London following another row with his wife. Peter adored his father but the schism created by his leaving proves hard to heal. Peter romanticises events in his life, viewing the past through a prism coloured by his beloved comic books, fiction and film. His dealings with other people focus on how their behaviour affects him. He assigns blame with little consideration for any role he might have played, or how he may have chosen to react differently.

“I had been the little prince, the apple of my father’s eye, and then he left. The little prince had lost his kingdom; he had been a happy little boy before it all went wrong.”

Peter leaves Bangor to study at the Poly in Manchester. Here he makes friends he will remain close to for decades – Lucy, Bill and Caitlin. At the latter’s twenty-first birthday party he encounters a student from the University, Sanchia Page, who will become his first true love.

The narrative shifts between this younger Peter as he navigates an all consuming love affair and the older Peter looking back on a time he has gilded. Although he wants to make his marriage to Lucy work, acknowledging her many positive attributes, he hankers after the passion he remembers with Sanchia. When Caitlin invites Peter to her fiftieth birthday party he cannot stop wondering if Sanchia will be there – and what that could possibly mean for his future, and hers.

Although the older Peter’s career has stagnated, Lucy remains a successful businesswoman. She is organised, efficient and likes to keep her house pristine, something her husband both admires and struggles with.

“Someday she’s going to fold me up, shove me into a cupboard, slam the door shut and lean against it until I’m restrained.
I wrest myself away from contemplating our clinical surroundings and the fun I haven’t been having”

Nevertheless, Lucy remains encouraging and supportive, until she realises Peter has been fantasising about Sanchia again. Peter is a man who has achieved everything that matters, yet properly appreciates none of it. He wants the life he had – or at least how he remembers it – over what he has now and could still achieve.

A strong sense of period and place is threaded through the story – the housing, nightlife and gentrification of both Manchester and London; the impact of this on a boy from Bangor. The popular music of Peter’s youth adds to the atmosphere, especially that which has stood the test of time. The author includes detailed descriptions of clothes, especially as worn by the women. While I would usually find this unnecessary, even irksome, here it adds to the evocative scene setting on which the story is built.

I struggled to warm to Peter, a man so obviously self engrossed and self entitled I wondered how Lucy had stuck with him (this does become clear later). Perhaps because of this it took some time to fully engage. Once I did, the slow motion car crash of Peter’s life held me in its thrall despite his continuing foolish behaviour.

A slow burn of a story then but one that is well worth sticking with, not least because of Lucy’s development. A reminder of how gloriously painful it is to be young and eager, but that fifty can also be memorable if lived in the present and with the right mindset.

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

Book Review: None of This Is Serious

none of this serious

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut has been likened to the published works of Sally Rooney. Although equally compelling, it is harder hitting and more authentic. The reader is placed inside the head of a modern day twenty-one year old named Sophie. It proves a troubling place to be.

Sophie lives with her parents in Dublin and has recently finished college where she studied politics. She has a close network of friends but feels more comfortable interacting via the internet. She is aware that her thoughts and views are coloured by what she compulsively reads there.

“I absorb it all like a sponge, trying to give my own thoughts substance. I hope for clarity, but instead my head is regurgitating content I’ve read on a loop. I don’t have anything to add.”

Sophie regards her generation as facing particular difficulties those older than her cannot comprehend. She is obsessed with house prices, unable to see how she will ever be able to climb onto the property ladder without the parental help many in her network benefit from. She has yet to find a job and has little enthusiasm for those she applies for. She despairs of the economic and political choices made by those in power, naively believing older generations do not understand their effects.

“The one advantage of the shift in political discourse to the online sphere is that no one over the age of forty understands what they’ve unleashed upon the world.”

Sophie over thinks everything, particularly her interactions with other people. She may struggle to articulate an original thought but can quote at length from online articles read. She hopes to come across as informed. This is not always the impression that lingers in social situations.

“I wish this whole exchange had been a message, so I could contemplate each individual word”

Social media is portrayed as both a minefield and an addiction. The story captures with honesty the disconnection between knowing posts are carefully constructed and curated, and being unable to disbelieve other people do not live and think as depicted.

“The flat holds a certain amount of mystery for me, the way physical spaces do. I’ve only ever seen pictures of it on Instagram or in the background of selfies”

The story being told is set during the summer following the completion of university degrees. Alongside the drunken nights out are milestone events: results come in; job offers are accepted; Sophie’s twin sister, Hannah, returns to the parental home from Glasgow; they celebrate their birthday; Sophie spends a weekend at a coastal summer house owned by her best friend Grace’s parents. What sets the unfolding tale apart is the spiralling voice of the narrator. Following Sophie’s life feels like watching a slow motion car crash.

