Book Review: Ordinary People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I first came across Ordinary People at a book festival event where the author was one of the speakers on a panel. Here I learned that the story is centred in South London, near Crystal Palace, and is about two couples with children as they experience relationship crises. This didn’t sound like a book for me. Then it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside several other novels I have recently read and enjoyed. I decided to set aside my preconceptions and give it a go.

It is a book in two halves. I quickly became absorbed in the lives of the lead couple, Melissa and Michael. The role of the second couple, Damian and Stephanie, is significant to the plot but plays a more supporting role. The writing brought to mind a contemporary Jane Austin and I was duly impressed. It is an engrossing story offering understated insights into the ordinary issues and frustrations of family life. These are presented unvarnished but with a degree of sympathy. There is an added dash of humour to soften any darkness explored.

We are introduced to M&M (as a friend refers to them) at a party to celebrate Obama’s election. This is hosted by two brothers who used to live in North London but moved south as they

“were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually”

Their guest list featured

“all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew […] less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality”

Melissa and Michael are also moving – from their small flat to a house south of the river. They want a garden for their children to play in. Financial constraints lead to compromises so their new abode is far from ideal. The area suffers regular knife crime. The house is old and Melissa soon begins to sense malevolence.

Before this becomes a key issue there are growing problems in the M&M relationship. Melissa feels that her essence is being suffocated by the demands of motherhood and takes out her frustrations on Michael. He in turn is saddened that his beautiful and vital young partner has turned into this disdainful and inattentive shrew who is no longer interested in him sexually, an important aspect of their affinity in his view.

Melissa misses the professional working environment – although we later learn she is harbouring rose tinted memories – and rails against the mundane requirements of the daily care of small children. She feels guilt at her boredom and at how easily she falls into the competitive conversations typical amongst groups of mothers at the places she goes to escape the confines of her home. When Michael returns from work each evening he is berated for not doing more to ease Melissa’s burden. Pointing out that he has to work to support them fuels her anger.

All this is portrayed in: bus journeys, visits to a park and soft play emporiums, meetings between friends. These friends include Damian and Stephanie who we are introduced to at their home in Dorking. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie adores motherhood and would be content were it not for her husband’s perceived obdurateness. Damian resents that they moved out of London – he misses the buzz of the city. His father died recently and this has affected him more than he realises. Added to this he harbours hidden feelings for Melissa.

There is an amusing scene when Stephanie’s parents attend one of their “monthly in-lawed roasts”. Stephanie’s father offers passive aggressive advice, making clear that Damian is not good enough for his princess. Although Stephanie defends him, Damian silently agrees.

“had he really fallen in love at all? Was it just that she had made him feel adequate and dynamic, that she was focused and forthright in her plans for her life when he was not”

At around halfway through the book I realised that the perceptive, amusing and dynamic pace had slowed and my interest was waning. When the pace picked up again the tone felt more soap opera than penetrative. There are arguments and foolish reactions. The couples splinter and reconcile. It is smoothly written but lacking the verve of the earlier portrayal.

A group holiday adds interest before the focus returns to London and Melissa’s growing fears centred on her house – the effect she is convinced it is having on her daughter. Michael is struggling to reconcile the woman Melissa has become with the woman he fell in love with.

The denouement is neatly achieved but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed. The initial potential – that elegant capturing of the nuances of modern coupledom, of parenting in the 21st century – was not sustained.

Throughout the story there are references to music that I could not appreciate as I knew few of the artists and do not listen to those whose names I recognised. I am guessing that this will appeal more to readers whose age better fits the protagonists (late thirties). The author has created a playlist for those interested.

Near the end of the narrative Michael Jackson dies. This bookending with celebration and then grief over well known people of colour fits with one of the themes explored – the differences in lived experience of the dark and light skinned British from the professional classes.

Any Cop?: I’m not going to condemn what is a well constructed and generally satisfactory read. The first half exceeded my expectations and made me glad to have picked up the book. The second half denied it the status of modern classic.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Flotsam

Flotsam, by Meike Ziervogel, tells the story of a mother and her daughter, both of whose lives have been shaped by loneliness and loss. They live in a remote cottage close to mud flats on the German North Sea coast where dykes enable human habitation. The mother, Anna, is an artist processing grief by collecting debris washed up by each tide. Her daughter, Trine, plays on a shipwreck on the shore but is reaching an age when such games must be left behind.

