Book Review: Whereabouts

whereabouts

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a multi-award winning author who had somehow passed under my radar. I am pleased to have now rectified this. Another reviewer described her writing style perfectly: “Lahiri spins gold out of the straw of ordinary lives”.

The narrator of the story is an accomplished and independent woman. Due to a mix of life choices made and circumstance, she lives alone in her Italian city flat. Her day to day existence is ordered and materially comfortable. The routines she has developed keep her grounded, although at times she mulls possibilities missed through roads avoided.

“Is there any place we’re not moving through?”

Structured in short chapters, the reader is taken on a journey through the woman’s daily habits and wider experiences. She shares observations on: her surroundings, her thoughts on those encountered, herself and how she reacts. There is an underlying melancholy to many of the musings. Insights shared are succinct and candid, raising issues of interest alongside personal history.

The narrator’s childhood generated an abiding dislike of her parents. She still visits her mother but derives little pleasure from the older woman’s company.

“In spite of how she’s clung to me over the years, my point of view doesn’t interest her, and this gulf between us has taught me what solitude really means.”

There are regular catch-ups with a variety of acquaintances, although the narrator can be scathing about those they introduce her to. On meeting a childhood friend’s husband for the first time, when the couple visit the city with their child, she writes of his pomposity, considering him ill-mannered.

“He mentions that his father was a diplomat and that he was raised all over the world. […] The city doesn’t enchant him, after just two days he’s complaining about our haphazard way of life. […] And I wonder, what exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”

Mentions of past lovers attempt to normalise that some were married. There is a brief temptation to take a platonic relationship with the husband of a friend further. Mostly she accepts her solitude and the freedom it brings to live as she chooses. Her life is notably one of comfort and privilege, as are the lives of those she mixes with.

One chapter describes a vacation at an empty country house, offered by the owner as a pick-me-up when the woman goes through an unexplained hard patch. There is a visceral description of her reaction to a decapitated mouse – how the mind can induce absurd terror from unexpected minor upsets. Such insights are presented with consummate clarity.

The honesty in the writing at times includes negative traits. These are dissected with the same candour as all other thoughts and feelings shared. The narrator exhibits a selfishness she is free to nurture as she lives alone and may choose who to spend time with – and when.

Despite her attainments, the woman lacks confidence in certain areas.

“I’ve always felt in someone’s shadow, even though I don’t have to compare myself to brothers who are smarter, or to sisters who are prettier.”

Unlike most of the writing in this tale, the gender divide inherent in this thought grated.

The woman describes herself as disoriented, bewildered and uprooted yet she comes across as solidly able – capable of thinking through experiences and expressing herself clearly. This begs the question what has been omitted – what aspects she has chosen not to share.

The final chapter provides an excellent metaphor for the sadness of the ingrained detachment she has cultivated – of moments missed through her unwillingness to step outside the comfort zone created. The narrator is aware of this shortcoming, and that the bricks on which a life is built often crumble. She ponders the possibility of change.

The short vignettes provide a window into the woman’s world but are far from a complete back-story or description of her current situation. This adds to the story’s skilful pacing and how strands are woven together.

Any Cop?: A spare yet evocative study of a chosen existence presented with impressive lucidity. A reminder that lives move forward, ripples intersecting, ramifications rarely predictable.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Intimacies

intimacies

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that delve, with exquisite and piercing insight, into the lives of young Irish women at home and away. Many of the protagonists in these tales have chosen to leave the isle but retain the shadows of their upbringing. Motherhood features strongly – the impact of having, wanting or not wanting children.

The opening story, ‘Like This’, is a stomach twisting freefall evocation of the fear a mother feels when she realises her child may have been abducted by a stranger. The everyday problems encountered when taking both a toddler and baby out, in an attempt to entertain them, are laid bare. The taut prose is all the more powerful for how viscerally the unfolding situation is conveyed. It is a masterwork in the art of succinct storytelling.

