Book Review: Lucia

The AI sheet that accompanied my proof copy of Lucia informed me that

“Lucia is intellectually uncompromising. Lucia is emotionally devastating. Lucia is unlike anything anyone else has ever written.”

I concur. This, his second work of creative fiction based on the life of a real person, establishes Alex Pheby as a literary talent deserving close attention.

The eponymous Lucia was the second child of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. The bare bones of her story are easily verifiable but little else is known. She was born in Trieste, Italy and lived across Europe, her peripatetic parents moving the family from hotels to shabby apartments depending on their financial status. Lucia was a talented dancer. She was Samuel Beckett’s lover. She spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. Following her death her remaining family strove to erase her from the public record. They destroyed her letters, removed references to her from the archives. Even her medical records were taken.

In this novel the author does not attempt to create a detailed biography. Rather he presents Lucia’s story in fragments and told from a variety of points of view. Between each chapter is a motif detailing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is developed to serve as explanation.

The story created is shocking and affecting, presented in a manner that makes it all too believable. The voice throughout remains detached, the needs of the narrators evident even when they presume they are acting in Lucia’s best interests. The reader will feel outraged at her treatment.

The tale starts at Lucia’s end, in 1982, when undertakers arrive to collect the body of the deceased. Six years later a student is employed to burn the contents of a chest filled with letters, photographs and other effects. The thoughts of these characters offer a first glimpse of Lucia. Mostly though they focus on their subject as they go about the tasks assigned. Lucia is subsidiary, often something of a nuisance. This sets the tone for how she was treated in life.

Lucia is depicted as an object that others must deal with. If she will not comply she must be tamed. Children are expected to behave, denied agency ‘for their own good’ with resulting complaints dismissed. Troublesome little girls can be threatened to silence them.

Lucia’s relationships with various family members, especially her brother, are vividly dealt with. Whatever other’s behaviour, it is she who will stand accused of spoiling things for everyone if she protests.

As a young woman Lucia was considered beautiful. She clashed with her mother which led to her being incarcerated. The cutting edge treatments for mental illnesses at the time were experimental and horrifying.

Lucia was moved around as a cure for her behaviour was sought. After the war she was transferred to an asylum in Northampton where she spent her remaining decades. She was buried here, away from her family. Even in death they sought to silence her.

The fragmentary style of writing and the distractions of the narrators are effectively harnessed to portray the instability that was a signature in Lucia’s life. The reader is offered glimpses but always at the periphery. There is a sense of detachment, a tacit acceptance that those who will not behave as society requires are a nuisance to be subdued and hidden away.

Yet this is a story that pulses with emotion. Lucia rises inexorably from the page. The author has filled out the gaps in her history with a story that whilst unsettling resonates. That he does so with such flair and aplomb makes this a recommended read.

 

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Book Review: How The Light Gets In

“the light’s been here all along, it’s always here, it’s just that you’re not always in a place where you can see it.”

How The Light Gets In, by Clare Fisher, is a collection of short stories that shine a light on individual experiences currently being lived in a UK city. They are fresh and at times mordantly funny. They put the reader inside the heads and hearts of the narrators.

textbook burglar offers a description of the feelings of relief, absence and expropriation following a broken relationship. Many of the stories deal with the disconnect between people, particularly those most cared for.

the thing about sheep conveys the need to understand those close to us, and the difficulty in accepting facets that do not segue with curated perceptions. Family members experience the same events differently.

Protagonists balance their desire to fit in with a crowd, the difficulty of doing so, with the easy option of staying home which can then feel like failure. They work hard and gain achievements that they wish others to acknowledge, watching as lesser accomplishments are remarked upon and celebrated by those around them. It is not unfairness but rather bewilderment, an unanswerable how and why.

Most of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet somehow delve into the complexities and variations of living day to day. Smartphones have become companions, the desire to have comments acknowledged online as necessary as to be noticed and accepted elsewhere.

how to talk about potholes looks at the relationship between parents and their grown up children, the concerns and difficulty of communication.

“we do care about our dad and we want to know: does he eat? Does he sleep? Does he feel a part of human life? Does he have hopes and plans for the future? But he will only reply by treating us to a slide show of that week’s most unusual potholes.”

Parents of young children remember how they once lived dangerously, indulged in escapades that they cannot now share.

