Book Review: A Jealous Tide

A Jealous Tide, by Anna MacDonald, is an elusory and richly evocative tale of people whose anchors to their small worlds prove inadequate for the shifting tides they face as life progresses. Narrated by an academic based in Melbourne, who is looking back on a winter spent in London, the prose is deeply embedded in her sense of place. Family, friends and other acquaintances are occasionally mentioned but mostly the story focuses on the narrator’s reaction to the stimuli of her surroundings – both immediate and awash with memory. 

Opening in Melbourne, the first few chapters set the scene. She feels a ‘familiar restlessness’ so books a flight to Heathrow. There follow several months during which she prepares for her extended break. She shares significant events from her backstory. She walks to calm unease, often by a river or down to the sea. Water is a recurring theme, both the comfort it offers and the danger it brings.

Enmeshed within the academic’s personal story is that of an RAF Lieutenant who died in the winter of 1919 from injuries sustained rescuing a woman from the River Thames. He had survived the war. The narrator speculates that the woman was broken by grief due to the conflict.

The narrator sets out to explore how lives are affected by trauma, especially those saved from suicide attempts. Starting with studies into shipwrecks – those who drowned and those rescued – she becomes engrossed in finding out what effect this has on the remaining years before death.

“I wanted to know what happened to these men who had been made strangers to the known world by their time cast away.”

In London, the narrator bases herself in Hammersmith – as she has done on previous visits. She walks the streets and along the Thames. She indulges in mudlarking, taking items found back to her bedsit to clean and examine before returning many to the river. In her turbulent imagination she gives these fragments stories, augmented by the research she undertakes at the British Library and Wellcome Collection.


Plaque to the Lieutenant on Hammersmith Bridge (currently closed)

The imagined story of the soldier who died and the woman he rescued add tension to the present day narrative. The characters are imbued with unsettling emotions, similar to those sometimes felt by the narrator.

“struggling for breath in the tourniquet of surrounding streets”

“the woman draws her two arms across the empty cavity of her chest”   

The impact on soldiers of being sent to war – the horrific actions and experiences they must accept there – segue with those who have survived shipwreck. 

“These men have been adrift in an inhumane place. But their real misfortune, it seemed, was to return from there.”

The many ‘stories of the drowned’ she collects leave the narrator feeling unanchored – a ‘sense of loss’ and a ‘creeping calcification’. She copes by introducing strict routines to her days. She considers her life as that which has

“already passed: the places already passed through, the people already passed by”

“the present could be felt only as the varying weather on my shoulders, as a shifting breeze or the welcome warmth of the sun.”

Water was where man came from and, in the narrator’s research, to which many will return. The small items collected from the Thames mud are all that now remain of those who once passed through the city. She is drawn especially to a fragment that bears markings resembling a map – reminding her of the streets she walks repeatedly and the life lines on her palm.

There are references to literature and films (I had to use Google) along with mentions of places of historic interest in the Hammersmith area (I am familiar with the location so could enjoy these). Mostly though the prose is a lavish array of imagery – never cloying, at times disturbing due to the ever present riptide of death.

This is an impressive piece of writing that pulls together a story of displacement and the struggle to survive life’s challenges. An intense but deeply satisfying read.  

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

Book Review: Waiting for Nothing

“Everything else has been taken away from him, or might be taken at any minute: work, money, food, a place to sleep, friends, lovers, freedom, life. None of these things can be assured. All are at the mercy of the economic system”

Waiting for Nothing, by Tom Kromer, was first published in 1935, republished in 1968, and is now the first novel to come out from a new imprint – the common breath. You may find out more here about why they are ‘bringing a neglected work, a “genuine literary classic”, back to at least some form of prominence in this country’.

The story follows a man, Tom, who has been left destitute by America’s Great Depression. It is a stark and deeply affecting tale of a life devoid of hope, and yet the narrator  – it is written in the first person – struggles on, fighting against the odds to survive. Each chapter chronicles one aspect of Tom’s daily, troubling experiences over the course of several years.