In amongst her friends are some Sophie is closer to and can talk with more easily. When she becomes involved with potential boyfriends she turns to Grace for advice, sharing details of texts received before responding. She uploads certain information to group chats, and then wonders what is being discussed about her. She puts on a front of compliance when home with her family, knowing that her parents have no idea that she is always on edge around Hannah who has bullied her for many years. Sophie uses food as a coping mechanism and hates the way her body looks, especially when compared to that of her twin.

Alongside what is going on in the lives under scrutiny, a crack has appeared in the sky.

”Where there was only light pollution, how there’s a hairline fracture spanning as far as I can see in either direction. It’s lit from within by a violet glow that seeps across the night sky.”

Experts cannot explain how it was caused or if it is having any effect on the earth and its inhabitants. This dominates news coverage initially but, as with every major event, interest soon wanes when nothing new about it can be revealed.

“if the crack is merely an illusion, then parts of the world not bathed in its glow should be the last bastions of normalcy … Instead, there’s nothing about it. This could be evidence of a grand conspiracy, or simply because we’re not used to sending reporters to those places unless there’s been some kind of disaster, especially if we can catalogue the damage in dead white people. We aren’t used to looking at these places and thinking normal, so they don’t exist.”

It is left to the reader to deduce what metaphor the author intends by running with this strange occurrence. When the crack briefly does more than simply exist, this corresponds to a serious implosion in Sophie’s lived experience.

Although not a slow start, the story builds momentum that inexorably draws the reader further in. When Sophie’s choices cause a serious unravelling, her friends are initially supportive but quickly turn from this to cast judgement. What is so disturbing to consider is how familiar all these behaviours are, and the known effects on the victim. Existing online offers little scope for privacy, and supporting a person under fire can lead to personally damaging associations.

Throughout, Sophie actively seeks a path that will enable her to move forward from the stalemate in which she finds herself on leaving university. She views her parents’ lives as no longer attainable. Her feminist leanings dislike the pervading thought that a wealthy partner could make her life so much easier.

Any Cop?: This is a remarkable work of fiction that portrays the contemporary lifestyle of young people who benefit from numerous privileges but remain shadowed by pressures caused by the all pervading internet. It is the Black Mirror of Instagram perfection.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Gamekeeper

The Gamekeeper

“George Purse never killed anything for fun. He only killed to protect his pheasants, which were then killed by other people for fun.”

The Gamekeeper, by Barry Hines, follows a year in the life of George Purse, one of the gamekeepers working on a country estate in Yorkshire owned by a Duke. The lineage of this landed aristocrat could be traced back to William the Conqueror. The Yorkshire manor, moors and woodland in which this story is set make up his small estate, his larger one being located in Wiltshire. The place is meticulously maintained according to his wishes that he may enjoy part of the shooting season there with invited guests. He visits for only a few weeks each year.

George lives with his wife and two young sons in a cottage that comes with the job. It is set by the woodland in which he must work raising pheasants and protecting them from predators. He has been in this role for a decade having previously worked at the local steel plant. It is a hard life but still better than the alternatives.

“George Purse had always enjoyed being outside. When he left school there had been two choices. It was either the steel industry or the pit. Some lads chose the pit. George Purse chose steel … two more years of working shifts, of lifting boxes, of strained backs, of fierce heat, of metal burns. He took the gamekeeper’s job at half his previous pay.”

George is a conscientious keeper, carrying out tasks because that is what he is paid to do. This does not always make him popular locally. Hungry men become poachers but must still be deterred. The Duke’s land is not open access so children are to be scared away. George sets traps to kill the many wild creatures that would take the birds he raises. He shoots or poisons both land and avian predators. From time to time he can barter a favour from local residents with his catches. His family find the life they must lead lonely due to his job.

There are evocative descriptions of nature through the changing seasons but these are shadowed by the violent deaths meted out by a man in the service of a wealthy landowner. Over the course of the year George will provide for and protect the pheasants – from eggs to chicks to poults until finally they are shoot worthy. He battles disease and inclement weather to minimise losses he would be judged harshly for.

