Book Review: Solar Bones

solar-bones-cover

Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, is the most accurate adherence to stream of consciousness style writing that I have come across. The entire novel, all 223 pages in the edition I read, is presented as one continuous sentence. Do not let this put you off. Despite its apparently mundane subject matter it is an engaging and compelling read.

The narrator is Marcus Conway, a native of the county of Mayo in Ireland. When the book opens Marcus is standing in the kitchen of his family home listening to the Angelus bell ring out from the village church a mile away.

We learn that Marcus has been married for twenty-five years to Mairead, a teacher at a local school. They have raised two children – Agnes who is an artist, and Darragh who is casually working his way across Australia. The committed parents have adjusted to the initial emptiness felt when their grown-up children first moved away. They have settled into a comfortable routine.

Marcus looks around him recalling history as he has lived it through familiar places, possessions and significant events. He is an engineer by profession working for the local council on infrastructure projects. He is frustrated by the influence self-serving politicians exert on the decision making process. He takes pride in his ability to work to a standard.

Raised on a farm he remembers his childhood and then the deaths of his parents. His relationships have at times been rocky as life sometimes is. Mostly though he feels grateful for the chances he has been given. In many ways his is an ordinary life, as he wished it to be.

It did not take long to slip into the cadence of the writing. Its beauty is in the detail, the observations made and insights given. The reader is drawn into the intricacies of this man’s everyday pleasures and irritations. Not a single turn of phrase is dull or misplaced.

A haunting elegy that captures the battles and the beauty of existence. This is an extraordinary, life-affirming read.

Book Review: Moonstone

moonstone

Moonstone: the boy who never was, by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb), is a book that, had I known more about it in advance, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read. Despite this I am glad that I did. Written in sparse, vivid prose it regularly took me outside of my comfort zone with its graphic descriptions. Whilst key to the plot and indicative of the main character’s detachment from society much more than this was explored. These other elements, particularly the insights into Icelandic history, were sufficiently strong to keep me engaged.

The protagonist is sixteen year old Máni Steinn who lives in Reykjavík with his great-grandmother’s sister. He earns his money by performing consensual sex acts with men. Homosexuality is outlawed so he has no shortage of customers for his services. Máni has always been a loner spending much of his free time watching films at the two cinemas in the town. He also studies people, particularly a young woman he refers to as Sóla G—. He appears content living within his thoughts and imagination.

The story opens in October 1918 when the Katla volcano erupts. The Great War is in its final throes far away and the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu is about to arrive. In the next few months Iceland, and Máni’s life, will undergo radical change.

There is a stark beauty to the writing despite the dark subject matter. Máni maintains his signature detachment as he watches the townspeople react to trauma and tragedy. Families mourn their many dead. Iceland is granted its freedom as a nation state. Máni cannot remain a mere spectator to events forever.

The final chapters are set ten years later. Despite several rereads I failed to understood the denouement and feel frustrated that I have missed what I expected to offer some nugget of clarity.

At less than 150 pages this is a short work of fiction but not one that will be quickly forgotten. Where it not that open discussion may spoil the reveal for future readers I would be seeking other’s interpretation of those final pages.

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

Reading the Galley Beggar Press backlist

Galley_Beggar_logo-1_white

Today I should have been travelling to London to attend a book launch and party for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge, the latest offering from Galley Beggar Press and currently on the shortlist for the Republic of Conciousness Prize. Due to engineering works I had to pull out as my planned train home will not be running. This is disappointing, especially as I have been preparing for the event for some time. My preparation involved reading so actually no great hardship there.

For Christmas in 2015 I was gifted a Galley Buddy subscription along with copies of every full length paperback I did not already own from the publisher’s backlist. When no bookish shaped gifts appeared in my stocking last year it was pointed out by my not-a-reader husband that I had not yet read all of the previous year’s much wanted titles. When I was invited to this party I decided to pick up my neglected books. Galley Beggar Press publish ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’, just the sort of stories I enjoy. There will be no Gig Review this weekend as I had planned, but you may now read my reviews of all the books by clicking on the covers below.

forbidden-line   Adam-Biles--Feeding-Time

Alex-Pheby--Playthings   Anthony-Trevelyan--The-Weightless-World

wroteforluck    francisplug

randall--paperback   andrew-lovett-everlasting-lane-ebook

eimear-mcbride-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-paperback   simon-gough-the-white-goddess-paperback-v2

Should you wish to order any of these please consider doing so direct from Galley Beggar. Even a few extra sales can make a difference to the viability of small presses.