After such a strong beginning the reader may wonder how momentum may be maintained. Have no concerns. Each of the following stories offers depth and erudition, weaving important topics that colour women’s lives and relationships into their everyday experiences. Alongside the mothers exhausted by the demands of beloved children are women suffering miscarriage, and those seeking abortion in a country where this is still illegal. The author ably demonstrates that shock tactics are unnecessary when traumas in regular life have been normalised, admitting to them made shameful.

‘People Tell You Everything’ is set in a contemporary Shoreditch workplace. It explores misunderstandings – the humiliation that can be experienced when love is unrequited. The characters view each other through a lens in which their personal desires are reflected. When reality bites the hurt can become hard to live with.

Marriage is portrayed with poignancy but also humour.

“It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.”

Men may be secondary characters but they are permitted to be good people.

‘Words for Things’ is quite brilliant. Two young mothers – long time friends – are discussing Monica Lewinsky, how as teenagers they judged this twenty-two year old employee caught in the web of a lecherous American president. The story offers a perspective on how people change as their understanding deepens.

“Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannon Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who – you suddenly realised – turned out to be something else entirely.”

Religion, of course, warrants a mention. ‘Jars of Clay’ is set around the Irish vote to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. An earnest if blinkered church group from America have travelled to Dublin to try to persuade people to vote against this proposed change. Their arguments are well rehearsed but even the eager young believer in their midst cannot entirely tamp down her doubts about their mission when confronted by the reality of lived experience.

The Children’ is a powerful tale of the bond between mothers and their children told with reference to Caroline Norton – a 19th century activist – whose callous husband used his legal powers of ownership to ensure severance when she left him after a series of life affecting beatings.

“Cut off from her children after an acrimonious split, she went about changing the law for wives and mothers.”

In the contemporary timeline the narrator is concerned for the viability of her own pregnancy. Each of these stories offers up multiple, entwined issues for consideration.

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ is set during a flight from Toronto to London. A young mother struggling with her baby is assisted by an older man sitting next to her. There are many layers to peel back in what is a story of marriage and parenthood.

The collection ends with ‘Devotions’ – a reminder of the intensity of love for a child at each stage of their growth, and how quickly the emotional detail of moments that felt so precious fade as lives move inexorably forward.

Several of the characters in these stories muse that their young children will not even remember the events that cost their mothers so much effort and anguish, that what children do remember is often that which caused them pain rather than pleasure.

The writing is seriously impressive – incisive, heartfelt, and always engaging. At times while reading it had me in pieces as I recalled my own experiences as a young woman and mother, but it provides so much more than relatability.

Any Cop?: A mighty collection in which each and every story deserves to be savoured. If you have not yet discovered Lucy Caldwell’s fiction, start here.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Ever Rest

ever rest

Ever Rest, by Roz Morris, tells the story of a popular rock music duo whose fame was immortalised when the lead singer fell to his death on Mount Everest. Twenty years later, those who were close to the pair at the height of their fame are still living with the issues this created.

It is common to read of badly behaved celebrities – of the drugs and casual sex that allegedly go hand in hand with the rock and roll lifestyle, and these do get a mention here. What comes across more clearly in this tale is the way successful artists are manipulated by those wishing to claim a slice of the pie for themselves. Fans, media and those operating in the wider industry feel a sense of ownership, forgetting that the stars are not just a product but also people with agency.

The musical duo called themselves the Ashbirds – a play on their names. They met as teenagers through their parents, who ran businesses in the small Shropshire town of Bonnet. Both left for London as soon as they felt able. Although friends of sorts, there was little love lost between the pair. Nevertheless, together they released songs that touched listeners at a visceral level.

Hugo was the creative talent but Ashten had the drive and charisma. When their albums started making waves and gaining airplay they acquired a team who took care of organisation and security. In the months before their attempt to climb Everest, Ashten took up with a new girlfriend, a dancer named Elza. Also in the mix was Robert, a session musician with aspirations that soared above his abilities.

Hugo was with Ashten when the latter perished on the mountain. As a result he gave up music, instead training to assist those in Nepal – climbing in an attempt to escape his demons. Elza became an artist, taking on commissions from businesses. Robert married Gina and made his living writing advertising jingles.