“Ascot week … It rained every day at the races. The thunder rolled, and the rain came down like rods. It rained every day in most places. Crops were flattened all over the country, and a river overflowed in the south-west. But it was the weather at a race meeting which made the headlines.”

Although a story that shines light on the work of a gamekeeper – and this is both informative and fascinating in the way it is told – at its heart is the unbridgeable divide between rich and poor. George recognises the absurdity of his hard work, how he labours day and night to keep pheasants alive that they may be shot from the skies by his employer. It is a job and he gets on with it, mostly stoically.

What he does complain of from time to time is when the wealthy claim they cannot afford to raise the standard of living for their employees. Wages remain depressed. Dwellings are maintained only minimally. He deplores that when they meet, the workers must kowtow to the landowners and their ilk.

“Some estates had contracts with exclusive London restaurants to provide a few brace for the evening of the 12th … some restaurants used to charter light aeroplanes in which to carry the birds from the moors … The cost was passed on to the customers, and they could afford to pay for it anyway.
And during the same period there was the General Strike, when miners stayed out for six months and were eventually starved back to work, and the Depression, with millions of people unemployed throughout the country.”

The author employs a neutrally descriptive tone in the narrative, yet still it overflows with the beauty of the natural world – and how it is thoughtlessly damaged by men who regard it as their personal and rightful playground. The grouse shoot and then pheasant shoot chronicled raise the important issue of why on earth such ‘sport’ is still allowed to happen. It made me angry this is accepted – and despairing that so little ever changes.

A powerfully understated account of a working man’s choices and the costs he must then pay – a story that resonates and will linger. This is country life stripped of its bucolic veneer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Good Man Jesus

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, is from Canongate’s Myths series – in which contemporary writers retell a myth in a new and memorable way. Pullman has pulled off quite a feat in taking the foundation story of the Christian religion and bringing the well known tales encompassing Jesus’s birth, ministry and death to readers in a fresh and enticing form. He explores how history is recorded – what is included and how this is intended to influence those of the future. The author asks challenging and thought-provoking questions but in a beautifully clear and simple way.

Major events covered in the biblical gospels are included in the story: Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus’s life and death. The key twist in the tale is that Mary gives birth to twin boys – Jesus and Christ.

As a boy Jesus is the volatile naughty one, often defended and thereby protected by his more considering and compliant brother. When Jesus becomes a preacher, Christ writes down his teachings that they may be remembered accurately. He is encouraged in this endeavour by a stranger who visits from time to time and takes care of the scrolls. Jesus comes across as raw and unswerving, passionate in what he promotes. Christ smooths his words out to make them more palatable and useful.

What do I mean by useful? Christ believes that the growing number of followers should be brought together in a church, with leaders appointed to continue the teaching and carry out the good works encouraged. When he spoke of this to his brother, Jesus vehemently opposed the idea. It was Jesus’s belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent. No planning for the future was therefore needed. What mattered was to get people to repent of their sins and start to behave better, that they may be saved now.

The reader is offered a closer account of Christ than Jesus. It is easy to empathise with the thoughtful brother’s reasoning, even though with hindsight his hopes for the church appear naive. I was disappointed by the inclusion of one scene in which he chooses to sin – it seemed unnecessary and against character. Apart from that, the development of the brothers is skilfully rendered, especially as they come to realise how the wheels they have set in motion are heading in unintended directions, hurtling beyond their control. There is nothing magical in either of their actions. Crowds are always looking for something new and sensational to be a part of, and gossips interpret for attention as suits them.

I enjoyed the author’s Afterword in which he shares his personal views on God and religious belief. He asks: if time travel were possible, would church leaders try to prevent their Messiah being so barbarically put to death? Actions have consequences, as both Jesus and Christ discover to their cost.

I have enjoyed several of the Myths series and this easily stands with the best. It offers an imaginative take on the potential power of storytelling to control and influence. A fascinating and memorable read.

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

Book Review: Mischief Acts

mischief acts

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

“What is a wood for?”

Mischief Acts takes the reader on a whirlwind romp through the history of everyday life in England. It weaves true events, often violent, both natural and man-made, with the mythical creatures that may have caused them. Set in the Great North Wood, a sprawling ancient landscape that gradually became fragmented by the development of south London’s suburbs, the story opens in 1392. King Richard is out hunting, his party led by Herne, a favourite. In an act of self-sacrifice Herne steps between the king and an attacking stag. Although mortally wounded, Herne is brought back to life by Bearman (regarded as a sorcerer) but at a terrible cost. Herne will continue to haunt the woods in various incarnations, with his saviour and nemeses always close by.

