Book Review: Beside Myself

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Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan, is a powerful exploration of family, identity and mental health. It examines a fractured family whose matriarch believes individuals should take responsibility for their problems; that they should be contained, hidden from the outside world; that to make a fuss is worse than whatever the cause may have been.

Ellie and Helen are twins, as alike as two peas in a pod. Helen is the leader, the good girl who has to look out for her stupider sister. Sometimes this means giving her a lesson, inflicting cruelties which Helen enjoys. One day she decides that they will play a game. Helen will pretend to be Ellie and Ellie is to pretend to be Helen. They swap the clothes and hairstyles that their mother gives them that people may tell them apart. Except the day they choose to play the game is the day that Mother moves her new man into their home. Everyone is fooled by the girls’ deceit, and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

This is Helen’s story, the twin who is now known as Ellie. Alternate chapters deal with her childhood and adulthood, the timelines converging as her tale is told. When we first meet her as an adult it is clear that her life is a mess. She is hungover, living in poverty, estranged from her family. When she hears that her sister is in a coma following a car accident she doesn’t wish to become involved. Her sister’s husband will not accept this.

From the first page I was hooked. The premise is intriguing but it is the development that really impressed. There is no filler. Every chapter offers up yet another reveal, another punch in the gut. Ellie is constantly reaching out to those around her and finding emptiness. It is an aloneness that hurts in its realism.

As adults it is too easy to look at a troubled child and believe that, with the right support, they could be mended. This story demonstrates that much of that support is misplaced. A child struggles to speak the language of adults who will always consider that they know best. Like many youngsters, Ellie tells stories as she grasps for attention. Her attempts to explain the truth then flounder, the words she struggles to find treated with contempt.

Ellie is labelled as backward and troublesome. Her hopes of fresh starts are blown away by the reports that go ahead of her, passed between the adults charged with her care. As realisation dawns that she has no power to change her situation she finds a way to cope by ceasing to care. With nothing now to lose, rules and conventions may be ignored.

I felt anger and sadness as Ellie’s story unfolded. I was awed at the author’s accomplishment in the telling. Difficult issues of nature, nurture, how adults treat children and society judges; are woven into a compelling story of relationships, and the blame apportioned when outcomes clash with ideals.

The denouement provides explanations for many of the problems Ellie faced. There are no easy answers but it is a satisfying end to the tale.

This is a remarkable work of literature that I have no hesitation in recommending. It will be amongst my best reads of the year.

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

Book Review: Being Someone

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Being Someone, by Adrian Harvey, is a story of relationships, love and of personhood. It explores how each individual lives with themselves; how this may be moulded; how each is seen through other’s eyes, and how difficult this is to control. With the lightest of touches the author burrows deep into the human psyche.

The tale is told in non-linear fashion, moving around in time and place. It opens in India with the story of an elephant and a death at a parade. It then takes the reader to late 1990’s London, when Britain was booming and the city was a wellspring for the arts. The connection between these strands remains nebulous for some time, but clarifies as the tale progresses.

The protagonist, James, has left his job in advertising to set up a promotions company with a colleague and friend. Through his work he meets Lainey, a beautiful and assured American lawyer. Together they embark on a whirlwind romance.

Their story enables the author to probe the thoughts and feelings of a man, over a decade of his life, as he falls in and then out of love. James is self aware and consciously reinvents himself for each new situation, including his relationships. He ponders why he is attracted to someone he does not yet know, if he desires them or their potential to change the trajectory of his own life.

The author uses the analogy of a shark, which some believe will drown if it stays still, to explain the festering of James’ gradual disillusionment. Within the constraints he has placed on his relationship James runs out of space for reinvention, for moving forward with his life. Whereas he had valued Lainey’s beauty, familiarity has disenabled his ability to see her in this way and this matters to him. His desire to “feast on sensation” leads him to consider change.

I paraphrase some of the author’s words: Lainey’s friends cast her in the role of victim and she resents the imposition. She comes to realise that she has lived much of her adult life waiting to become all that she intended rather than living it. She is frustrated by her inability to alter the stories others write of her, the fictions they invent to fill their own gaps.

The denouement draws together the many strands explored, revealing the meaning behind the elephant’s tale. It is a satisfying and uplifting conclusion.

This is an impressive work of literature that is vividly human, insightful and moving. It questions why we value others with a sometimes uncomfortable honesty. I would recommend this book to all.

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

Gig Review: An Audience with Hilary Mantel

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Yesterday evening I joined around one hundred other people to listen to Hilary Mantel talk about the phenomenon that her Thomas Cromwell trilogy has blossomed into. As she said, Wolf Hall is now more than just a book, and its popularity is down to more than her writing. Whilst I admire her modesty, it was fascinating to listen to how her forty years in the making idea developed, and how it so unexpectedly acquired a life of its own.