The story opens in the early 1950s with an accident. Trine is climbing down from the broken and stranded ship to reach the body of her brother, Carl. He has just fallen from the rope ladder and she knows that he is dead but is afraid of the fuss her mother will make when she finds out. Trine remembers the wailing and crockery throwing that followed her father’s death and burial. She wishes to give Carl a pirate’s send-off, burning his body to ensure he cannot wake up in a box underground.

Trine has recently befriended two of the popular girls at her school and does not wish to lose this unexpected chance to fit in socially. Unlike them, Trine’s body has yet to form the curves that the boys who hang around with them admire. When one of the boys appears to notice her, Trine determines to outmanoeuvre the competition, whatever that may take.

The second half of the book focuses on Anna. She rescues a drowning man from the waves, taking him home to nurse him better despite the stones she found in his pockets. Anna rarely sees strangers. She has grown used to a life of solitude, endured since she moved to the coast at the outbreak of the war. Anna’s husband, Otto, owned the cottage and moved her there from Berlin to keep her and their young son safe from aerial bombardment. Otto was supportive of Anna’s art but did not offer the passion and excitement she had expected when they married.

As the war progresses, Anna seeks her own adventures. Meanwhile, her son grows, eager to fight for his country alongside the peers who are now regarded as heroes, for the victory they have been taught is assured.

The writing has a dark and haunting quality yet there is much beauty in its concise construction. The story ebbs and flows with the ghosts of the past and the effects of the isolated location. Both Trine and Anna show a resolve that can be unsettling, beguiling – perhaps because young women are not expected to behave as they do.

An astute and arresting tale that brought to mind the disturbance caused on reading Wyl Menmuir’s The ManyThe denouement is poignant yet fitting, an affecting reaction to untold grief.

“She used to wonder what kind of art she might have been able to make if grief hadn’t cornered her, deprived her of images, of thoughts, of language, of visions. And all that she had left to do was to roam the mudflats, collecting flotsam and jetsam. Waiting.”

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

Book Review: Snegurochka

Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, is a claustrophobic, multi-layered tale that offers a window into life in Kiev shortly after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in the aftermath of its dissolution. The story focuses on a young mother, Rachel, who travels from England with her infant son to join her journalist husband, Lucas, in the city where he works on a freelance basis for the BBC. The little family move into an apartment on the thirteenth floor of a Soviet era tower block. Isolated by language and the demands of a young baby, Rachel develops compulsive coping strategies. She pictures herself dropping the child from the apartment balcony so refuses to go near it, much to the frustration of Lucas who chose the apartment partly for this feature. He struggles to see the woman he married in the withdrawn mother she has become.

Lucas enjoys the company of colleagues in Kiev who welcome Rachel but cannot empathise with her as they do not have children. The local people question why she brought a baby from a country of plenty to what they regard as a blighted place. The Chernobyl disaster has caused ongoing cancers and other birth defects. There are shortages of fresh produce and concern over its provenance given how much land has been polluted. When Rachel does not conform to their customs, they criticise the way she cares for her child.

With shortages of food and material goods comes an underground network of smugglers, gangsters and fixers. Memories of widespread famine, then of Soviet spies and betrayal, are still raw amongst the population. Rachel has asked Lucas to source a washing machine for their apartment but money is tight and such white goods imported. To acquire one requires more than a monetary transaction.

Rachel walks around the neighbourhood pushing her baby buggy and trying to work out where and how items may be bought. She attends a few social events with Lucas and his friends but finds little in common with these photographers and journalists, vying for their next story and milking contacts. Instead she observes local people: the elderly caretaker of their building, a teenager living in the apartment above, her husband’s driver. They each have their secrets and are somewhat contemptuous of Rachel but grow concerned when a ‘businessman’ starts to pay her attention.

The subtle shifts between ordinary actions – reading a book, catching a tram, walking through a crowd – and the threatening undercurrents that are ever present, provide not just suspense but a questioning of the veracity of each character. Rachel is aware that many of her fears have no solid basis, yet cancers are not the only malady infecting Ukraine’s people. The dangers encroaching those she starts to care for are rooted deep, exacerbated by their need to survive after futures have been stymied by changes in government, ongoing corruption and the resentments generated.

