Book Review: Where I End

Where I End

Where I End, by Sophie White, is set on a small island off the coast of Ireland. Fewer than two hundred people live on this remote outcrop. They speak a dialect of Gaeilge that is understood by few incomers. The locals harbour deep seated superstitions that result in some disturbing practices.

The island has a grey beach at one end and sheer cliffs at the other. In between are houses built from the local stone. The mainlanders marvel at the historic culture retained on this isolated backwater, trying to harness it for monetary gain. The remains of a derelict woollen factory attest to one such failed enterprise. This building is now to be turned into a museum and art gallery in an attempt to attract tourists. The locals regard these interventions with disdain.

Livings are mostly eked out from the sea either through fishing or working on the boats that ferry the few visitors. Learning to swim is frowned upon. When the sea takes lives they are mourned but the deaths accepted.

The story is narrated by nineteen year old Aoileann who was born and raised in a dark and cold house, the last dwelling before the cliffs are reached. Her days revolve around caring for her damaged mother, ‘the bed-thing’. Aoileann’s grandmother is the only person to pay her any attention, and that is as scant and silent as the older woman can get away with. The locals actively avoid the girl, believing she is cursed. Her father visits once a month, staying just one night before returning to the mainland. Aoileann resents the extra work his visits create, a show put on that he may pretend all is as it should be despite the glaringly obvious issues with his wife’s physical and mental health.

The author skilfully weaves the backstory of this family and place around the day to day chores that must be undertaken to keep the mother alive. Despite questions, eavesdropping, and searches of the dwelling, Aoileann still does not know what happened to create the being her mother now is. Photographs suggest her parents were once happy. Her grandmother closes down entirely when asked to explain.

Having set the scene, a catalyst for change arrives in the form of an artist, Rachel, and her newborn baby. Aoileann is mesmerised by this young women, doing what it takes to ingratiate herself into their lives. The reader has been fed snippets of some disturbing behaviour from Aoileann’s childhood. These now manifest in her treatment of the new residents. As someone who has never been loved by a mother, Aoileann is desperate for Rachel to grant her some of the attention she observes being offered so freely to the child.

The sense of foreboding is palpable throughout. This plays alongside the explicit horror of Aoileann’s mother’s situation, revealed gradually but with little reasoning explained until later in the tale. By the end the reader will be recoiling from all that has happened and then been perpetuated. The denouement is still shocking despite the foreshadowing.

A masterclass in creating a darkly disturbing character and sense of place. A unique and brilliant read that I couldn’t put down, reading it cover to cover in a day. It will take much longer to recover from the vivid and searing experience. A horror story I unreservedly recommend.

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

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Book Review: Dubliners

dubliners

In his upcoming essay collection, Multiple Joyce, David Collard describes Dubliners as ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. It is the only book by James Joyce that I have read. This was many years ago and I seemed to remember I was not impressed, finding too many of the characters irritatingly vulgar and vexing. However, with such a recommendation from a writer whose opinion I rate, I decided to give the book a reread. Perhaps, I hoped, with my added life experience and wider literary knowledge I could be more appreciative.

The collection contains fifteen short stories of varying length. Each has a plot of sorts but this is secondary to the portrayal of characters and the lives they lead in their particular time and place. There are boys and men seeking an escape from the repetitive boredom of their everyday existences. Where women feature, many are depicted as downtrodden, having used their wiles to ensnare and now having to deal with the aftermath. Marriages are rarely happy affairs. Drunkenness is common. Resentments fester.

Even the better behaved men are portrayed as selfish, often foolishly jealous. They come across as stunted emotionally, lacking empathy due to ego. Their struggle to control desires and concerns is well developed but did not prompt sympathy.

I was disturbed by the violence against children, although understand this was commonly accepted at the time in which the stories are set. Those suffering poverty, who spend what money they have drinking with friends while their families go hungry, may be realistic but such behaviour is still frustrating. Descriptions were unpleasant – not so much the grime and odours but the images offered of moist mouths and propensity for spitting.

Of course, I can recognise the quality of the writing, although the shorter stories worked better for me, some of the longer ones dragging on with their repetition. I do not question that the characters could be representative of Dublin residents when Joyce lived there – although this does offer some explanation as to why ‘the Irish’ were so widely disdained elsewhere.

My reaction to this work had me questioning what makes literature impressive. Readers’ opinions will always be subjective but I remain perplexed by the esteem in which Joyce is held. However clever a piece of writing, there must be more to engage the reader. Sadly, once again, the stories in Dubliners did not impress me.