The talk was held in the quiet archive room at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and was a fund raiser for the archives. Hilary had spent the day browsing documents which the centre holds relating to the Seymour family, whose seat was at nearby Burbage. A manor house named Wolf Hall still exists on the site although it is not the original in which Jane Seymour lived.

Hilary told us how she wrote to the current owners of Wolf Hall when her book was due to be published, as a courtesy to let them know that she was using the name, assuring them that her books rarely sold more than a few thousand copies so they were unlikely to hear of it.

When Hilary mentioned to a writer friend that she was working on a book about Thomas Cromwell he retorted, ‘He was a bad man’. This is how history has presented him, the Machiavelli to More’s saintly persona. A closer look suggests that neither portrayal is accurate. History is a moving feast, rewritten and reinterpreted for each present day. Hilary wished to create a character that was, like any living person, chameleon like and difficult to fully know, but one with whom the reader could empathise.

She talked of her involvement in the BBC TV series, and also in the adaptations for the West End and Broadway stage. Although she worked alongside the writers and producers she allowed that these interpretations were not of her making, much as each reader will take something slightly different from their experience of her books.

The final part of the trilogy (The Mirror and the Light) is still some way off completion and will be shaped to some extent by the derivations to which the first two in the series have been subjected. It will hold up a light to all that has gone before, and challenge the reader to consider the conclusions they have come to about each of the characters. The ending will mirror the beginning, with Cromwell looking at the feet of a man trying to kill him and hearing the voice of his father, “So now get up!”

Hilary spoke with wit and passion. She commented that she would not wish to sit down to dinner with Thomas Cromwell as he would be unlikely to say much of note. She would much prefer to dine with Thomas Wolsey, a lively gossip and raconteur.

When speaking of Cromwell’s demise she pointed out that he, as with Anne Boleyn, was brought down by the clever use of gossip in a time when there was no photographic evidence and little was documented unless it were a legal transaction. Cromwell was accused of trying to supplant the king, something that his family took a further four generations to achieve.

I was glad that I had taken the time to read Hilary’s books before going along to the talk (you may find my reviews here and here). Although I took one along on the off chance that she may sign it, the event was not of that type. It would have felt like asking a personal favour of a host’s dinner guest, met for the first time.

One lucky lady did get to interview Hilary after the talk, enabling me to at least capture an image from an enlightening and entertaining evening.

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Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies

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Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, is the second book in a proposed trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII (the first in this series is Wolf Hall which I review here). In this part of the story the author covers the machinations which led to the trial and beheading of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in order to allow the king to marry Jane Seymour.

Although written with the same assurance and impressive attention to detail I nevertheless found this book less compelling than its predecessor. It is hard to be critical of a work of such high, literary quality; I only do so because I compare it to Wolf Hall and find less to commend. The background to the characters and their relationships have already been covered. These few months of history have been dramatised so extensively elsewhere that there is little new to learn.

What the reader does get is further insight into why Cromwell chose to bring down certain courtiers and not others. He was loyal to his friends and ruthless towards his enemies. His prodigious memory ensured that he did not forget any slight towards himself or those who had helped him in his unprecedented rise within a powerful court reserved for the aristocracy. Cromwell earned his place by ensuring that, when the King required an outcome, he would provide. He gained his own personal revenges along the way.

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

Cromwell plays a long game, his plans and intrigues reminding me of a game of chess. He can never be sure of his opponents next move but, having studied them carefully over many years, he makes informed guesses and adjusts his strategies accordingly. Much of what he thinks is kept hidden behind his austere facade, calm bearing and growing reputation. He knows that there are many who would wish to bring him down and carefully cultivates those whose loyalty he will one day call upon. Everything is held to account.

This is a deftly written and still fascinating narration from a master story teller. That I did not enjoy reading it quite as much as I did Wolf Hall should not detract from my view that it is an exceptional, historical biography which vividly portrays the politics and passions of the time. Hilary Mantel well deserves the many accolades she has received. I look forward to reading the conclusion to this trilogy when it is published.

 

Book Review: Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book in a proposed trilogy which explores the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII. Much has, of course, been written about the Tudors, especially those who came and went during the reign of this much married monarch. The main plot holds few surprises yet the author weaves an engrossing tale around these key events. This is a compelling and fast moving story which takes the reader into the heart of the powerhouses of Britain at that time. It is a reminder that social changes have complex settings.

Thomas Cromwell was noteworthy because he was low born yet rose to become the king’s key advisor in an age when the aristocracy guarded their power with an iron fist. Cromwell’s prodigious memory and attention to detail, alongside his political astuteness, enabled him to ride the changing tides of favour and fortune which brought so many others down. He bought and sold secrets with adroitness, a shadowy figure amongst peacocks. He valued knowledge and looked after his own.

The story is a fascinating biographical fiction but it is the quality of the prose which sets the book apart. Well known names are given life, the period is evoked with precision but also feeling. Cromwell’s inner thoughts offer explanations as to why notable events occurred as they did.