Over the years, as the bodies of men were discovered in the ice around Everest following thaws or avalanche, Hugo would be called to check if it was Ashten. These events pulled the survivors of Ashbirds closer together again. The old team would be brought in to provide protection from continued media interest. The fanbase would hold vigils, eager to claim a part of the musical legacy they felt belonged to them.

When Ari Markson, manager of Ashbirds, contacts Robert with the news that a backer has offered to fund a fourth album from the band, the musician is faced with a dilemma. He has over-egged his creative potential, claiming to have songs ready that he must now submit for consideration. All he has are those written decades ago with Ashten and subsequently rejected. When Hugo gets wind of what is going on, he steps in to ensure the Ashbirds name will not be tarnished by substandard output. Robert sways between the fear he is being treated as unfairly as twenty years ago and his wish to be involved in Hugo’s now much vaunted return.

Elza, meanwhile, has a new partner, Elliot, who prefers opera to pop music. Alongside the star struck fans who stoke the fires of artistic egos and those who support them, Elliot provides a reminder of how ridiculous and potentially damaging the worship of celebrity is.

There is a notable lack of trust between the characters, even the cohabiters. Those involved in creating the songs seek control, that they may reap the plaudits for themselves. It is about money but also admiration and the reflected glow of association. It is an indictment of the wider musical industry – creators and consumers.

I have detailed a few elements of plot above and always worry about spoiling a readers enjoyment turning the pages. I won’t remove anything, however, as the pleasure to be found in this book is the author’s style of storytelling. She writes with a light touch that belies the inherent skill, care and acuity. The writing flows at a comfortable pace. Tension builds to maintain engagement interspersed with well crafted character development. The human element is insightfully rendered, especially the misinterpretations of actions and intentions. The denouement provides a satisfying tying together of threads.

An enjoyable read that offers a fresh perspective on fame and those who make money from it. A reminder that a quiet life may bring more happiness than perceived success.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: What Willow Says

what willow says

“you don’t need ears to hear the trees, you only need to listen”

What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle, tells the story of an artist grandmother and her hearing impaired granddaughter as they learn to communicate, aided by a mutual appreciation of nature. The granddaughter can lip read and grows increasingly adept at using sign language. The grandmother is doing her best to learn this latter skill. Their conversations mostly rely on a more primal understanding, on observation and resonance.

The story opens during a hot spell in summer. The girl wishes to play with other children in the neighbourhood. Some accept her, many do not. She is not averse to turning her deafness to advantage when opportunity arises. The grandmother admires her audacity. When alone the pair walk their locality as the seasons progress, seeking out untamed areas and sharing stories of time and place. Set in Ireland, these include many myths and legends – of flora, fauna, and the people they represent.

The child has a metal detector, the grandmother an art project she wishes to complete – ‘A Compendium of Native & Non-Native Trees of Ireland’, illustrations rather than a field guide. They collect their treasures on planned excursions. The child asks what sounds different trees make.

“All those years studying their structures, weights, and textures while missing their inherent languages. I do not know what the breeze brings through them or how their sounds differ”

The grandmother has known loss and is now eager to appreciate the unique abilities of her young charge, however much authorities may wish her to adapt herself to a prescribed ‘normality’. Medical professionals do not appear to understand that cochlear implants may provide improved hearing, but that the granddaughter would lose the world she now happily inhabits.

“Sometimes there is no one so deaf as a hearing person”

As the year progresses it is not just the child’s health care that unsettles. The grandmother receives a diagnosis that will be life changing for them both.

These bones of a story make for interesting and engaging reading but what raises the book to something special is the use of language, the evocation of the spirits inhabiting what some may regard as untidy spaces. There is both lyricism and the lightness of a dancer in the prose – what those who understand the discipline, as it interprets musical accompaniment, recognise as poise and strength to limn feeling and beauty. In music, the silences are as important as notes played.

Grandmother and granddaughter stand beneath tree canopies listening – to the leaves and branches, to the unseen root system that joins trees together. When felled, these roots remain to nourish new growth. It is a fitting comparison to the love and learning the elderly can offer a younger generation.