Book Review: A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing

eimear-mcbride-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-paperback

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, is a rare and challenging journey into the mind of a young Irish woman raised by her deeply religious mother. The protagonist’s brother survived a brain tumour as a child which left him slightly damaged. Their father could not cope with the stresses this brought and walked away before the girl was born.

Living in a remote part of Ireland the children are close, driving their mother to distraction amidst the tuts of neighbours and wider family who disapprove of their exuberance. When they move from country to town the teenage children must find a way to fit in to this new way of life. They cope but not always well.

A visit from an aunt and uncle changes the girl, driving a wedge between her mother’s beliefs and her own ability to find personal acceptance. She seeks freedom from the constraints in which she has been raised but struggles to shed the expectations of family and the shackles of inbred guilt. Her choices, although liberating, teeter on the precipice of self-harm.

The narrative is not straightforward. It is a stream of thoughts, stuttering and juddering through significant events that shape the girl’s perspective. Being inside the head of someone trying to live with this shade of damage and rejection is a powerful experience.

Not the easiest of reads but absolutely worth the effort. This is a literary triumph, harrowing but impressively original.

 

Book Review: First Love

firstlove

First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, introduces the reader to Neve, a writer in her thirties married to the older Edwyn who is preoccupied with his health following a myocardial infarction suffered before they met. Written in the first person the narrative explores Neve’s life and varied relationships with razor sharp insight. This is a story of the inherent need humans have to interact with others, and the hurt this creates.

“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterize the forms they assume?”

As soon as she was able Neve distanced herself from her parents who divorced when she was a child. She found them both demanding and needy, forever trying to find in her something she was not. Through her alcohol fuelled twenties she sought love and acceptance from friends and sexual partners, yet spent much of her time alone. Occasionally she glimpsed the way she was seen by others but could only ever be herself however much she attempted to act out their visions of her.

“You are the girl that never came true.”

Close relationships burned themselves out as time passed yet were often difficult to relinquish. In moments of weakness Neve would attempt to get back in touch, despising herself when she realised what she had done and how insecure she appeared. She longed to be strong, to be satisfied when alone, yet still sought something indefinable in others.

“It is strange what we expect from people, isn’t it? Deep inside ourselves.”

After years spent living in an acquaintance’s spare room or in tiny rented spaces she was offered a grant that took her to France. Here she had time to reflect before returning to her life which continued much as before.

“being abroad, at least, being out of it somehow, I found it was possible to feel less implicated. Less accounted for.”

Neve’s mother appears to be the antithesis of her daughter with her constant socialising and desperation for support. From time to time she seeks solace in her daughter. Their rare visits, although accepted, leave Neve eager to reinstate distance.

Apparently born of love, Neve’s marriage is not always a happy one. Edwyn is controlling and unforgiving, introspective and quick to anger. He resents that he is not always the centre of Neve’s life yet often rebuffs the form of affection she tries to offer. He bullies her until she capitulates, demanding that she agree with his interpretation of her behaviour.

“sitting there with that bright, bland expression on my face, trying to fence with this nonsense. Or had I been that naive? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?”

The dialogues throughout are painful in their honesty bringing to the fore the thoughts many try to suppress in their attempts to convince themselves that relationships are balanced and healthy. Humans may be social animals but we each exist within the shadows and complexities of feelings that can only be fully known to ourselves.

This is beautiful writing, raw yet sublime. Recommended to any who wish to better understand the human condition.

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

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

invisiblefuries

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne, tells the life story of Cyril Avery, a man born into an Ireland that I recognised all too well. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at what is, at times, a heart-breaking story. In places the style of writing brought to mind the work of John Irving, to whom the book is dedicated, but this is a much more nuanced, hard hitting yet always compelling read.

