Book Review: Emmet and Me

emmet-and-me

Emmet and Me is Sara Gethin’s second novel for adults (I review her first, Not Thomas, here). Although exploring dark themes, both novels are narrated by children and she captures their views and understanding of the world with skill and care. Adults often forget how insular a child’s perspective can be, that the lens through which they observe their surroundings is coloured by limited experience and childish interpretations of behaviour and overheard conversation. They have not yet developed the language or emotional intelligence to convey their deeply felt desires or concerns.

This latest story opens in Cardiff where ten year old Claire lives with her parents and two brothers – twelve year old Will and toddler Louis. Their volatile mother has long made it clear she regards her children as nuisances. She blames them for driving her to regular outbursts of anger. On the first weekend of the summer holidays, when she starts flinging crockery at the walls, the youngsters lock themselves in the bathroom to keep safe. They are rescued by their uncle, Jack, who takes them to his grubby lodgings to sleep while their dad tries to sort matters at home. When they return the next day their mother has left. Unable to care for his children alone, their dad decides they must go to his mother in rural Ireland, despite not having spoken to her since he was Claire’s age.

Set in 1966, the remote cottage in Connemara has few modern conveniences. Grandma does her best for the children but, with only one elderly neighbour within walking distance, they must make their own entertainment in the surrounding fields. When the holidays end and there is still no prospect of returning to Wales, Claire and Will are sent to local schools. Run by the Catholic church, these are domains of casually cruel nuns and priests.

It is clear from early in the story that there are key elements of family history that Claire is unaware of. These are gradually revealed to her as the plot progresses – mostly foreshadowed so with few surprises for the reader. There is poverty and tragedy leading to lifelong guilt and resentments. All of this is presented with a poignant clarity and pleasing lack of mawkish embellishment.

The titular Emmet is a boy from one of Ireland’s industrial schools. Claire meets him when she finds a place to hide from the girls in her class during lunchbreak. Claire has always struggled to make friends, longing to be noticed by the popular girls and thereby missing out on chances to befriend others – a thread that is handled particularly well in this tale. In Emmet she finds a child who, like her, has a vivid imagination and appreciation of the escapism to be found in stories. Thrilled by their similarities, she is blind to his obvious suffering and deprivation.

Will has his own issues to deal with at school, his name and provenance making him a magnet for bullies. Being older he has a greater awareness of his parents’ behaviour and is attuned to the background that led to them abandoning their offspring. He is caught between protecting Claire from the truth and advising her when she appears insensitive of issues faced by her peers.

Although certain chapters open with thoughts from an older Claire looking back on this summer, the story told is mostly linear. The writing flows but with an underlying tension – a feeling of impending disaster to which Claire remains oblivious, caught up as she is in her own concerns. Each of the characters is developed well, adding depth to the various plot threads. The way poor and orphaned children are treated by church and state is heartbreaking, especially knowing how factually true this aspect is.

Young Claire’s denouement is a bildungsroman of sorts, although the author avoids the pitfall of making everything too tidy. There is then a postscript that offers a window into the life of the older Claire, a bittersweet consequence of pivotal events recounted.

It is notable that the least likable characters are those presenting what many regard as an admirable veneer – be it beauty or vociferous piety. Grandma understands that the church must be pandered to but recognises its dark underbelly. She does not keep a mirror in her cottage, although it and its occupants are kept clean without fussiness. Claire’s life may at times appear challenging, but not when compared to Emmet’s and those in similar circumstances to his.

I read a great many books that experiment with form and development. Although these can be impressive, it was refreshing to read a story told clearly from beginning to end. That said, the author has included so many thought-provoking themes there is plenty to consider. All have their place and add depth to the evocation of time and place.

A page turner that I nevertheless had to walk away from at times, fearful of what was about to be revealed. The pleasure some take from damaging children for their own gratification remains incomprehensible. The author captures the essence of childhood with aplomb and crafts a tale that cannot fail to move every reader. A deftly rendered, recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Jeweller

The Jeweller, by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies), tells the story of Mari, a middle-aged woman living in a ‘lonely little cottage above the sea’ near an unnamed town in Wales. Mari keeps a pet monkey, Nanw, in a cage on the deep set window ledge of her bedroom. The cottage is packed full of vintage clothing, jewellery and other people’s memorabilia, much of which Mari sells at her market stall, now threatened with closure for redevelopment. She collects other people’s photographs and letters, recreating the lives of those featured in her head. Her own past is coloured by her beginnings which are slowly revealed.

Mari has a good friend at the market, Mo, who, with her husband, Dai, clears the houses of the dead. Mari will sometimes go along for the company. Mo looks out for Mari when she is under the weather. Mari suffers migraines and other debilitating conditions from time to time. Mari is also fond of another market seller, Dafydd, but their relationship is complex.

The story is character driven, unfolding in spare prose around a swirling vortex of shadows, past hurts and blame. There are rich descriptions of place. Within this, the characters are portrayed with sympathy although each carry flaws. Depths are glimpsed but in tantalising opacity.

A haunting darkness pervades the text. Mari’s life is cluttered not just by physical objects but also longing and regret. She is afraid of the sea. She is afraid of how others regard her following a tragedy for which she harbours a degree of liability.

Each short chapter offers clues and reveals as the year in which the story is set moves through the seasons. We learn of Mari’s troubled relationship with her late father, a much loved local vicar. We learn why Mari is so intrigued by strangers’ letters. The penultimate chapters provide the final puzzle pieces although the reader is left to decide how certain aspects fit together. When dealing with the past not every question can be answered. The intersection of lives create unforeseen ripples.

This is a story that will offer more on rereading. It is not difficult but offers many layers. A study of grief and the weight of longing for what might have been. An evocative, poignant read.

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

Book Review: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

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

 

Not Thomas has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.