Although dealing with a contained world these stories are broad in scope, mindful and searingly honest. They question norms and get below the surface. Even the most ordinary lives are coping with a myriad of complications.

This is a young, modern voice that delves deep into the heart of lived experiences in a contemporary city, exposing truths admitted to only in the deepest recesses of thought and feeling. The stories are personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.

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

Book Review: Missing

Missing, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Jessie Noon, a middle aged women living in a Scottish border town who works from home as a literary translator. Jessie has been married twice and has a grown up son. She now lives alone with her cat and dog. She believes her house harbours a ghost. She tries to keep her thoughts and feelings in order by following daily and weekly routines.

Much of the action involves the ordinary: Jessie attends a professional conference, shops for groceries, walks her dog, enters into a new relationship. Throughout there exists an undercurrent of darkness, gaps in the narrative. The sense of unease is palpable.

Interspersed with the contemporary tale are chapters set in 1985 when Jessie was eighteen. Her big sister, Gail, would call on her sibling to mind her five year old daughter, Eleanor. Although sometimes resentful of the expectation that she would help, Jessie was fond of the little girl. She did not always treat her as Gail requested, giving Eleanor cola to drink and making promises she couldn’t keep. Jessie’s relationship with her family is now strained.

At the heart of the tale are the words people use, so often misconstrued causing pain. Jessie struggles to maintain relationships despite her desires and good intentions. She understands how people regard her but cannot change what has been done or said. Others choose to leave or cut contact. Jessie may have moved location but must still find ways to live with herself.

There is a tension in the writing, a disconnect between the personal world Jessie inhabits, the expectations of those she encounters, and her desire to somehow fit in. When a postcard arrives telling her ‘I’m on my way home’ it is unclear who is sending or where home may be. The reader is offered glimpses but the portrayal of Jessie remains elusive. Subliminally she may believe her treatment by others is deserved.

This is a glorious evocation of alienation and misunderstanding. Jessie could be deemed tragic but she is also a survivor. The author has created a masterpiece. A haunting tale of devastating insight and depth.

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

Book Review: Ironopolis

Ironopolis, by Glen James Brown, is a novel structured as a collection of interrelated stories detailing pivotal events in the lives of residents of a Middlesbrough housing estate across three generations. The setting is key. Built after the second world war to replace slum dwellings with practical family homes, the houses and brutalist high rises were not well maintained by the council who owned and managed them. Eventually the decaying stock was sold on to residents or a housing association before being forcibly purchased for area regeneration.

On one side of the estate is an old waterworks, bombed during the war and left derelict. The danger this poses proves a draw for the local kids with devastating consequences for two of the characters featured. Parents try to persuade their children to stay away by telling them stories of a water dwelling crone who could lure them to their doom.

There is a sense of community on the estate but also fear. Hard men make their money by nefarious means, uncaring of the damage wrought on those they snare. There is distressing cruelty. Jobs are physically tough and increasingly rare. Drink, drugs, gambling, theft and extortion are a way of life – the discontented seeking distraction from their lack of prospects across the years.

The book opens with a collection of letters written by Jean Barr to a London art dealer in 1991. She is recalling a childhood friend whose artistic output has recently been exhibited to critical acclaim. Jean is married to Vincent, a much feared character in the local area. Their only child, Alan, suffered life changing injuries as a teenager during a game at the waterworks with his peers.

The second story introduces Jim Clark, another victim of the waterworks’ dangers. He is now regarded as a freak due to his injuries, his sister Corina one of the few people who will speak to him civilly. It is widely believed that Vincent threw Jim down a well during an illegal rave organised by the boy’s friends, whom his parents disdained. Jim’s story is one of alienation, finding a place he felt he belonged and then having it snatched away.

The third story tells of a father and son, Scott and Frank Hulme. Frank was one of the boys involved when Alan was injured. Now he is taking his son to apologise to Vincent for another misdemeanour. History threatens to repeat itself.

Next up the reader learns Corina’s story, how she became estranged from everything she should have held dear. Her tale is set on her last day in a hair salon she established, unable now to trade due to the clearing of the estate. As with all the histories there are references to characters previously featured. Each story adds depth as perspectives shift, details are added and time frames vary .

The penultimate story is told by Alan as he searches for information about Douglas Ward, an associate of Vincent. Alan has watched behind the scenes of his father’s dealings, not always realising at the time their significance. Now he wishes to better understand the man, his activities, and the rumours that generated such fear.