The voice adopted has a vernacular that serves to set the down and outs – the ‘stiffs’ – apart from those who can still afford food, shelter, and clothing that keeps them warm and dry.

The stiffs spend their time trying to acquire the few cents needed to pay for a meagre meal and a dirty bunk in a flop house. The parks are full of those who fail in this endeavour and must bed down, whatever the weather, on a newspaper covered bench. Many turn to the ‘missions’ – churches that serve bad stew, made from going off food, and a lice ridden bed in exchange for attendance at a lengthy religious service where the starving will be exhorted to turn to Jesus Christ. Anyone complaining will be told they harbour Satan and then banished to the streets.

What is being presented is a graphic picture of the life Tom is leading, with no prospect of change. He is hungry and cold – carrying an ache in his empty belly on feet barely covered by falling apart shoes. He exists on the margins of a society that chooses to turn away from the discomfort of the destitute in their midst. Many blame the vagrants for their predicament, ignoring the fact that not enough jobs exist for them to earn their keep.

Tom reaches a point where he can see no way forward other than to break the law – planning an attack on a man with money in his wallet, or holding up a bank. Should Tom be caught he may be killed by the police, which would, he considers, at least be an end to his suffering. It is clear that a man in such circumstances places little value on life. And yet the deaths he observes – the starved, hypothermic, suicidal – still affect him.

The police treat the ‘stiffs’ with violence and contempt. On a cold wet night, when several are sleeping in an empty building, the police arrest them for trespass. Wherever the desperate and hungry gather they are moved on, despite having nowhere they can go that is more acceptable.

Long lines of grey and sunken people, kept queuing for hours outside a mission, are gawped at by passers by – a dehumanised spectacle that serves to make the church appear compassionate.

Both men and women offer sexual favours for the chance of a warm meal and a bed. Sometimes the vagrants help each other when they have found food or shelter, but there are also those who will take even the few cents available via force and threats.

The breaks Tom tells of are few: a friend offering a space on the floor of his room on a cold night, a woman offering to cook the scant food they have bartered and will share. Attacks feature more regularly – from both the authorities and the unhinged. Tom goes begging in restaurants and from those who look to have plenty. Mostly he is rejected – a pest people wish to eradicate from their vicinity.

Tom travels by jumping on board moving, freezing trains – a dangerous pursuit but the only way to try for better elsewhere. Wherever he stops there is rejection.

The writing is taut and visceral – somehow vividly detached yet also deeply personal. There is deliberate repetition in the narration that brings home how desperate Tom’s situation remains. The events he recounts are horrific in the cruelty inflicted and threats faced. Given the times we are currently living through I can only hope this tale is not prescient.

A powerful evocation of life amongst those most damaged by a widespread economic downturn. It is a timely reminder to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves if reduced to similar circumstances – a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, the common breath

Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

Robyn Reviews: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

addie

Some books are impossible to capture in mere words. It’s ironic – after all, words are all that form the book in the first place – but no other words can quite create the same brilliance, the same beauty, the same resonance. How do you capture transcendence with twenty-six little letters? VE Schwab has found the answer – but I can’t fathom how to possibly do her work justice.

‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ is the best book VE Schwab has ever written. It’s a masterwork – a feat of wordcraft so exquisite it’s hard to imagine creating anything better. Every sentence is gorgeously constructed, every metaphor lands true, and every word is heartbreaking – heartbreaking because it brings you closer to the end. Addie has made a deal with the devil to live forever, and books like this show you why we all fear the curtain coming down.

“Were the instants of joy worth the stretches of sorrow? Were the moments of beauty worth the years of pain? And she turns her head, and looks at him, and says ‘Always’.”

Adeline LaRue is born in rural France in 1691. She’s a dreamer, a free spirit, always looking beyond the borders of her village – but she’s a girl, and girls are not allowed to dream. Girls must go to church, and obey their betters, and learn to be wives for their future husbands, and look after their households, and bear their children. Bound to a future she doesn’t want, Adeline looks for escape – but every dream has its price, and she doesn’t know the true cost until it’s too late.