The chapters are mostly set a century or so apart. We see how the Great North Wood was used and how this changed with the times. There are: charcoal burners, landowners, inn keepers. Living alongside the wild creatures are: hermits, goddesses, beautiful women drawn from their modest upbringing to commune with the elusive and enchanting. Local residents forage for food, for themselves and their livestock. There are those who understand that the ancient network holds secrets, having observed everything that has played out in these environs across time.

“The straight lines of society’s rules cannot extend into the wood. They are left at the road, and something else takes precedence in the mind at the sight, and scent, of trees.”

I very much enjoyed the writing style and how it subtly altered as the way life was lived by man changed as the centuries passed. In the 1691 chapter, colliers gather in a tavern to discuss the rumour of a highwayman who dresses like a woman – an unimaginable concept and one that disturbs more than any known law breaking.

“As the heath absorbed the last film of light, as dew into a rug, on that Monday evening in October, and the colliers asked for more ale so that their throats were now thoroughly wetted, they began to talk. Always their conversation creaked before finding its runners, for days and nights alone in the wood can rust a man’s words, but find a track they did”

In later centuries, the Enclosures Act carves up the wood for the wealthy, with trees felled and non-conforming residents evicted. Wildness is to be tamed and money made however foolish this may again prove to be. At a time when landowners desired manicured lawns and managed landscapes – the outdoors an extension of their vast country houses – natural woodland was merely another resource to be plundered.

Men of science are shown to be revered as forward thinkers, harbingers of progress who understand the benefits to their own standing.

Moving on, the 1936 chapter focuses on the fire that destroyed the redevelopment of the Crystal Palace. Herne the Hunter, in this incarnation, woos the daughter of the man whose life’s work is the restoration of this supposed wonder of the modern world. The daughter expects to impress Herne when she shows him around – and is perturbed by his reaction.

“You won’t have seen anything like it,’ I said. ‘Inside is like an endless garden, like a paradise. You can see anything, learn anything.
‘You don’t remember what was here before,’ the man said […]
‘Spectacle! Glamour! Obedient magic! Come to the Crystal Palace, and be enchanted. For what could be more enthralling than things that men have made.’”

Mischief makers are and have always been villains to some and heroes to many. There are those who believe it is worth sacrificing freedom for a conformity that is sold as offering wider benefit – to privileged mankind at least, who considers little else. The latter sections of the book move into the future to vividly portray the path this attitude takes.

“Progress is a slippery concept … It’s all about context”

The author plays with a plethora of myths and legends as she moves through time and the key events that serve as anchors in the myriad stories told here. Nature is appreciated by few of the characters, except when it has been controlled and prettified. Wildness – the unknown – is feared. The results of the dominance of one species and the destruction they wreak are shown to be deadly serious.

The denouement is a clever turning of the circle, with Herne and Bearman coming together in an imaginative and almost hopeful scene. Although much has changed, the elemental heart of the wood remains, waiting to reawaken.

Chapters are preceded by poems – folk lyrics – some of which I recognised, in cadence if not the words. There are also charms that weave through the story that follows – magic to be found in nature. All of this adds to the air of mystery. Not everything in life needs provable explanation.

Maps are included that show how the Great North Wood lives now mostly in street names.

Despite the obvious destruction of a wild place filled with lore as well as life, this remains an exuberant take on man’s conceits – his reaction to what he cannot explain and whose existence he will therefore deny credence. The stories offer a reminder that natural woodlands are much more than the trees. Man’s foolish belief in his omnipotence is what is fanciful – how quickly he forgets the storms and other phenomena that rip through the houses of cards he mindlessly, endlessly builds.

Any Cop?: A tale for our times, a call to learn from history. An evocative and highly entertaining read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Seven Steeples

“Bell and Sigh were curious to see what would happen when two solitary misanthropes tried to live together”

Seven Steeples, by Sara Baume, is set in and around a remote and decaying house in the south-west of Ireland. It follows a young couple through seven years of their lives during which they do everything they can to live apart from other people. Other than the essentials for survival they make few purchases, managing without when things break. Their days are habitual. They gain pleasure from walking their locality, observing and discussing the small changes that occur due to: human activity and carelessness, seasonal change.