I will be reviewing David Collard’s essay collection in which he shares his views on Joyce’s writing and legacy. While this amused and often resonated, making me rethink my views on Joyce and his enthusiasts, it appears I remain a ‘philistine’ when it comes to the supposedly great man’s work.

My copy of this book was published in 1973 by Penguin Modern Classics.

Book Review: Seven Steeples

“Bell and Sigh were curious to see what would happen when two solitary misanthropes tried to live together”

Seven Steeples, by Sara Baume, is set in and around a remote and decaying house in the south-west of Ireland. It follows a young couple through seven years of their lives during which they do everything they can to live apart from other people. Other than the essentials for survival they make few purchases, managing without when things break. Their days are habitual. They gain pleasure from walking their locality, observing and discussing the small changes that occur due to: human activity and carelessness, seasonal change.

The story opens in early January. Bell and Sigh arrive at the house they have arranged to rent, bringing with them a single van load of possessions and their dogs, that must now get used to living together as a family. The couple first met the previous summer, to climb a mountain with mutual friends. He worked in a factory, she as a waitress. They are happy to leave Dublin behind, along with their large families and exigent friends.

The house overlooks a farm and what may be a large hill or a small mountain. It is not the most salubrious of residences but it suits its new occupants well. They feel no need to be fastidious in their habits. They relish the space they now have all to themselves.

Days are spent enacting routine tasks, all the while observing each change in their surrounds. They tend to their garden although have little luck in attempts to grow food there. Sigh fishes with more success. Both swim in the sea regularly. They keep the house as they want without concern for social convention.

As time passes they shed all wider obligations, happy to lose contact with people who previously expected to spend time with them. Other than the farmer, their landlord, and those they pass by in town while doing necessary shopping, they avoid other people as much as is possible.

“A successful trip out was one in which they met no one”

While in some respects a gentle story focusing on the rhythms of day to day living, the life Bell and Sigh choose to live has an elemental feel. Alongside the changing weather, the growth and decay of nature, there is no shying away from: build up of dirt, deterioration, how animals are treated and behave. The dogs in particular have many truly disgusting habits when allowed to roam free. They sometimes kill when able to grasp the opportunity.

Bell and Sigh also share their home with: mice, spiders, the detritus that accumulates if not tidied away. They become ‘poor and shabby without noticing’. Their unassuming outlook provides the reader with food for thought in how most choose to live and why.

“They walked the way they always walked”

As season after season changes the couple grow ever more insular. Their days are marked by activity observed in the fields and landscape: the plants and farm animals, the wildlife that comes and goes, effects of storms and men. They develop rituals for cooking and cleaning (although the house is never clean). They become creatures of habit.

“In six years they had never once been brave enough to attempt cooking something entirely new and run the risk of having to eat a horrible dinner”

Time is measured in: empty bottles collected, washing sponges discarded, the gradual increase in grey on the dogs fur and their hair. Knobs fall off appliances. Clothing merges into one messy pile. They no longer notice the noises made by house and land, the accumulated smells of dog, damp and burnt cooking oil.

“They travelled a twenty-mile radius from the house, never straying a yard further, in the past or present, online or in life”

The author avoids waxing lyrical on the beauty of nature but what comes across keenly are the pleasures to be found on shedding superficial and vacuous preoccupations. When plans are made and then forgotten they are shown to be unimportant. Life is lived in the present.

An affirming and uplifting take on acceptance, on finding joy in whatever can be had, paying little heed to media driven dissatisfaction or aspiration. Such a basic, solitary life may suit few people, but all could benefit from appreciating where they are now above where they are endlessly berated for not being.

The prose style and structure tells the story to perfection, the use of language understated and effortlessly engaging. There is much to consider and unpack in the spare, evocative telling. For seven years Bell and Sigh did not climb the mountain, even though it was there. The life led in the meantime suited them anyway.

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

Book Review: Amongst Women

Amongst Women

“‘Be careful’, Moran advised when he kissed each of them in turn as they were ready to leave. ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.'”

Amongst Women, by John McGahern, tells the story of an Irish farming family over a few decades in the twentieth century. It is bookended by the demise of the elderly patriarch, Michael Moran, a widower whose second wife, Rose, was welcomed by his teenage children for the relief it brought them. Moran is unpredictably temperamental, with strong views on how his family should behave. He has kept them distanced from the local community, something the children accept.

“Maggie looked at this isolation he had built up around them as distinction and strength. In her heart she felt that Rose was a little common in knowing so many people.”