Although there is much beauty in the metaphors evoked, the author does not shy away from difficulties faced by the deaf community as they navigate a hearing world reluctant to pay attention. Neither does she avoid the subject of death – the lasting sense of loss, how those remaining must adapt to change.

In pulling these themes together amongst the imagery of trees, what seem human tragedies are granted perspective. The family story told is one of support and tenderness. The wider tale provides food for the soul that left this reader sated.

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

Book Review: Panenka

panenka

“His throat became swollen hearing her take his side. No one had ever done that. Not even he had done that.”

Panenka is Rónán Hession’s second published novel. His first, Leonard and Hungry Paul, has acquired legions of fans eager to press it into the palms of every reader. Hession, a recognised musician before he took to writing, tweeted yesterday, on publication day, ‘Always a bit of Second Album Syndrome at the back of the mind, so it’s nice when people accept the book as it is.’ Let us consider then his latest book as the stand alone work it is.

Before the story begins we are provided with a definition of the title.

Panenka: In football, a penalty technique in which the taker chips the ball artfully into the centre of the goal, counting on the likelihood that the goalkeeper will have dived to either side.”

The protagonist of the tale, Joseph, is burdened with this word as his nickname. It is even how his daughter, Marie-Thérèse, refers to him in the town where they have always lived. As we discover, there is a deep and abiding sadness to how it was acquired.

Now middle-aged, Joseph suffers debilitating, nightly pain that he refers to as his iron mask. When the medical profession investigate, the diagnosis makes Joseph reassess the bargains he has made with himself over how he lives his life. He does not share his worries with Marie-Thérèse, who moved in with him along with her seven year old son, Arthur, when she left her husband. Joseph believes she shoulders more than enough concerns already and wishes to spare her. This shutting himself away emotionally from those who care for him is an ingrained habit, one that cost him his marriage.

Joseph was a professional footballer, playing for his local team. Football fans may find this backstory of interest. What it offered this reader was a glimpse into a world where winning a game becomes everything. When any aspect of life takes on such all encompassing importance it can be hard to recognise the value of what is pushed to the margins.

Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Vincent, runs a café/bar at which Joseph is a regular. Conversations here amongst his fellow drinkers provide a picture of life in the town where they all reside. The ordinary lives depicted are shadowed by individual, small tragedies. It is a reminder that we can rarely fully know even those we interact with frequently.

This knowing a person is explored with the author’s trademark insight and wit when Joseph, requiring a haircut, is forced to try a new establishment as his usual barber is unavailable.

“Donnie had learned to cut hair in the army and viewed barbering as something akin to getting your toenails cut or brushing your teeth. It was a maintenance job, and not something to develop ideas about.”

The new barbershop Joseph chooses is run by Esther, a women he is drawn to, perhaps by the aura of sadness she too carries. Esther turns out to be wise in ways few master. Having been let down badly by someone she believed she knew well, she is circumspect when it comes to accepting what others share of themselves.

“I could have asked for the full tour – you could have shown me around all your own facts and circumstances, given me the tourist board version of yourself. A whole story that I would later have to revise or unlearn based on who you turned out to be.”

Joseph has an endearing relationship with young Arthur, a contrast to that which he offered Marie-Thérèse when she was a child. Whatever sadness it brings Esther, she is gentle with his eagerness to tell her of the boy.

“‘That’s old – one of his baby pictures’, he said.
‘Ah yes, he was still landscape then,’ she said. ‘He’s probably portrait now.'”

When guilt is hollowing a person, gnawing away from the inside, what do they hear or remember other than the blame that affirms worst fears? Joseph believes he has let everyone who ever cared for him down. He struggles to accept when love is offered, caught up as he is in trying to process the pain of perceived failure. That he has been given another chance with his grown daughter, grandson and then Esther makes him anxious not to repeat the mistakes of his past. Changing habits is never easy.

The shadows cast over the characters by loss – historic and impending – could have made this a dark read but the author is adept at evoking the resilience and hope that even the simplest acts of kindness bring. This is a story of people and relationships, of finding sincere words that the damaged can hear. A poignant and thoughtful tale that lingers beyond the final page.