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 to Catherine, the sixteen year old, unwed daughter of a Cork farmer. As soon as her condition becomes known she is condemned as a whore by the village priest in front of his entire congregation. He assaults and then banishes the teenager, with the full cooperation of her large and present family.

Catherine makes her way to Dublin where she sets about creating a new life for herself. She understands that, alone and financially insecure as she is, this will not be possible with a child. The convents, well used to dealing with ‘fallen women’, take her son when he is three days old and offer him to a wealthy, married couple who have asked for a baby to adopt. Cyril is accepted, although regularly reminded throughout his life that he is not ‘a real Avery’.

Charles and Maud Avery raise the boy in comfort but not perhaps as conventional parents would. Although never in material want, he feels bereft of affection. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian, the handsome and charismatic son of Charles’ solicitor. Julian is unlike anyone Cyril has previously known and he is immediately smitten. The boys become room mates at boarding school and have various, sometimes risqué, adventures. Cyril though has a secret that he cannot bring himself to tell even his best friend.

Ireland in thrall to the Catholic Church. Its sanctimonious attitudes, rampant hypocrisy and mysogeny are brilliantly evoked. Its preoccupation with other people’s sex lives and the indoctrination of guilt lead to horrifying cruelties and acceptance of widespread and very public vilification when those who do not conform to narrow behaviours are found out.

When Cyril’s secret is revealed he travels abroad but can never quite escape the bullies intent on forcing their flawed beliefs on all. Prejudice and related intolerance are damagingly widespread.

At moments in his long life Cyril does find happiness. He also makes mistakes and at times causes suffering for others. He sees the way the world is changing and regrets that he was born too soon to benefit.

The author is an impressive story teller and this ambitious work is masterfully crafted. With just a few lines he can touch the heart of an issue yet is never didactic. Events recounted are sometimes horrifying, but by not dwelling on the misery what comes across is the strength of those who stand up for what is right, and the benefits to society of increased empathy.

I loved this book. It is a powerful, poignant and beautiful tale. It will, I hope, be widely read.

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

Book Review: The Empress and the Cake

empress_web_0_220_330

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bolloch), is the third and final book in the 2016 Peirene series, Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Earlier this year I read the second in this series, Her Father’s Daughter (you may read my review  here). These exquisite short works of fiction are the treasure discerning readers seek.

Set in Vienna, this latest tale centres around Frau Hohenembs, an elderly countess now living in a city apartment cluttered with objects from her past. She is cared for by a rotund housekeeper, Ida, who puts up with her mistress’s temper and quirks due to an oft repeated promise of a house in Corfu. The story is told from the point of view of a young women Frau Hohenembs meets at a local bakery. The countess offers a share of the cake she is buying and persuades the young woman to accompany her home, taking advantage of perceived weakness and a compliant nature.

Eating the cake triggers the young woman’s food addiction and she descends into a dangerous spiral of binge followed by purge. Meanwhile, Frau Hohenembs plans raids on city museums to reclaim items once owned by her icon, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, referred to as Sissi.

Throughout the narrative are scattered anecdotes written by an unknown source who was close to the assassinated Empress, detailing episodes in her life. Sissi was obsessed with her looks, particularly her hair and weight. She observed a rigorous exercise regime and strictly controlled her diet. She would be sewn into her clothes and spend up to three hours a day having her exceptionally long hair styled and dressed.

Frau Hehenembs emulates this way of living, regularly berating Ida for lack of control in her consumption. When she notes that the young women, whose life she is now manipulating, has lost weight, she congratulates her even though the means by which this has occurred is evident.

The museum raids offer Frau Hehenembs a hold over her acolytes which she abuses dispassionately. When the young woman realises how she is being used she determines to escape.

There is a sinister undercurrent. The vagueness of the timeframe and the similarities between characters’ habits and foibles add shadows but also depth. The denouement is perfect.

The story is told with an elegant succinctness. The author understands that her readers will possess sufficient intelligence to read between the lines. The quality of the prose is a joy in itself, the spine tingling unfolding of the tale a pleasure to satisfy any literary palate.

There has been a trend recently for publishing big books. This offering proves that size is no indicator of value. I finished the story in a day but the pleasure lingers. You will feel no regrets indulging in this tale.

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