Moran adheres to the rituals of his religion, with daily prayers – graces and rosaries – recited by the family together. Having fought and distinguished himself in the Irish War of Independence, he is now disappointed at how the new country turned out. He bought his farm with money received when he left the army, and turned the land into a living. Having done the best he knew how to raise his children, the sense of loss felt as each chooses to leave cuts deep. He had hoped that one of his sons would run the farm after him but neither were interested.

The slow peeling back of Irish family life is affecting if unrelenting in its honesty. Moran may be a difficult man to live with but there is a great deal of love and respect for him within the family circle. This doesn’t mean the children are always happy with what he demands of them. In their own way, each quietly rebels against imposed strictures. The choices they make are not always for the best.

“The whole empty strand of Strandhill was all around them and they had the whole day. There is nothing more difficult than to seize the day.”

When the children do need help they turn to each other. The obligations towards family are deeply ingrained. This is also true of the wider community, although perhaps not as powerfully as amongst the Morans.

“Such is the primacy of the idea of family that everyone was able to leave work at once without incurring displeasure. In fact their superiors thought the sisters’ involvement was admirable.”

The story offers snippets from the past: Moran’s fighting days; his courtship with Rose; how he treats his children and the limitations this incurs as they reach adulthood; his acceptance if not respect for the partners they choose, who each carry their own family baggage. That the children continue to visit Moran regularly, despite his outspoken views and behaviour, says much about the duty instilled.

The writing is taut and spare yet richly evocative of the time and place. It is hard to like Moran – the way he treats both family and neighbours; the cruelties he inflicts on Rose; his tightness over money when he is not poor – yet he elicits sympathy for doing what he believes best for his children.

There is a poignancy in the denouement that he did not recognise the loyalty of his family. His authoritarianism was, after all, of its time in Ireland.

“‘Who cares anyhow?’ Moran said. ‘Nobody cares.’
‘I care,’ she said passionately.
‘That doesn’t count.”

While in many ways a troubling story, the depth of feeling conveyed will linger. A remarkable achievement in a slim yet satiating read.

Amongst Women is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: Foster

foster

Foster, by Claire Keegan, is narrated by a young girl sent to stay with a couple she does not know, having last met them when she was a baby. The husband and wife are from the child’s mother’s side of the family, farmers living in rural Ireland, like her parents, but doing better financially. The girl’s father is a drinker and gambler, proud to have sired a large brood but unable to fully support them.

“I wonder why my father lies about the hay. He is given to lying about things that would be nice, if they were true.”

The girl’s mother is worn down by her work and coping with multiple, hungry children. A new baby is due imminently so she sends her eldest away to be cared for elsewhere.

The story opens with the girl being driven to this strange new place and then left with just the clothes on her back and feelings she cannot articulate.

The couple who have agreed to take her in – the Kinsellas – are happy to have her. They show a rare good sense and insight in their parenting skills. The girl adapts and fits into their household routines, trying hard to get past the troubling emotions she feels.

Over the coming weeks the girl is well fed, clothed and learns how to be of help, though this is not demanded. She is offered affection for the first time she can remember. She is told there are to be no secrets kept in this house, that secrets bring with them shame. She also learns that when questions are asked, particularly by those looking to gossip or criticise, silence is an option.

The girl feels the undercurrents of adult behaviour more than she understands the reasoning.

“Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind.”

Neighbours are curious about who the girl is and are not always kindly in their motives. Nevertheless, the girl finds she is happy in this place which leads to conflicting loyalties.

“Kinsella takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won’t have to feel this. It’s a hard feeling but as we walk along I begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be.”

The writing is exquisite – pared down prose that conveys much using words conjoined to perfection. Although the girl senses more than she understands, as the weeks pass certain elements of the adult world are revealed to her. This is conveyed with a rare skill, the reader picking up the nuances not just from conversation but from the way the girl is advised and protected by the Kinsellas.

A beautifully told story that sheds light on life in rural Ireland – the positives and negatives of close knit community and the myriad challenges of child bearing and rearing. Seen through the lens of a young girl adds poignancy but there is no schmaltz in the telling. This is a recommended read.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: Small Things Like These

small things

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a novel comes along that is a gift to readers such is the beauty of the language and the way the author captures the essence of family life and community in ways that are profound. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack comes to mind and now Small Things Like These. Although the latter has a more conventional structure, both focus on family men who understand and appreciate how fortunate they are. It is not that they are huge successes but their mix of good character, luck and hard work has offered them a chance to build a stable home life they value. The pacing is measured but never slow, the story told affecting in its honesty.