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

Book Review: Emmet and Me

emmet-and-me

Emmet and Me is Sara Gethin’s second novel for adults (I review her first, Not Thomas, here). Although exploring dark themes, both novels are narrated by children and she captures their views and understanding of the world with skill and care. Adults often forget how insular a child’s perspective can be, that the lens through which they observe their surroundings is coloured by limited experience and childish interpretations of behaviour and overheard conversation. They have not yet developed the language or emotional intelligence to convey their deeply felt desires or concerns.

This latest story opens in Cardiff where ten year old Claire lives with her parents and two brothers – twelve year old Will and toddler Louis. Their volatile mother has long made it clear she regards her children as nuisances. She blames them for driving her to regular outbursts of anger. On the first weekend of the summer holidays, when she starts flinging crockery at the walls, the youngsters lock themselves in the bathroom to keep safe. They are rescued by their uncle, Jack, who takes them to his grubby lodgings to sleep while their dad tries to sort matters at home. When they return the next day their mother has left. Unable to care for his children alone, their dad decides they must go to his mother in rural Ireland, despite not having spoken to her since he was Claire’s age.

Set in 1966, the remote cottage in Connemara has few modern conveniences. Grandma does her best for the children but, with only one elderly neighbour within walking distance, they must make their own entertainment in the surrounding fields. When the holidays end and there is still no prospect of returning to Wales, Claire and Will are sent to local schools. Run by the Catholic church, these are domains of casually cruel nuns and priests.

It is clear from early in the story that there are key elements of family history that Claire is unaware of. These are gradually revealed to her as the plot progresses – mostly foreshadowed so with few surprises for the reader. There is poverty and tragedy leading to lifelong guilt and resentments. All of this is presented with a poignant clarity and pleasing lack of mawkish embellishment.

The titular Emmet is a boy from one of Ireland’s industrial schools. Claire meets him when she finds a place to hide from the girls in her class during lunchbreak. Claire has always struggled to make friends, longing to be noticed by the popular girls and thereby missing out on chances to befriend others – a thread that is handled particularly well in this tale. In Emmet she finds a child who, like her, has a vivid imagination and appreciation of the escapism to be found in stories. Thrilled by their similarities, she is blind to his obvious suffering and deprivation.

Will has his own issues to deal with at school, his name and provenance making him a magnet for bullies. Being older he has a greater awareness of his parents’ behaviour and is attuned to the background that led to them abandoning their offspring. He is caught between protecting Claire from the truth and advising her when she appears insensitive of issues faced by her peers.

Although certain chapters open with thoughts from an older Claire looking back on this summer, the story told is mostly linear. The writing flows but with an underlying tension – a feeling of impending disaster to which Claire remains oblivious, caught up as she is in her own concerns. Each of the characters is developed well, adding depth to the various plot threads. The way poor and orphaned children are treated by church and state is heartbreaking, especially knowing how factually true this aspect is.

Young Claire’s denouement is a bildungsroman of sorts, although the author avoids the pitfall of making everything too tidy. There is then a postscript that offers a window into the life of the older Claire, a bittersweet consequence of pivotal events recounted.

It is notable that the least likable characters are those presenting what many regard as an admirable veneer – be it beauty or vociferous piety. Grandma understands that the church must be pandered to but recognises its dark underbelly. She does not keep a mirror in her cottage, although it and its occupants are kept clean without fussiness. Claire’s life may at times appear challenging, but not when compared to Emmet’s and those in similar circumstances to his.

I read a great many books that experiment with form and development. Although these can be impressive, it was refreshing to read a story told clearly from beginning to end. That said, the author has included so many thought-provoking themes there is plenty to consider. All have their place and add depth to the evocation of time and place.

A page turner that I nevertheless had to walk away from at times, fearful of what was about to be revealed. The pleasure some take from damaging children for their own gratification remains incomprehensible. The author captures the essence of childhood with aplomb and crafts a tale that cannot fail to move every reader. A deftly rendered, recommended read.