This is a fascinating portrayal of Kiev and its people, written with skill, depth and sympathy but never shying away from darker facets. At its heart is the story of a marriage, of motherhood, and of a place contaminated by its terrible history. It is an alluring and gratifying read.

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

Book Review: The Strawberry Thief

“life is on loan, and all the things we find on the way – lovers, children, happiness – have to be given back in the end.”

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris, is the fourth book in a series that started twenty years ago with Chocolat. It is gently paced but with an underlying darkness, a hint of magic unleashing powers difficult to control. At the story’s centre is a young girl whose independence has been stymied by her mother’s love. The instinct to protect generates fear – for the future of parent as much as child. In many ways this is a coming of age tale across two generations. It is about a need for self-determination and finding the strength to let go.

Vianne Rocher is running her chocolaterie in the sleepy French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, living above the shop with her sixteen year old daughter, Rosette. Her older daughter, Anouk, is now in Paris with her boyfriend and is much missed. Rosette’s father, Roux, remains in his barge moored on the Tannes, restless but still a part of the family’s lives. The residents of Lansquenet are little changed – older of course but still thriving on gossip and its cause. Some changes though are inevitable – time cannot be held still, even here.

The story opens a week into Lent with the death of Narcisse, who owns the flower shop opposite the chocolaterie. His daughter is incensed to discover that he has left a patch of woodland to Rosette. Vianne’s younger daughter is regarded as a simpleton because she cannot speak in a way others can understand and is often restless when frustrated. Her skills at drawing go unregarded despite the stories they tell.

“Maman always says that stories are what keep us alive; the stories people tell us, and scatter like thistledown on the wind. And stories are all that’s left when we’re gone”

Narcisse leaves his story to the local priest, Reynaud, who struggles to read the hand written pages bequeathed with anything other than fear over what they may reveal about him. Since he was a young boy Reynaud has carried a terrible secret. If revealed he believes the life he has built in Lansquenet will be destroyed.

Told from the points of view of Reynaud, Vianne and Rosette, the ripples created by the old man’s death bring with them adjustments to the village dynamic that Vianne vehemently resists. Once a free agent, travelling with the wind, she is now fearful that the roots she has put down will not be enough to hold her daughters within her sphere. Anouk may have moved away but Vianne plans to hold fast to Rosette by whatever means necessary.

When a stranger sets up a business in the old flower shop, Vianne senses a challenge to her powers. Rosette, along with many of the villagers, is drawn to the stranger and what she can offer them. Vianne can see only a threat to Rosette’s continuing need for her. She vows to drive the stranger away and seeks allies.

The story unfolds around the strands of love, fear, greed and tolerance. Scattered between the present day happenings is the text of Narcisse’s history, gradually told and adding depth. There are obvious comparisons but mostly this older story offers an understanding of the long term repercussions of even the best intended actions.

A story of parents and their children; about the power shifts across generations; of clipping the wings of those who live with a need to soar.

Beautifully written with rich descriptions, especially of chocolate and the magic it can generate. This is a darkly delicious and emotionally satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Shitstorm

Shitstorm, by Fernando Sdrigotti, is the first in a series of pocket sized novelettes from Open Pen. It offers a wickedly entertaining take-down of contemporary attention spans and media fuelling of public outrage. Although a work of fiction it is built around actual events and the associated input from bizarrely popular public commentators. As well as being witty this story is vexingly accurate in its observations.

The opening sequence tells the tale of an American dentist who travels to Zimbabwe to kill animals for his own skewed pleasure. He ends up causing the death of a protected lion named Cyril who was much loved by wealthy celebrities. Newspapers and social media soon pick up the story and the hunter becomes prey. Hashtags trend and column inches fill with barely considered click bait opinions. A shitstorm is generated.

The dentist and his family receive death threats and require relocation and police protection.

“So maybe it was about his stupidity, maybe it always boils down to people doing stupid things, being incredibly stupid all the time, or just once, being stupid at the wrong moment. And our never-ending hunger for content.”

The outrage goes on for days, building momentum, airtime and petitions, until a bomb goes off in the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International. The President of the United States of America uses this latest tragedy to spread his message of hatred and fear of Islam. The dentist is forgotten as commentators turn their attention to garnering supporters for whatever message they wish to peddle.