The protagonist here is Will Furlong, a coal and timber merchant living in a quiet Irish town. It is 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and times are hard with increasing job losses. Will is married to Eileen and they have five daughters. The family is well respected locally, with Will, especially, trying to offer kindnesses Eileen fears they can ill afford.

Will was raised by his single mother, suffering others’ attitude to this but cushioned by the benevolence of his mother’s wealthy employer. When he encounters the victims of the Catholic Church’s ‘laundry’ system while delivering coal to the local convent, it brings home to him what could have been his mother’s fate.

The Catholic Church in Ireland ran the schools and also many sideline ‘businesses’. What this involved was broadly known but most avoided thinking on it. Girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were derided as fallen, their families hiding them away for fear of the shame they would bring on those associated with them. Will considers all this from the point of view of his mother’s experiences but also as a father of five daughters who he is doing his best to raise well.

The threads of damage wreaked on communities by a powerful church are skillfully rendered as Will goes about his day to day business. Eileen may be considered the more pragmatic of the couple but each must live with the decisions they make. These have repercussions not just for them but on their daughters who are currently benefiting from what the church offers.

Here we have an author who weaves words together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story that is both powerful and poignant. The various lives depicted in the community may appear ordinary but behind this is an acceptance of a darkness that people avoid looking at for fear the shadows cast could damage them and theirs.

Any Cop?: Although exploring within the story how Mother and Child Homes and Laundries could continue for so long in plain sight, the writing is far from polemic. Rather it is a hauntingly lyrical account of one man’s conscience when doing right might damage the prospects of those he loves. In taut and piercing prose the author offers up a social history of rare acuity. It is a reminder that for evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Source

Source

“the book was musty, as if all the old words had gone off a bit, unused and trapped inside. Let us out! they might whisper. And the words in it might well be the key to unlocking the past. But the odour the trapped words gave off seemed to hold within it an accusation that it was the past itself that was tainted, no matter which words were chosen to describe it.”

Source, by Rosemary Johnston, is a short and beautifully written novella about a woman returning to her childhood home on the west coast of Ireland, to clear it out after the deaths of her parents. She is accompanied by her daughter who knows little about the toxic atmosphere that drove her mother to escape as soon as she felt able. In spare and evocative prose the author explores how our past haunts and shapes us, and how the words we use to communicate have a power of their own.

The woman, Kate, intends to throw away the contents of the old family farmhouse, wanting no reminder of the mother she grew to resent after her father left them. She values only a couple of books that had belonged to the father, who she remembers fondly. These fostered in her a lifelong love of language. Kate’s daughter, Lavinia, is both fascinated and appalled by the state of the house and its surrounds, struggling to imagine her London based mother living in rural Connemara. As the days pass Kate finds herself drawn back to childhood memories, and the repercussions of events she worked hard to put behind her.

The sense of place is skilfully rendered, as are the shadows cast by parents when they turn on offspring. It is shown that leaving home is only possible physically. Just as words carry their etymologies, so people cannot free themselves from their roots and memories, experience moulding but from a set base.

“[words] contain our histories. They tell our stories, our stories are written in them. Like genes, words give instructions. They can send the right or wrong message. Like genes, words mutate.”

What is a simple and engaging tale of family history rises above the ordinary with its brevity and depth. There are moments of tension but also redemption. A fine example of original storytelling that I wholeheartedly recommend.

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

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 Spirit of the River

spirit of the river

“I don’t have to understand nature to appreciate it – to do that, I only have to look around me.”

The Spirit of the River, by Declan Murphy, is taglined A Quest for the Kingfisher. While the author’s desire to observe this beautiful bird is an important aspect of the unfolding tale, there is much more to explore and enjoy than his study of the habits of a single species. While searching for the kingfishers’ nesting site, he also finds the nesting sites of dippers and woodpeckers. His days by the river are filled with wonder as he moves between locations, noting the various birds’ behaviour along with that of other flora and fauna in their vicinity. Combined, they have made the river and its banks suitable for these creatures to mate and raise their offspring. There are also predators to watch out for. Over the months detailed, the birds – and the author – must deal with attacks that threaten their existence.

“In nature, there is always something that wants to eat you.”

The story is set in County Wicklow, Ireland. Much of the action takes place over a spring and summer. The narrative often reflects on how the author’s interest in nature was nurtured by his patient and loving parents and siblings. The youngest of four children, he has always got on better with wildlife than with people. He approaches his subject with a warm and childlike wonder. He has learned strategies for observing without upsetting the subjects in which he is most interested.

“the time spent looking and searching for any animal or plant is only part of the experience; the immersion of oneself in nature and its surroundings and the indulgence of the senses, is the reward for effort. I feel sorry for people who search unsuccessfully for a particular aspect of nature and feel the time was wasted.”  