Adeline can have her freedom – but only by giving up herself.

“The last, brittle thread to her old life has broken, and Addie has been set well, and truly, and forcibly free.”

Addie is the perfect protagonist. Sharp and quick, she’s the girl who dreams of more – and is also stubborn and determined enough to find it. Forced into dreadful situations, she still manages to find a light in the dark; a reason to go on. More than that – even as her life is treated like the plaything of others, she digs in her heels and wrenches it into the shape she needs. Addie will never back down, never admit defeat, never give up control. She has moments of weakness, of despair, of fear – but she knows that there are many better days to come, and she holds out for them like an old tree, bent and battered by the storm but still standing when the sun returns.

 “If she must grow roots, she would rather be left to flourish wild instead of pruned, would rather stand alone, allowed to grow beneath the open sky. Better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.”

Henry is the opposite – the man who feels too much, and doesn’t know what to do with all these emotions that refuse to let him be. He’s the perfect counterpoint – the racing hurricane to Addie’s steadfast tree, the raging fire to Addie’s cold pool. He’s a dreamer too – but where Addie’s dreams are a tether, his are a maze. Addie’s response to running out of time is to find more of it. Henry’s response is to do more, always more, falling into a panicked spiral until everything falls apart.

Addie’s devil? He’s the dark shadow following you home at night. The menacing maw of the corridor before you flick on the light. He’s endless, timeless, and just when Addie thinks she knows him he demonstrates just how far from a mere human evil he is. She can name him, claim him, blame him – but the darkness cannot be tamed. When everything else fades, the darkness is all that remains.

“You think it will get easier. It will not. You are as good as gone, and every year you live will feel a lifetime, and in every lifetime, you will be forgotten. Your pain is meaningless. Your life is meaningless. The years will be like weight around your ankles. They will crush you, bit by bit, and when you cannot stand it, you will beg me to put you from your misery.”

The plot marches forward like the inexorable march of time. The perspective alternates – Addie now, in New York, versus Addie as she was, learning to navigate her strange half-existence – together weaving a narrative so vibrant, so emotional, you never want to leave. This is a book that could be read over and over and adored more every time. Several of the twists I guessed, but this didn’t lessen their impact – if anything, it highlighted it, their direction as inevitable as the ticking of the clock, the passing of the seasons. Everything comes crashing down eventually – all good things must end.

This story has worked its way into my soul. Calling it a favourite doesn’t even do justice to its impact. It’s less a book and more of an experience – a temporary passage to somewhere greater than here.

If you want to read a story that speaks to your soul, read this book. Read it, and marvel how much beauty can be created with simple words.

“She leans back against him, as if he is the umbrella, and she is the one in need of shelter. And Henry holds his breath, as if that will keep the sky aloft. As if that will keep the days from passing.

As if that will keep it all from falling down.”

Published by Titan Books
Hardback: 6th October 2020

Book Review: Orfeia

“There’s wisdom in an old wives’ tale, and magic in a story.”

Orfeia, by Joanne M. Harris, is the third of the author’s folklore-inspired novellas. Like the previous two – A Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road – it is beautifully illustrated throughout by Bonnie Helen Hawkins. Based on two Child Ballads – Ballad 2: The Elphin Knight, and Ballad 19: King Orfeo – it is also a reworking of the Orpheus myth.

The protagonist is Fay, a widowed mother who is now grieving the death of her daughter, Daisy. The story tells of her journey through modern London to London Beyond and then London Beneath. She seeks an audience with the Hallowe’en King.

While out running one evening, Fay is shown a vision of her daughter, asleep in a bed of bluebells. She enters a liminal world, where strange songs seem familiar and guises change. Whatever the warnings, she will risk all to travel to the Kingdom of Death to barter for Daisy’s release.

