Book Review: Bitterhall

bitterhall

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackie Law

Book Review: Mayhem and Death

Mayhem & Death, by Helen McClory, is a collection of short stories, of varying length, from a writer whose bio informs us, ‘There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.’ Her writing reflects this. It is rich in imagery, powerful and shadowed. Deep within the bowels of her carefully chosen words, reflections of the ordinary are made dark, lonely, threatening. However inspiring the view on the surface of an individual’s life may be, under McClory’s piercing gaze its desolate depths are revealed.

Yet these stories are deliciously compelling, an antidote for those who baulk at the recent trend for ‘Up Lit’, who wish to challenge their fears in our troubled times rather than escape them. Whilst offering a hat tip to the macabre in places, this collection revels in the living. Told with a scent of folklore in style, the tales remain vividly contemporary.

Automaton Town is one of the more surreal stories. The setting evokes a large country house – lawns, ballroom, servants. A model of a town is purchased, transported with some difficulty and set up for viewing. A key winds the mechanism and its components start to move. The resident family, riveted in their plush chairs, soon recognise the lives being modelled as actions and truths that generally go unnoticed are exhibited for all to see.

Such inventive thinking threads its way through many of the tales. In A Voice Spoke to Me at Night the narrator encounters a figure from the past and ponders why they have been chosen for this visitation. Their life is mundane, at times lonely, but largely nondescript. What is revealed is the generally unacknowledged determination of individuals to continue, however pointless daily life can at times appear. The tale is wistful yet retains a spirit of optimism.

Elements of the prose are akin to poetry and many of the stories allow for a degree of interpretation. The Expectation of a Job Well Done could be a metaphor for the sacrifices required to attain desired achievements, and how these will transform the subject. The protagonist willingly follows the instructions he is given, performing to an audience who remain indifferent to the damage he inflicts on himself. By the end he has become ‘other than he had been in all his days thus far’. It is not clear if these changes will be considered an improvement.

A favourite story of mine was The Romantic Comedy which opens with ‘You want the wrong things.’ The protagonist is the epitome of every heroine of romantic films, now determined to no longer acquiesce to her assigned role.

No more smiling on cue. No more men standing too close explaining how to exist, believing, if left to your own devices, you’d not quite manage such a feat.

She rides her horse away from the ‘town of unacknowledged debasement’ where she is regarded by a man who offers roses and then feels anger at her decision to choose autonomy.

Another tale I particularly enjoyed was Take Care, I Love You. This transcribes a section from the Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox and answers each point as though it were a questionnaire about the everyday. Somehow this innovative structure works, offering snapshots of how alienating modern living can be. It is poignant yet wryly amusing.

The collection finishes with a longer work, picking up on characters from the opening story. Powdered Milk imagines an experimental, deep water station that has been set up to study how a group of people would survive long term if cut off from everyone else, as would happen on a long space flight. Initially the carefully selected volunteers have internet access and regular supply drops. When these cease they are entirely on their own, not knowing if this cutoff has been planned, if it is a failure in the technology, or if there has been some cataclysmic event above. Thus they cannot be sure if their situation will ever change, if this is it until death. As a study in the purpose of hope, the need for a possibility of change, I found this story fascinating.

The themes and their presentation throughout are full, rich and impressive in scope and inventive thinking. There is a degree of experimentation but each tale remains accessible. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.

Book Review: Flesh of the Peach

“If I owned a horse, I feel like I would ride it until it dropped from exhaustian under me,’ Maud said […] ‘I wouldn’t stop until it had given me everything and taken me far further than it could.”

Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory, is a story of grief, selfishness, and the lasting damage caused by damaged people. The protagonist is Sarah Browne, a twenty-seven year old aspiring artist who, when the story opens, has been rejected by her married lover on the day she discovers her estranged mother has finally died. Raised in a chaotic household of women, where attention was rare and often caustic, she escaped to London as a teenager and then on to New York, a city she now chooses to leave.

Sarah decides to use her newly acquired inheritance to start again, to move to a cabin in New Mexico where she hopes to find the space to consider what she can now be. She takes with her just a few possessions, including a new yellow sundress, but also decades of emotional baggage that she has worked to suppress.

“She placed the newly purchased dress so that it lay across the bed in a pool like sunshine. […] She was going to dress from now on for a beautiful life. Keep saying those words to yourself. It sounds naive but that is one way to choose to exist. As a polished stone skipped across the harshness of things.”

Sarah’s wish is that she be the best possible version of herself, which is the most that any can aspire to be.

There follows a roadtrip in a Greyhound bus, a stay in a soulless motel, and then a drive to her late mother’s cabin retreat in the Southern Rockies. Here she meets a neighbour, Theo, and they embark on an ill-fated affair.

There are flashbacks to Sarah’s childhood in Cornwall. The isolation of the cabin unsettles her equilibrium. Theo falls in love with this young woman whose pressure cooked emotions demand release.

Despite the foreboding atmosphere the writing remains lyrical, the imagery painting both sensation and location. Sarah is delicate and fierce, owning her needs without apology, a female willing to reject societal expectation.

The final quarter of the book lost some of the coherancy which had held together preceding chapters. Nevertheless, the quality of the prose ensured engagement was retained. The denouement was unexpected yet once read could be regarded as inevitable. Disquieting but pure pleasure to read.

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