In opening his tale, the author writes of nature’s patterns – mathematics – and nature’s movement – physics. The evolution of the natural world is as complex as the human brain; the interlinks within its ecosystem as little understood by man, who wreaks damage with his ill thought through invasions. The author considers all his studies to be opportunities to learn, noting when assumptions he has made prove incorrect. He recognises that while behaviours follow a pattern, much remains unforeseeable.

“Rivers are like people. They have different life stages, unpredictable moods and erratic personalities.”

The stretch of river he explores is one he has long been familiar with having returned to it year after year to observe its residents. This is his way of coping with life and its inherent challenges. Although describing himself as sociable, he finds human behaviour is too often baffling. The creatures at the river live in ways that make more sense.

“What was left to see? At its simplest, I watched because I enjoyed being part of their world – theirs and every other creature that shared it with me. There was always something new to learn”

The writing employs a gentle cadence with observations intricately explained while maintaining the excitement of what is happening and what this foretells. The sinuous dance steps of the birds’ behaviour bring forth new life and aid survival. Their actions prove endlessly fascinating to anyone willing to pay attention.

This is a book filled with wonder, acknowledging the dark times but always moving forward – the only direction possible in life, whatever one’s species. In reading it feels like walking alongside the author as he pursues his quest for the kingfisher. Although he writes that he does not understand those who lack the curiosity to find out more about natural habitats, prior knowledge is not necessary to enjoy what he shares here. 

A glorious meditation on nature filled with detail and appreciation. A soul enriching and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Now Legwarmers

Now Legwarmers, by Pascal O’Loughlin, is set in a housing estate in Ireland that is expanding over rural fields. It is written from the point of view of John who is nearly fourteen and has been living in one of the newly built corporation houses for a few months with his mother, Peggy. John’s father was killed in a road traffic accident and Peggy had not wanted to stay in the flat they shared. Concerned at her son’s lack of friends she bribes him to attend a local youth disco. Here he meets Angela who is a year older than him and lives in a bungalow built on farmland some distance from the estate. She has an older sister, Marion, who goes missing before she and John can meet.

Angela introduces John to kissing and smoking and David Bowie. They discuss books, music, films, and the stories of the people who live or once lived in the places they explore as they hang out together. John has a vivid imagination which helps him to process the grief he feels at the loss of his father, and his concerns for the feelings and changes in his body that he sometimes struggles to understand and deal with.

John is intelligent but attends an all boys’ school where he is expected to conform, especially to the religious tenets of the time and place. His lack of skill or interest in sport adds to his inability to fit in.

“I never knew what a boy was actually supposed to be like and I still don’t. Even now at school I watch them running around, and sometimes I’m running around too, but always it’s a bit like I’m pretending to know the rules to a weird game I don’t actually know how to play.”

John’s father had encouraged him to play football but memories of their visits to the pub are recalled with more pleasure. Peggy disapproved of her husband’s drinking and socialising, wanting him to spend what free time he had after work improving their home.

“she wanted everything to be brand new all the time and spick and span like she didn’t want what she already had at all, as if as soon as you had a thing that you wanted then it was no good. So she always wanted new things or to paint things or to put up wallpaper.”

Peggy is concerned that John is overweight. He hides from her the food he disposes off after pretending it has been eaten.

Angela also hangs out with two of her sister’s ex-boyfriends, Paul and Tony. She tells John of the rows her parents have and how they prefer Marion to her. She talks of the terrible things Paul and Tony have done, although the details sometimes change. Their conversations worm their way into John’s dreams when he is both asleep and awake.

John must also deal with his mother’s burgeoning friendship with a local man, Mr Daly. His feelings ricochet.

All of this is told in a stream of thoughts over several weeks in a dreary winter. John’s life is in many ways ordinary but by viewing it from inside his head the issues and concerns are shown to be idiosyncratic and a challenge for him. The author captures the angst and vernacular of a boy in his situation. The adults around him are well meaning but exist at a distance, unable to reach or empathise with someone his age.

“‘She misses Daddy’, I said.
‘You’re the man of the house now so you have to look after her’
I said nothing. I knew what the man of the house was and I wasn’t that. I was the son.
‘You’re a good lad,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him and the look on his face said something else, it said he didn’t know who I was at all”

The story is quietly devastating in its portrayal of small town life and the invisible lacerations caused by the expectations of family. It is an impressively told reminder that young people think for themselves. A poignant, arresting and satisfyingly original read.

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