The story opens in early January. Bell and Sigh arrive at the house they have arranged to rent, bringing with them a single van load of possessions and their dogs, that must now get used to living together as a family. The couple first met the previous summer, to climb a mountain with mutual friends. He worked in a factory, she as a waitress. They are happy to leave Dublin behind, along with their large families and exigent friends.

The house overlooks a farm and what may be a large hill or a small mountain. It is not the most salubrious of residences but it suits its new occupants well. They feel no need to be fastidious in their habits. They relish the space they now have all to themselves.

Days are spent enacting routine tasks, all the while observing each change in their surrounds. They tend to their garden although have little luck in attempts to grow food there. Sigh fishes with more success. Both swim in the sea regularly. They keep the house as they want without concern for social convention.

As time passes they shed all wider obligations, happy to lose contact with people who previously expected to spend time with them. Other than the farmer, their landlord, and those they pass by in town while doing necessary shopping, they avoid other people as much as is possible.

“A successful trip out was one in which they met no one”

While in some respects a gentle story focusing on the rhythms of day to day living, the life Bell and Sigh choose to live has an elemental feel. Alongside the changing weather, the growth and decay of nature, there is no shying away from: build up of dirt, deterioration, how animals are treated and behave. The dogs in particular have many truly disgusting habits when allowed to roam free. They sometimes kill when able to grasp the opportunity.

Bell and Sigh also share their home with: mice, spiders, the detritus that accumulates if not tidied away. They become ‘poor and shabby without noticing’. Their unassuming outlook provides the reader with food for thought in how most choose to live and why.

“They walked the way they always walked”

As season after season changes the couple grow ever more insular. Their days are marked by activity observed in the fields and landscape: the plants and farm animals, the wildlife that comes and goes, effects of storms and men. They develop rituals for cooking and cleaning (although the house is never clean). They become creatures of habit.

“In six years they had never once been brave enough to attempt cooking something entirely new and run the risk of having to eat a horrible dinner”

Time is measured in: empty bottles collected, washing sponges discarded, the gradual increase in grey on the dogs fur and their hair. Knobs fall off appliances. Clothing merges into one messy pile. They no longer notice the noises made by house and land, the accumulated smells of dog, damp and burnt cooking oil.

“They travelled a twenty-mile radius from the house, never straying a yard further, in the past or present, online or in life”

The author avoids waxing lyrical on the beauty of nature but what comes across keenly are the pleasures to be found on shedding superficial and vacuous preoccupations. When plans are made and then forgotten they are shown to be unimportant. Life is lived in the present.

An affirming and uplifting take on acceptance, on finding joy in whatever can be had, paying little heed to media driven dissatisfaction or aspiration. Such a basic, solitary life may suit few people, but all could benefit from appreciating where they are now above where they are endlessly berated for not being.

The prose style and structure tells the story to perfection, the use of language understated and effortlessly engaging. There is much to consider and unpack in the spare, evocative telling. For seven years Bell and Sigh did not climb the mountain, even though it was there. The life led in the meantime suited them anyway.

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

Book Review: The Swallowed Man

swallowed man

“There is no neat plot to a man’s life. There are endless days, which are like as twins. Mornings and afternoons and nights, one after the other, no true escape but only the calendar to show that the day is gone, and here comes another to take its place. The changes, when they come, are mostly gradual.”

The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey, is undoubtedly a quirky work of fiction but one so cleverly written the reader will be happy to stay on board until the journey’s end. Narrated by Geppetto, the carpenter who made a wooden puppet that came to life and was named Pinocchio, the tale opens as Geppetto is coming to terms with being swallowed by a giant sea creature. Within the belly of this beast he remains alive thanks to supplies he finds on a Danish schooner that is slowly rotting there. He is writing his story in the hope it will be found one day and passed on to Pinocchio, that his creation may know he was loved despite how Geppetto treated him.

The first few chapters explain the practicalities of life inside the sea creature and how Geppetto ended up there.

While living in his hometown of Collodi, he made his wooden boy puppet both as company and with the hope it could earn him some money. Geppetto’s family once owned a successful ceramics factory. Through the telling of his life story we learn why he came to live in penury. The well known story of Pinocchio is a minor element but one that profoundly affects his creator.

Like his father before him, Geppetto was a somewhat cruel parent. He demands that his wooden child be compliant, by force if necessary. When Pinocchio runs away, Geppetto sets out to track him down, feeling guilt but also still hopeful that this is the key to an improved financial future. Those he encounters on his search believe him unstable – who would believe a wooden puppet can be alive?