The final section is also narrated by Alan and ties up several recurring threads. By this time the reader is familiar with a community facing dispersal, as happened to the slum residents when the estate was built. Although the older generation believe the young are getting worse, these stories demonstrate that the wheel has simply turned. Some will escape to what may be regarded as a better way of living. For many though, this is what they are and will be wherever they live.

The writing is tenacious in its depiction of working class life, with an undercurrent of compassion even during the darkest scenes. The reader can empathise with the various characters while wishing they could somehow find a way to change. Yet perhaps that is my middle class prejudice speaking. Those not content with their lot in these stories demonstrated little desire to become like the families on the regenerated streets. This may be a fictionalised history but is told in an authentic voice from a people who too few are willing to hear.

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

Book Review: My Mother’s Secret

My Mother’s Secret, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s third psychological thriller. It is told from three points of view and across two timelines, opening with the pivotal event from which the rest of the tale unfolds. Unusually for this genre it took several chapters before I was fully engaged. A lot of characters are introduced in a short space of time and I kept having to flick back to work out who was who. Once I had placed each alongside their contemporaries I was able to settle and enjoy the sequence of teasers and reveals.

There are good reasons why so many psychological thrillers become best sellers. They are engaging, easy to read and offer a puzzle to solve. This book is well paced, smoothly written and typically structured. The settings are brought to life becoming both comforting and threatening as the plot requires.

The earlier timeline involves Lizzie, a young wife and mother who leaves her family home – a remote cottage in the Lake District – for a few days each week to work in Leeds. Here she gets caught up in a violent crime that changes her life. The chapters telling her story explain the before and after of this incident, what she must do to survive and protect those she loves.

The later timeline is narrated by Emma and her fourteen year old daughter, Stella. Emma is neurotic, her instability manifesting in overprotecting her two children. Stella is starting to rebel against the restrictions imposed due to her mother’s condition and her father’s complicity. It is notable that both Stella and her younger sister, Ava, display their own anxieties, likely instilled by the manner in which they are required to live under the guise of keeping them safe.

Emma works at a bakery and there are many descriptions of food, not something I have an interest in but likely to appeal to certain readers. Her husband, Jack, attempts to impose his healthy eating ideas on his family. He has provided them with a lavish home and likes to keep it and its residents in a manner that suits his ideas of beauty and order. This is a loving family but one that relies on a strict code of parental control.

Much of the story is set in and around Long Ashton on the outskirts of Bristol. The descriptions of place are rich – aesthetics are held in high regard.

Emma’s story begins with a chance encounter with a man from her past. She arranges to meet him at Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near to where she lives. Stella notices a change in her mother and decides to investigate. What she discovers threatens their carefully cultivated stability. Alongside this, Stella enters into a relationship with a boy at school. She and her mother try to guard their secrets, not easy in a family used to strictly monitoring all activities.

Despite correctly guessing the various reveals in advance, this was an enjoyable read. That is not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles – such as the dual mention of the Moorside power plant, which seemed unnecessary, and the changes in wording when the prologue is retold. These are small details though in what is a well crafted addition to a popular genre. Fans of domestic noir will likely enjoy.

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

Book Review: Sight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“how simple things would be if only I could know myself or others; […] but instead there is only this excavation, a digging in the dark: precarious, uncertain, impossible to complete.”

Jessie Greengrass’s short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, demonstrated her confidence and competence as a writer of innovative, piercing fiction. In Sight, her debut novel, the clarity and conviction of her prose is again in evidence. Written mostly in the first person, with occasional digressions to explore the histories of key medical advancements – x-rays, human anatomy, psychoanalysis – it reads as an intensely personal, non linear series of reflections. It is a search for knowledge, an attempt to make sense of the most challenging emotions – the multifaceted viscerality of love, desire and grief.

The story opens with the narrator “pregnant again”, watching through a window as her toddler daughter, and partner, Johannes, play in the garden. She feels the distance between them, a distance that she recognises will increase as her daughter ages. She understands that this is as it should be, that a child should be raised able to one day cope without parents.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is at the heart of the novel. The reader is offered snapshots of the narrator’s childhood, of time spent with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst who had raised her child alone. It was only later that the narrator came to understand that her mother was also a daughter, and that the grandmother was trying to help and protect her, especially when the mother’s errant husband finally left for good. At the time the young girl felt resentment that she was being kept from her loving mother by a grandmother who required the child to accept more independence.