The gossamer world created is both fabulous and fearsome. Fay cannot know who to trust, nor what price must be paid for the answers she seeks. There is beauty in abundance, to delight each of the senses, but it is used as a distraction by those whose aim is manipulation. The Kings Fay encounters may not be entirely cold-hearted but their aims remain selfish.

Fay’s nebulous grasp of how to navigate through the world of Fae is made more difficult when her memories start to fade. To conclude her quest she must answer riddles, harness the power of music, and unravel dreams. The concepts of time and reality grow ever more equivocal.

The writing style is perfectly calibrated to weave the world of a modern fairy tale whilst retaining the darkness inherent in the genre’s long history. Unlike many contemporary equivalents, moralising is limited to understated warnings over consequences. The language is rich with a plot that remains compelling.

The book is beautifully bound and contains artwork that deserves full attention.

Imaginative and uncanny, this is a tale of a mother’s love – and its cost – from a consistently adept storyteller.

Orfeia is published by Gollancz. 

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

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

Book Review: Postcard Stories 2

Postcard Stories 2, by Jan Carson (illustrated by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-eight short stories that were originally written on postcards and mailed by the author to lucky recipients. I was one of them, although I was unaware that ‘my’ story was to be included until I started to read the book.

The tales told are poignant and funny and oh so redolent of the human condition. Carson cleverly and succinctly captures her characters’ thoughts and idiosyncrasies with signature wit and nuance.

A number of the stories standout for their first lines.

“There are tiny, mythical creatures living behind the muesli boxes in the cereal aisle of Connswater Tesco”

“The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has come back from the dead to enjoy a midwinter break in the English seaside resort of Brighton.”

“Last Friday I decided to visit the Library of Mistakes in Edinburgh, Scotland.”

Having drawn the reader in with the promise of a deliciously imaginative tale these do not disappoint.

Other stories leave the reader delighted with a last line that so perfectly concludes an apparently simple tale, adding resonance.

“The thought of one space inhabited by another made sense to me then, like matryoshka dolls, or the way I’d been brought up to believe there was a home inside my heart and that if Jesus wasn’t living there someone else would move in.”

I preferred the stories set in Northern Ireland to those from America as I more readily recognised the concerns and foibles of those being observed. Carson rarely mocks, preferring an understated sympathy towards those who act as they do because this is as it has always been where they are, even if rarely acknowledged. She is particularly good at observing the elderly as fully rounded individuals with long lives featuring both joy and regret – with perhaps an added dose of irritation towards situations they encounter.

I do, of course, have favourites from the collection.

Anaghmakerrig features writers on a retreat, some of whom decide to swim in a cold and muddy lake one afternoon.

“Secretly, the non-swimming writers felt pissed with themselves because once again they had not fully embraced the moment. They wondered, as they often wondered, if this inbuilt reticence was to blame for their writing, which rarely seemed to fulfil its own potential.”

Edinburgh is set at another gathering of artists and explores the difficulty they find socialising at events.

“Patrick cradles a plateful of cheese and hummus, wondering when it will be acceptable to dispense with the niceties and begin sketching each of the attendees in nervous biro.”

Belmont Road, East Belfast lists certain true expressions of love.

  • That one time you stood up to your mother for me” 

There are many others. Some focus on the quiet wish to be a part of something while recognising personal unsuitability. Others look at those who are already part of a group and wonder why they are there amongst people they do not particularly like or feel in any way akin to.

Kells tells the story of a grandmother, a weaver of linen, who was regarded as unremarkable yet could have told of a rich history had interest been shown.

It is this ability to excavate the rich seam running through ordinary lives that adds flavour and depth to the author’s writing. In these short snapshots, her ability to play with an original idea, exploring the effects of the day to day on people who often go unnoticed, that come to the fore.

I must also mention the illustrations scattered throughout the text.


The poet who has forgotten his spectacles and misses out on an interesting visitation.


The children asked to dress up as a character from the bible for a church party.

A collection to dip into and reread for the pleasure of the prose. It is also a reminder that people are far more interesting than the stereotype they may at first appear to conform to.