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

Book Review: The High House

the high house

Today it is my pleasure to welcome a guest reviewer to my blog. Peter Wild is the editor and founder of Bookmunch, a book blog I regularly contribute to. He kindly agreed to review The High House for me. I was interested in his take on a book I consider a must read.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

The world as we know it is going to hell in a handcart (although if the latest opinion polls that demonstrate only 4 in 10 people think the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had is in fact the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had, it’s highly likely that only 4 in 10 people think the world is going to hell in a handcart too). Whether you dabble with the kinds of nonfiction we see from Naomi Klein (On Fire) or David Wallace-Wells (Uninhabitable Earth), watch documentaries a la I Am Greta or This Changes Everything, dip your toe into the waters of dystopian fiction (I Am Monster, Gold Fame Citrus, The Road, Things We Didn’t See Coming) or simply, you know, watch the news – you’ll likely have an idea what I’m talking about. Jessie Greengrass (of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It and Sight) has contributed to this burgeoning fictional inlet with her latest, The High House.

What we have here is an arresting novel described by Max Porter as being “about the great crisis of our time” but played out in “an unconventional domestic drama performed on an intimate stage.” There are three narrators, Caro and Pauly (brother and sister) and Sally (provisionally a sort of guardian figure for the two children, along with her Grandy, who is the resident handy man and fixer of all things in a small village). Caro and Pauly’s mother Francesca is herself a sort of Naomi Klein figure, given to travelling here, there and everywhere, a Cassandra for the coming doom – but in the midst of her clarion calls she and her husband also work hard to create a sanctuary for her children in a house formerly owned by her uncle. The eponymous high house. Sally and her Grandy are drafted in to help make the place habitable for as far into the future as is humanly possible.

Just as Klein writes about her own children in her nonfiction, so we are told Francesca react to criticisms of her own parenthood with “a kind of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try and protect what she had found to love.” And yet still there are “moments when the outside world intruded” in a way that seemed “extraordinarily violent”:

“…photographs of people knee-deep in mud, of children lying in rows on mattresses, their eyes huge in their skulls…”

The heart of the book, really, is an attempt to foster “a small survival”, “a way to live which was not notable, which did not aspire but did not, either, take more than it put back, nor push off the cost of enterprise elsewhere, outsourcing, as we often did, our suffering.”

The novel darts back from an ostensible ‘now’, in which Caro, Sally and Pauly are older and have weather travails together, to take us through what led up to the establishment of their home against a backdrop of climatic unrest (“a set of circumstances which could have been prevented, once, but now had gone beyond repair”).

The High House certainly contributes to the sense that any right thinking person has, that we are, in various ways, in a parlous state, that we rely on often corrupt decision makers too busy stuffing their pockets (or decorating their official residences) to actually make a difference in a way that the future of the world might go on to hold them in high esteem for, making the rest of us somewhat helpless in the face of the ask.

Towards the close of the novel, Sally refers to the fact that “more and more of that which we have salvaged is exhausted, or lost, or starts to rot” and Pauly himself wonders what will happen when and if he is the only person left, and this reader wished Greengrass had done more with this. If we had been told the story of what led to the establishment of the High House and had a chance to view the other end, the end of their end, it’s possible The High House would have been exceptional indeed. As it is, it’s a good novel seeking to grapple with (as Max Porter says) the biggest question of our time, and it makes a good fist of things. There is just the slight, niggling feeling at the back of my mind that if the book were more equally weighted between the then and the now – and if the now had more to say than simply “all things tend towards their ruin” – it would be a bigger and bolder read. (One example of a bigger and bolder book would be Jim Crace’s Harvest, which imagines a rural setting far in the future, long after whatever tremors and aftershocks we are to experience as a race have come to an end.)

Peter Wild

Book Review: The Netanyahus

netanyahus

In recent years Fitzcarraldo Editions have been blurring the lines between fiction (blue covers) and non fiction (white covers). What is the difference when it comes to storytelling? Recollections, no matter how rigorously checked and cross referenced, will always be filtered through the lens and prejudices of the teller.

Joshua Cohen states clearly that The Netanyahus is a work of fiction, although featuring real people – some of whom are still alive – and inspired by events that actually happened to them. His interest in the episode around which the novel is constructed was piqued when the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, mentioned it during one of their regular conversations.