The inner monologue by which the story is told may be introspective but the author demonstrates her ability to articulate the essence of emotion without hyperbole. Even when recounting the long months leading to her mother’s death and her subsequent grief – a time when she spent day after day in the Wellcome Library – she is seeking an understanding of how she reacted to events.

“The things which I learned without noticing all through that year recur to me still, those images from medical textbooks, the bodies dissected or described, the case notes and the cabinets and all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves, and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key”

The narrator is “young, adrift, bereft” when she meets Johannes. After a time, the possibility of having their child is considered. The narrator desperately wants to be a mother but fears that this is for selfish reasons rather than for the benefit of the being she would create. She also fears the inevitable changes motherhood would bring; the uncertainty of what she would become and how she would cope with this. Johannes is supportive, willing to accept whatever she decides but requiring that a decision be made to end the unsettling prevarication.

After her mother died, the narrator disposed of her possessions. She retained memories rather than mementos. Pregnant, watching her daughter she ponders:

“I wonder what they will keep of me, later; what off-cut memories will remain to be re-stitched, their resemblance to myself a matter of perspective. I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused.”

The depth of feeling and insights offered into the distances that exist in even the closest of relationships make this an intense, compelling read.

Any Cop?: The writing is rich yet pithy, the story stark in places yet emotionally resonant.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: What Happened To Us

What Happened To Us, by Ian Holding, is a slow burner building to an intensity that lingers beyond the final page. Set in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in the tinderbox of an approaching election, the narrator is a young man recalling a pivotal few weeks in his life when he was thirteen years of age. Danny is a privileged white kid, heavily influenced by parents who are resentful at the changes being made in a country that no longer protects their interests. Although vaguely aware of the issues they must now face, the teenager is cosseted by an exclusive community that eschews its darker skinned neighbours.

The story opens with Danny cycling near his home making a nuisance of himself. He recognises that his actions are childish. He is bored and irritated by a relentless heatwave. As he makes his way back to the large, gated property where he lives with his parents and older sister, Rebecca, he becomes aware of three men heading in the same direction. He is agitated by the thought that they seek retribution for his recent foolish behaviour. When the gate bell rings while he cools down in the back garden swimming pool he ignores it, fearing a reprimand he prefers not to face.

Danny’s family life is happy and largely carefree. He harbours the usual teenage angsts – an increasing interest in girls, how he appears amongst his peers, irritation at the demands made by his parents – but with a stable home life is shielded from wider worries. He shares porn clips in a WattsApp group with friends from his expensive school, plays FPS games on his Playstation, messages the girl next door who he occasionally crosses the wall to meet in secret. It is a life of braais and tennis club and family time, a routine made comfortable by the oft berated staff who live out of sight at the edge of the garden.

The first hint of unease caused by the trio of overall clad men is followed by further phantom ringing at the family gate and then a suggestion by a coloured classmate that Danny’s father is in financial difficulties. What transpires is that the government is threatening to confiscate the business assets of the white community. Danny’s father is attempting to counter this by partnering with the classmate’s father, a wealthy banker with powerful political affiliates.

With all this in the background, and the heatwave exhausting the close-knit community, Danny’s home is broken into while the family sleep. Locked in his room for his own safety, the boy can only guess at the nature of the invasion. The fallout is a fracturing of everything on which his easy life has been based. Added to this is Danny’s unspoken guilt. He fears that the attack, which has left his sister traumatised, is the work of the three men, and that he is to blame.

The unfolding story is skillfully written with a continuing ramping up of tension. In the aftermath of the robbery, Rebecca is the family’s main concern. Danny’s parents are unmoored by their inability to protect. Their boy is sidelined. His coping strategies are harrowing. His determination to somehow help leads to a devastating conclusion.

Contemporary Zimbabwe with its beauty, heat, widespread poverty and political difficulties is sympathetically evoked whilst acknowledging the challenges faced by all who live there. There is selfishness and racism, corruption and violence, children being raised to perpetuate their parents’ prejudices. The voice of the narrator comes across as authentic, a recognition of the difficulty adults have communicating with young people, and vice versa. The tale offers a window into the psychological damage caused when property cannot be protected and personal safety is at constant risk.

This is a powerful, haunting novel in which setting and culture are key. The heart of it though is a wider perspective on the side effects of conflict and political upheaval. It is a recommended read.

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