“Some of us have changed our avators to one with the Union Jack or a photo of Big Ben while others have chosen a black square while others did nothing. Many of us have announced ourselves safe over Facebook while others have articulated in the strongest terms that we are against doing this, in order not to play at the hands of the terrorists, whoever these might be. And of course all of us are now policing people’s reactions to an atrocity, as is the tradition these days.”

A mosque in Birmingham is petrol bombed. A driver attempts to run over a group of young Muslim girls in Milton Keynes. Then a blogger from Archway goes viral after news breaks that she is making bread from her own vaginal yeast and selling it.

“now we can all stop thinking about bombs for a while”

And so it goes on: the patriarchy, Holocaust, transphobia, terrorism, conspiracy theories, the President of the United States of America accused of sexual harassment – there is always another shitstorm with its requisite opinion pieces in newspapers and on social media. Judgements are quickly made, written about and shared. Boycotts of companies are supported by people who never bought from them anyway. Insults are exchanged when points of view are not openly agreed with. Then everyone moves on to the next happening.

The denouement of this little tale is neatly executed by looking at what happens to those in the eye of the storm after public attention diverts from them. I was amused by the addition of a Russian connection.

In fact I was wryly amused by this entire book and its depiction of how easily so many are being manipulated. Wanting change in this world is understandable, armchair activism smugly comforting, but proper understanding of issues and their wider repercussions is vanishingly rare.

An intelligent and quirky little book that may (or may not) make readers reconsider their reaction to whatever shitstorm comes next. Astute and entertaining, but also important in its cogency, this is a recommended read.

Shitstorm is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: Above the Fat

Above the Fat, by Thomas Chadwick, is a collection of eleven short stories, a few of which are just a page or two in length. They tell of people inhabiting places where they do not feel satisfied or comfortable. They offer snapshots of lives that have not panned out as once envisaged.

The opening story, A train passes through the Ruhr region in the early morning, recounts a journey as a list of items or places viewed along the way. There is little commentary, although what there is had me laughing out loud by the end.

This segues effortlessly into Birch which tells the story of Stuart who is managing a timber yard in the late 1990s. Having inherited the well established business from his father, Stuart gradually instigates changes. There is a whisper of tension running throughout as the reader awaits his downfall. Not everything happens as expected.

And the Glass Cold Against His Face plays out over five minutes during which a window cleaner clings to a ledge eighty floors up from street level. Discovering he is not alone precipitates several awkward exchanges. It is a scenario that is unlikely to end well.

Purchase presents the difficulties inherent in finding clothes or food that meet expectations. Customers accept such disappointments, complaining to each other later. The couple involved cannot seem to navigate seemingly simple decisions yet readers will recognise what is depicted.

Stan, Standing is the story of a man preparing to attend his brother’s wedding. He does not appear to be looking forward to the event and, as excerpts from the family history are revealed, the reasons become clear.

Death Valley Junction is set in an American diner where a hungry traveller is waiting to be fed.

“Five people, four burgers. This one must be his. He stared out the window across the flat sand that shuddered in the midday heat. Breathed. Waited.”

A Sense of Agency and Red Sky at Night both deal with climate change. The former portrays a flooded London and a man still in denial, despite the water lapping at his feet. The latter has its protagonist allowing any pleasure in life to be drained by his determination to partake in some form of penance.

Bill Mathers is a list detailing a novelist, critic and angler’s views on fish, family and famous writers. Little is flattering.

Above the Fat is the story of a chef who returns to his childhood home after years spent acquiring fashionable skills around the world. He takes a job at a local hostelry and attempts to introduce clientele to the joys of good food. In the time it takes him to fry the perfect egg he contemplates the reasons he has ended up in a place where the locals eschew his flavoursome dishes, demanding simple burgers cooked to their tastes.

The collection closes with a half page description of The Beach at Oostende on a December evening. It is evocative and lingering.

The writing throughout has a haunting undercurrent. There is pathos in characters abandonment of their younger selves. Shadowed situations engender empathy and recognition. In both the ordinary and the more surreal, simple actions lead to disturbance. Much is contained and elicited within each sentence; years of experience captured within fleeting reactions.

This entirely enjoyable collection offers depth and emotive complexity. It is an original and satisfying read.

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

Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

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