“the time he was asked to co-ordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess.”

One of the children, Benjamin, went on to become the youngest ever Israeli prime minister and the longest-serving head of state in the country’s history. This, however, is a footnote to the story Cohen tells of the father – the egotistical and aspiring academic.

Set in the winter of 1959/60, the tale is narrated by Rubin Blum, an historian on the tenure track at what was then still Corbin College. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith, and they have one daughter, Judith, who is applying for college. They are the first Jews to live in Corbindale.

“We were talked-down-to, deigned-to, patronized, studied. Our presence was a nuisance to some and a curiosity to all.”

The Netanyahus do not actually arrive until more than half-way into the book. Prior to this we have character introduction and scene setting, which I very much enjoyed reading. The writing is witty, pithy and cognisant. Cohen pokes fun at Jewish stereotypes, observant of tics, taking down the lazy confidence of the privileged who remain unaware – or unconcerned – about how they may come across to those they regard as beneath them yet will indulge to a limited degree.

Blum’s parents and parents-in-law feature. His mother-in-law is portrayed as the Jewish matriarch from hell – critical, competitive and domineering.

“She’s talk about concerts in terms of how expensive the tickets were and how much better her seats were than her friends’. She’d talk about art in terms of how much Walt had bid at auction and who against.”

Jewish men are portrayed as proud and intransigent, the scholars within the community ‘afflicted with the hubris of the wounded intelligentsia’, who feel regular work is ‘trivial and beneath him’. Politically, many were ‘men of the Left, or professed to be, though they were Marxists with the tastes of bourgeois.’

There are interesting details on the founding of Israel – the politics, history and infighting. These bring to light ingrained resentments. The older generation do what they can to bequeath these, to keep them alive. What is depicted is hatred inherent in the desire to keep Jews Jewish. I pondered if the people chose to be unhappy, if they were strangely happy nursing their malcontents.

Having built a strong backstory, the Netanyahus arrive at the Blums’ house during a snowstorm. Instead of being alone as expected, Ben-Zion brings his wife and three young sons. It becomes apparent that the whole family are badly house-trained. Carnage ensues. What had been verbal sparring – with strong doses of humour lightening the facts and opinion shared – descends into farce wrapped around imperious lecturing. The well-mannered Americans struggle to deal with a man wielding a massive ego and enormous dose of self-entitlement, who displays anger towards any who will not bow to his will.

“he felt underestimated, condescended to, demeaned. He felt insulted, he who’d delivered the insults and had come seeking favor.”

Ben-Zion’s lecture style is described as ‘touting his own delusions as definitive’. The transcripts provided here help explain how his sons turned out as they did.

This is a clever novel and will likely appeal to those who enjoy impressive linguistics within an engaging and entertaining tale. It mines tropes for their comedy, although I am on the fence as to whether I found the injections of humour funny or sad, focusing as they do on casual cruelty in conversation and other bad behaviour. What anyone finds funny will always be highly personal.

There were also elements I found disturbing. I assume Judith is around sixteen years old. She dislikes her Jewish nose so concocts a plan to enable her to access the surgery her family refuses to countenance. I worried for the trauma suffered by her grandparents as a result of her actions. Later in the story there is an interaction between her and the eldest Netanyahu child, Jonathan, who is three years Judith’s junior. The resulting scenes were slapstick but their basis remained inexplicable if not a worrying assault, on or by a child.

That said, I did enjoy this book for the insights it offers into Jewish attitudes and history. It may be yet another American male writing a campus novel, but the window it provides has enough originality and literary merit to make it a worthwhile read.

Book Review: The Atomics

atomics

“He knew he was feeling terrible because he wasn’t getting enough radiation. If he wanted to feel strong again, to have that same energy as when he had pummelled that stupid boy, he would have to replenish his supply. Top himself up, as it were.”

The world’s first nuclear power station to generate electricity for its nation’s grid started operations in 1954 at Obninsk in the Soviet Union. Other countries soon followed suit. The UK opened Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956. By 1968, when this story is set, there were ten operational nuclear power plants connected to the UK’s commercial grid.