Postcard Stories 2 is published by The Emma Press.

 

Book Review: The Nacullians

The Nacullians are three generations of a working class family who live in an ex-council house in southern England. The city they inhabit is across the water from the Isle of White. The family took a ferry to the island once but then weren’t sure why.

Nandad and Patrice escaped Northern Ireland in the 1950s, for reasons shadowed by time and later told only for effect. They subsequently had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Bernard followed his Dad into the building trade, apprenticing as a bricklayer. Shannon fell pregnant when she was fifteen thanks to the attentions of the local, married, chip shop owner. Her son, Greg, is the only Nacullian grandchild.

The family are introduced in the excellent opening chapter. It runs at breakneck pace and is almost vicious in its humour. Remaining chapters then provide explanations, focusing on key events in the lives of family members. There are interludes to enable the reader to understand the city and how it helped shape its working class inhabitants’ characters.

“Some people here in the city don’t have a sufficiently well-developed sense of identity, so they have to hate someone to get a sense of who they aren’t”

The story is very far from those more typical tales of family pulling together, or even the misery stories of hunger or abuse. The Nacullians go about their lives with habitual acceptance, displaying disdain for each other more often than love in any guise. When, later in her life, Shannon loses the ability to talk in any understandable way due to a series of strokes, it becomes apparent that none of the family have ever understood each other anyway. Communication is limited to necessity. Anything further – any show of emotion beyond irritation – would likely be met with blank incredulity.

The menfolk are determined to be what they consider ‘real men’. They are casually racist, sexist and brutal towards outsiders. The women expect nothing better, only rarely rocking the boat by desiring change. While habits and behaviours may be unpleasant, what is presented is done with a dark humour and sharp realism.

The writing is both piercing and entertaining. It is hard to admire the individual Nacullians but still the author evokes a degree of sympathy. The story is told by a narrator who keeps their distance, making no attempt to read thoughts or delve into emotion that is not obvious from action. This detached style works well as the characters would likely be horrified at the idea of being seen as soft or compromised. Survival has required personal strength akin to the bricks of which their small house is built. Sometimes these have to be thrown at perceived enemies.

The tale spans the decades from the 1950s to the present day. The Nacullians drift through their lives with little energy or appetite for change. Politics and the wider issues of the day go unmentioned. Their interests are insular, habitual and rarely questioned.

Despite discomfort at some of these attitudes – redolent of many, however horrifying Guardian readers may find this – the story remained wry and compelling. There is a warmth towards his subjects alongside the author’s uncompromising depiction. It is a reminder that not everyone believes their lives require improvement.

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

Robyn Reviews: Imperfect Women

Imperfect Women is a character study of three women – Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary – who met at university thirty years ago and have been best friends ever since. None of their lives have gone in the direction they envisaged, and none of them are particularly happy. The novel is split into thirds – Eleanor’s point of view, then Nancy’s, then Mary’s – and we get to know each woman from their own perspective and the perspective of those closest to them. Naturally, these differ significantly. They’re all flawed, brilliantly human characters, and whilst I disagree with many of their actions I love how real they always feel.

The novel starts with Eleanor receiving a phone call from Nancy’s husband, Robert. Eleanor has always been close to Nancy’s family – she has no partner or children of her own, choosing to focus on her career – but receiving a phone call at 4am is still unusual. Robert is concerned as Nancy has not returned home after having dinner with Eleanor. Eleanor drives to Robert’s house and confesses that Nancy has been having an affair and went to meet her lover after the dinner. Robert is shocked – and shock turns to horror when the police suddenly arrive. Nancy’s body has been found by the river in Hammersmith, and suddenly the bubble of normality which Eleanor’s been living in for the past thirty years shatters. Nancy’s death sets in motion a chain of events which expose every crack in Eleanor, Nancy, and Mary’s lives – and by extension, the lives of those closest to them.

