Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One, and imprint of Pushkin Press. 

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Book Review: Bella Mia

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Bella Mia, by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson), is set in L’Aquila, Italy, four years after the devastating earthquake of 6th April 2009 in which 300 people died, over 1500 were injured and around 65,000 had to leave their homes. The main characters in the story are still living in temporary buildings known as C.A.S.E (Complessi Antismici Sostenibili ed Ecocompatibili – sustainable and eco-compatible earthquake-proof housing complexes). They occupy a three room flat and hear neighbours through the too thin walls. It will likely be at least another two years before their damaged homes are reconstructed and they may return.

The story is told from the point of view of Caterina whose twin sister, Olivia, was killed in the earthquake. Caterina now shares accommodation with her mother and her dead sister’s teenage son, Marcus. All three are grieving for the loss of their beloved sister, daughter, mother. Marcus’s father, Roberto, is blamed for his wife’s death as he had left her for another women causing Olivia to leave the marital home in Rome and return to L’Aquila with their son. The boy had been taken in by his father following the earthquake but he could not settle so chose to reside with his aunt and grandmother. They too struggle to live with his moods.

The story is about coping with grief, loss and survivor’s guilt. Caterina had always regarded her twin as prettier, more accomplished and more popular. She ponders if the wrong sister died. Her mother takes fresh flowers to the cemetery each day – she has befriended a neighbour who also lost her daughter. Their housing complex is filled with people damaged by bereavement and forced displacement.

Caterina paints ceramics and has found a new workshop having lost the majority of her possessions on the night of the earthquake. Like many others she struggles to eat and to sleep, suffering recurring nightmares. She tries to be strong for her mother and nephew, to make some sense of the life they must now lead. She stays in touch with Roberto for the sake of his son, recognising that bridges must be built for the boy’s future. She resents that she must deal with the fallout each time Marcus misbehaves but values the comfort the presence of her only grandchild gives her mother.

The writing evokes the pain of loss and the pull of survival. The language and imagery should be savoured. A deep melancholy pervades each page yet somehow time passes and desires are rekindled. There are moments of colour – a new pair of shoes and the hope for an occasion to wear them, the creation of something that brings pleasure to others. There is much looking back as memories are mined, and a recognition that even before the disaster there were imperfections.

This is a tale to be reflected upon. It is too easy to become inured when each day’s news brings reports of extraordinary suffering from around the world. Stories such as this bring to life the humanity of the individuals involved. Empathy for the effects of such devastation matters. Ultimately there is hope – life goes on.

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

Book Review: The Last Act of Love

The Last Act of Love

The Last Act of Love, by Cathy Rentzenbrink, is a raw and heartfelt account of sibling love and loss. In the summer of 1990 the author’s brother, Matty, was knocked down by a car on his way home from a night out. Eight years later she and her parents went to court for permission to withdraw all life-sustaining treatment, including nutrition and hydration, to allow him to die. This is the story of how they got to that point, and the effect those eight years and their aftermath have had on Cathy’s life.

At sixteen years old Matty was already over six feet tall. He was a popular, handsome, intelligent young man. He and his sister helped out at their parents’ pub, located in a small Yorkshire town where they were well known and liked. The family was incredibly close.

The children smoked and drank, worked hard and played hard. The were lively and confident, relishing the life opening up to them. Matty had already renovated an old motorbike, learned to drive a car on private land. Although younger than her by a year, he looked out for his sister and she felt proud that he did.

When Matty was taken to hospital after the accident the doctors recognised the seriousness of his injuries but the family retained the belief that he could one day recover. They modified their lives and then their home to accommodate his many needs. Each time he suffered a life threatening setback they asked that he be treated. It was many years before they accepted that this may not be in his best interests, that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.

Getting to that point changed Cathy forever. Living with having chosen to let her beloved brother die proved devastating. She hid much of what she was feeling from the world. The excesses she turned to in an attempt to distract herself from her grief enabled survival but created their own regrets. That she made it out the other side is an achievement.

I found this quite a difficult book to read, not because of the writing, which is fluid and gripping, but because the pain Cathy conveyed felt so real. I was hurting for her loss, empathising with her guilt and understanding that the hole Matty left could never be filled.

Cathy found some solace when she learned more about Matty’s condition after his death and realised that others who had been through similar experiences felt as she did. She began to learn how to move forward, damaged but no longer feeling the need to hide her scars.

Her story has the potential to help others who have loved and lost as well as those who wish to support them. It is a powerful read.

Book Review: The Many

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The Many, by Wyl Menmuir, is an unsettling tale exploring the impact of loss and the process by which individuals cope, or not, when the foundations they rely on in life are swept away.

Timothy Buchanan buys a house, sight unseen, in an isolated coastal village where he and his girlfriend, Lauren, once stayed. He is aware that the property has lain empty for ten years and is in need of renovation. On arrival he questions the wisdom of taking on such a daunting project but sets about the required refurbishment that Lauren may join him.

The villagers see the smoke rising from the chimney in Perran’s old place. They watch the incomer as he walks by, pausing their conversations until he is out of earshot. Gossip is rife, memories are dredged.

Ethan is one of just a handful of fishermen still working the polluted coastline. Their designated waters are hemmed in by a line of rusting container ships, anchored by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. The contaminated catches they occasionally land are bought in full, with papers signed to ensure none of the damaged fish are retained.

Ethan is perturbed by Timothy’s arrival. He retains a guilt over Perran’s death. When he accedes to Timothy’s request to take him out to sea his peers accept this presence on Ethan’s boat and Timothy becomes a kind of talisman. There remains a code of silence when he starts to ask questions about the previous resident of his cottage. He is aware of the animosity generated but forges on with devastating results.

The sparse prose is dark and intense, strikingly written with a haunting quality that sends shivers through the soul. As the story progresses the reader comes to understand why Timothy is there.

There are cracks in the surface of everything, viscerally present. This tale whispers its warnings. The anguish of grief is palpable.

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

Book Review: What a Way to Go

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What a Way to Go, by Julia Forster, starts off as a bittersweet, humorous tale of life as a child of divorced parents. Set in 1988 it softens the harsh reality of loneliness and judgemental neighbours with insight and nostalgia. It is perceptive yet gentle in its representations of the prejudices of the time.

As the story progresses the layers are peeled away to reveal the secrets that have shaped each of the adults’ lives. In amongst the bad hair and worse dress sense are stories of poor decisions, wasted potential and private grief. Situations are rarely as straightforward as they first appear.

The protagonist is twelve year old Harper Richardson. First impressions are of childish naivete but she is precocious in her thoughts. Harper accepts that her mother is trying to find a new husband, helping out when she can to drive unsuitable candidates away. Every other weekend she visits her father in the small village where she was born. The only friend she has here is an elderly neighbour who her mother deplores.

Harper has a best friend, Cassie, whose family are the antithesis to Harper’s. Their clean and tidy lives could be held up as the standard to which others should aspire. Where Harper faces chaos, Cassie encounters order. Both represent problems that the girls must overcome.

The story is lightly told with a few gaping plot holes and questionable realities that are filled in and explained as the layers of the parents’ lives are revealed. There is much there to frown upon, and many have done just that. Harper must deal with revelations and loss at a time when she is seeking out her own direction. The structure of her day to day life may be shoddily constructed but the foundations are shown to be firm.

A nicely written tale that makes good use of plot development to highlight what is important in life. Harper is a fabulous character coping with the hand she has been dealt as best she can. The supporting cast enable the author to raise the many issues with grace and discernment. There is nothing heavy in the writing but what is explored will linger, as all good stories should.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.