The Atomics focuses on a community of scientists, engineers and supporting staff brought in to operate and manage a newly built power station on the Suffolk coast. The protagonist, Frank Banner, is a talented Chemistry graduate – educated at Cambridge – who believes nuclear energy is the future of clean and efficient power. Unlike many of his co-workers, he has no fear of contamination. Indeed, he believes low levels of radiation can be beneficial.

Frank has a troubled past. His father was a farmer and a brutal man who regularly beat his wife and only child. Frank’s mother had psychiatric issues and committed suicide when he was eighteen years old. The boy idolised her and hated his father. Frank believes young women deserve protection from self-entitled and predatory men.

The story opens in Oxford where Frank has narrowly escaped a prison sentence for savagely attacking a boy. The boy’s mother retaliates, leaving Frank with mental as well as physical scars. His employers, in an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, suggest redeployment to the isolated Seton One power station. Frank understands he has little choice if he wishes to continue working in a field he enjoys. Although at times she has considered leaving her husband, Frank’s wife, Gail, agrees to accompany him. She wants a child and hopes the move will be a fresh start for them all.

Gail and Frank move into a new-build bungalow by the sea, one of many identikit residences provided for the workers at the new power station. Across the road live Maynard and Judy Scott, and their two young children. Maynard is an engineer at the plant – a lecherous buffoon whose wife drinks to forget what her life has become. When not sunning herself on the beach, Gail spends gin-soaked afternoons with Judy. Meanwhile, Frank nurses his dislike of everything Maynard says and does.

Another work colleague, Anthony, is dating Alice, a pretty young nurse at Seton One’s health centre. Alice is a local girl whose father works at a boatyard – necessary for the fishing industry that provided the region’s main employment before the power plant was imposed on them. The looming and secretive building is treated with suspicion, as are its associated incomers. Alice views Anthony as a possible route out of what she regards as a tedious backwater that expects little of its women beyond housekeeping and motherhood.

“In the village, the men were really just boys. No – worse than that – they were just fools. They believed you had to stand up for yourself or be emasculated. But it was utter bollocks. In that single loving look from Gail, Alice had sensed a world outside the village, a world of more complicated thought patterns, of people who did not accept that life was simple. That was where she belonged.”

Frank is a fascinating, terrifying creation. He regards himself as a protector, a saviour, but must always tamp down the angry turbulence of his true thoughts and desires. When his past starts to haunt him, what self-control he can muster becomes ever more unravelled. To the women he appears better and more interesting than the Maynards of their world. Only Gail knows what her husband is capable of, although not how unstable his core has recently become. Like the fuel rods he works with, Frank requires cool containment and careful handling. With Gail’s thoughts focused on getting pregnant, she fails to notice her husband spiralling away.

A chain reaction is sparked when Maynard shows an interest in Alice. Frank, with his delusions of saving defenceless young women, sets out on a mission of protection that requires an act of destruction.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law. True in physics, true in life. If you sin, you will be punished. It was one of the undeniable rhythms to life. And if you are the one delivering the punishment, you will be rewarded.”

The insights into the history of nuclear power, especially early attitudes to safety and the risks of wider contamination, add interest to what is a tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche. The female characters may be granted greater emotional intelligence but are complicit in their acceptance of certain behaviours – perhaps typical for the time period.

The pacing is not that of a thriller but the plot contains many thrilling aspects. The author delves deep into dark character traits, how they are often downplayed to make daily life easier. Much could have been made of Frank’s upbringing but the reader is trusted to note connections. A deliciously chilling denouement provides an effective rounding off.

There are elements of horror within these pages that could induce nightmares. More horrific though is the recognisable willingness of the characters to ignore what they know to be damaging in order to keep their own lives secure. The power station setting adds originality to a portrayal of the dangers posed by damaged people. An unsettling tale I am happy to recommend.

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

I’m a stop on a blog tour! You may wish to check out these fine posts.

atomics blog tour poster

Book Review: Bitterhall

bitterhall

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law