From within the belly of the beast Geppetto writes of both his own life and the invented lives he creates for those whose pictures he finds in the ship. There are stories within stories, imaginative leaps that help pass the time and tamp down his growing unease. There are desperate attempts at escape. Small friendships are made. Geppetto mulls his memories, often with regret.

As months pass, the damp darkness and solitude drive Geppetto closer to derangement. He fends this off with further creations, seeking company in paintings, crafting sculptures from what scarce materials are available. He thinks constantly of what was lost when Pinocchio left.

Interspersed with the writing are many illustrations – photographs and drawings that add much to key elements of the tale. These were originally part of an exhibition commissioned by the Collodi Foundation for the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi, Italy in 2018. The illustrated book of Geppetto’s journal was published by La Nave di Teseo in Italy and became The Swallowed Man in English.

The unusual setting somehow works providing a compelling story of artistic endeavour as a palliative to loneliness. Geppetto may have been unsuccessful in many aspects of life – career, love, parenthood – and certainly he harbours regrets, yet even in the direst circumstances he clings to hope and survival.

A somewhat whimsical yet percipient tale of love’s complexities woven through an audacious and witty premise. Another fine read from an author whose body of work garners, from this reader, growing admiration.

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

Robyn Reviews: Wild and Wicked Things

‘Wild and Wicked Things’ is historical fantasy set in the 1920s with influences from The Great Gatsby and Practical Magic. With hidden witchcraft, family secrets, old friends, and new flames, it has plenty of mystery and intrigue, along with a gorgeous and beautifully described island setting. If you’re looking for a standalone historical fantasy with a darker side, this could be the book for you.

On Crow Island rumours of magic abound – not faux magic, the sort peddled by fortune tellers and tea shops, but real magic brimming with power and darkness. Annie has no interest in magic. She’s on the island for a single summer to settle her late father’s estate, and hopefully reconnect with her old friend Beatrice. However, her new neighbour turns out to be the enigmatic Emmeline Delacroix, known for extravagant parties and the shadow of witchcraft. Annie can’t help but be drawn in – but there’s a cost to all magic, and the cost of magic this powerful might be death.

Annie is an easy enough character to like – somewhat bland, but inoffensive and charming in her naivete. The island through her eyes is a daunting yet intriguing place. Annie has clearly led a simple life and, suddenly being surrounded by those who have sought more, changes her perspective in interesting ways.

Emmeline is more of a firecracker – a morally grey witch with many skeletons in the closet and secrets oozing from her pores. Emmeline lives life to the fullest, throwing wild parties and barely bothering to hide her witchcraft from the common folk. But inside, Emmeline is in turmoil, and her glamorous life is little more than a veil. She’s a more difficult character to connect with, but far more engaging and layered.

Annie and Emmeline’s relationship is one of the weaker parts of the novel. There’s chemistry, but it’s difficult to tell if Emmeline truly likes Annie or merely likes what she represents – freedom, innocence, and a life Emmeline was never allowed to have. Similarly, it’s unclear if Annie truly likes Emmeline or likes her mystery, her power, and the darker side that Annie has never acknowledged in herself. There isn’t much for a lasting relationship to be built on, but the difficulty of a sapphic relationship in 1920s Britain is well explored, and its good to see more sapphic fantasy allowed to end on a happier note.

The side characters vary, each with a great deal of potential but not always fully realised. Bea, especially, deserves a perspective of her own – her motivations seem simple, and almost naive in their selfishness, but there are hints of a more interesting and layered character that never fully materialise. Emmeline’s friends again deserve a full book of their own, but Isabella especially has a wonderful character arc within the narrative that compliments the overarching story well.

The setting is gorgeous – Crow Island is beautifully described, with the atmosphere present throughout the novel. Francesca May has a way with language, never overdoing it but ensuring each moment and description lingers in the minds eye. Mysterious island settings are a bit of a fantasy cliche, but this one stands out and has enough to set it apart.

The plot is part mystery, and part coming of age for the adult reader – exploring adult relationships and stepping out alone in a different way to standard coming-of-age stories written for a teenage audience. It’s twisty, at times difficult to predict, and a generally enjoyable ride. There are cliché moments, but also some curveballs and real highlights.

Overall, ‘Wild and Wicked Things’ is a strong fantasy standalone with a beautiful setting, intriguing characters, and a twisty plot that keeps the reader guessing. Recommended for fans of darker fantasy, gorgeous prose, and witches.

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 31st March 2022