This is a character study, so I don’t want to give too much away about these characters. I adore them, even though on paper they might not always seem pleasant. At first, they seem like three stereotypes – Eleanor, the woman who sacrificed everything else for her career; Nancy, the woman who married into money and never had enough to be satisfied; Mary, the woman who gave everything up to raise her children and doesn’t know who she is without them any more – but as the story unfolds they become so much more. Eleanor is probably my favourite, possibly because – as a twenty-something student – I find her easiest to relate to, but Nancy and Mary are also captivating in a different way. Their lives are car crashes, but you can’t look away.

“Women on this world are expected to conform, though it doesn’t seem like that any more. You can be many things in this life, but a dissatisfied woman isn’t one of them.”

The supporting cast – Nancy’s husband Robert and daughter Zara, Eleanor’s elderly neighbour Irena, and Mary’s husband Howard and children Marcus, Maisie, and Millie – have varying degrees of importance depending on the perspective at the time. Robert and Howard especially get a great deal of screen time, and it’s fascinating to see how each character views them differently. I dislike both of them – Howard especially – but given the lens through which they are viewed this is almost inevitable. In contrast, I had a huge amount of sympathy for Marcus – his life is a disaster, but at heart he’s a vulnerable child who truly cares about those around him, which is more than can be said for most of the cast.

“We should learn to find comfort in the fact that everyone’s got their own sadnesses.”

I find it much harder to discover contemporaries that I’ll love than I do science fiction and fantasy novels – and on paper, a novel about three women in their fifties undergoing mid-life crises shouldn’t appeal to me, but for whatever reason I loved this. The writing is excellent, and the characters are so believable you wouldn’t question meeting them on the street. Every terrible decision they make seems perfectly justifiable in their eyes, and you can believe that events would actually unfold this way in real life.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a character-driven story.

 

Published by Orion
Hardback: 20th August 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill

The Killing’s at Kingfisher Hill was my first introduction to Sophie Hannah’s ‘New Hercule Poirot Mysteries’, although I’ve always been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s originals. I was pleasantly surprised how similar the voice was to Christie’s. Continuing the legacy of an author after their death is a difficult line to walk, but I can see why Christie’s estate have allowed Hannah to continue to write about Poirot.

The story opens with a luxury coach trip. Poirot and his loyal companion, Scotland Yard’s Detective Catchpole, have been summoned to investigate the murder of Frank Davenport by his brother, Richard, at Kingfisher Hill. Richard’s fiancé, Helen, has confessed to the murder – but Richard is adamant that his fiancé is innocent. She is due to be hanged in ten days, so Poirot must act quickly to identify the correct killer. However, the drama starts on the coach, with a woman declaring that she has received death threats for sitting in a certain seat, and a different woman confessing to Poirot that she herself has previously killed a man – and gotten away with it.

As with all Poirot stories, the facts seem murky, with many disjointed players and occurrences, but are eventually brought together at the end. The narration – by the trusty Catchpole – is clear and enjoyable, moving at a rapid pace with plenty of twists and turns – some predictable and some not. The flow of the story felt exactly like an original Poirot story, even if some of Poirot’s characterisation sometimes differed a little – but this brought a fresh element rather than feeling out of place. I particularly enjoyed a scene between Poirot and an elderly woman he had to interview – it was where he was the least traditionally Poirot-like, but it was a beautifully described and rather amusing scene and made me like her character immensely. (To say more would be a spoiler, but I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean if you read it).

The weakest part of this book was the ending. It tied everything up more-or-less neatly, but it wasn’t quite as polished or satisfactory as the endings to most Poirot books I’ve enjoyed. That being said, it was very cleverly done, and while I had guessed some parts the precise details were a surprise – always a sign of a good crime novel. Perhaps I simply hadn’t connected to all of the characters enough to appreciate the ending – or perhaps I am viewing this with a more critical eye, knowing that it is not the work of the original author.

Overall, I enjoyed this and would recommend it to all Agatha Christie fans. Go in with an open mind – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Published by Harper Collins
Hardback: 20 August 2020