As Cromwell mulls over events, calculating odds on emerging players, he keeps much hidden from the reader, as he does from all those who surround him. In rare moments he will recognise in himself certain of his less admirable characteristics. How often do we all rewrite even our own memories?

Despite being over six hundred pages long the plot moves along apace and the writing flows. Use of language and imagery are exquisite. I am wary of Booker Prize winning novels as I have, in the past, found some to provide turgid reading; to be scholarly more than enjoyable. This is a readers book, an immersive and captivating story presented in an accessible, potent voice.

Book Review: The Sense of an Elephant

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The Sense of an Elephant, by Marco Missiroli (translated by Stephen Twilley), is a book about love, secrets, the importance of family and of memory. It contains a number of deaths but as an inevitable part of life; something that may be imposed but also chosen. The reasons for choosing are varied and complex, as are the characters who populate this tale.

The protagonist, Pietro, has recently taken a job as concierge at a condominium in Milan. Prior to this he was a priest, a role he embarked upon as he felt he had no other choice. He has never been satisfied with God, but finally gave up on him because of a photograph and a letter he received.

The reader is introduced to each of the occupants of the condominium, all of whom will be affected by their interactions with Pietro. He is most interested in getting to know Luca Martini, a doctor who lives with his wife and young daughter on the second floor. He lets himself into the Martini’s flat when they are out using the keys his job provides. He observes photographs and takes away random objects of little value which he adds to his boxes of memories.

Beside the Martinis lives Poppi, a lawyer and the administrator of the condominium who keeps a close eye on all the residents, caring for their secrets. Also on this floor are Paulo and her son Fernando who believes he is in love with Alice, the barista in a cafe across the street. All are drawn to Pietro but for very different reasons.

Alongside the unfolding plot lines, which include several of the doctor’s patients, there is a slow reveal about a young priest and a girl he gets to know when she kills his cat. He calls her the witch and it is not hard to guess that this priest is the young Pietro. Working out where each plot line is going offers interest, but the strength of this story lies is in its structure and development.

The denouement was unexpected, at least to me. The poignancy had been intensifying as the tale progressed but I did not anticipate where this would lead.

The style of writing made me feel that I was getting to know each character personally. The prose is sensual yet sparse with each scene evoked through action as much as description. Pietro’s journeys on his bicycle made me feel that I was riding alongside him.

This is not a book to be rushed but rather should be considered and savoured. It is an unusual read but one which stays on the mind. Despite having only just finished, I am already tempted to start over and read it again.

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

Book Review: A Little Life

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A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is huge in size and scope yet it contains no waste, no filler. It is an emotionally intelligent exploration of love and friendship which challenges the reader to consider difficult subjects such as childhood abuse, self harm, and the inability to escape memory. Despite this darkness it is also a beautifully written and compelling story.

The book opens in contemporary New York where four classmates from a small Massachusetts college have recently moved to start their careers. Willem is an aspiring actor, JB an undiscovered artist, Malcolm a trainee architect and Jude a lawyer. Each are introduced to the reader through narration of their shared experiences told from the perspectives of the protagonists and those they are close to. The cast is large and effortlessly diverse, their lives both ordinary and extraordinary.

The relationships between these four friends ebbs and flows. Backgrounds and influences are revealed, new friendships forged; partners come and go, priorities change. The bonds between each of the men is stretched to its limit at times as they deal with the altering attention each offers to the others. The writing is raw and powerful, an emotional roller coaster that somehow remains balanced by the quality of the prose.

There is much in the story that is uplifting but it has a dark heart. The impact of Jude’s memories effects each of the men. The intensity of certain sections relating to Jude’s childhood and his subsequent need to self-harm is challenging to read, but these grim and explicit passages are necessary for understanding. They are detailed but not sensationalist. The personal reflections allow the reader to better empathise even when action or inaction generates despair.

As the plot progresses so too does the depth of the storytelling. The writing is sparse in places, lyrical in others, but always impressive. The friends age and the layers of their lives are peeled back revealing a tenderness to counter the horror; a love story in the purest sense.

This is a remarkable literary achievement which left me feeling emotionally stunned but exceptionally satisfied. A Little Life is, quite possibly, the best book I have ever read.

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

Book Review: Our Souls at Night

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Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, is an exquisitely written story of aging, loneliness, empathy and the cruelties inflicted by those who should have our best interests at heart. It is a beautiful book despite the sadness it evokes. The sparse prose was a joy to read.

Addie Moore is a seventy year old widow who misses having someone to talk to when she is alone at night. One evening she pays a visit to her neighbour, Louis, a widower of a similar age. She proposes that he come over to spend the nights with her. She is not looking for sex, although this is not ruled out, but rather warmth and companionship. Thus begins a relationship that disquiets many in their small town community and shocks their children.

As Addie and Louis get to know each other better they settle into a routine that suits them well. They find contentment in each other’s company and the strength to rebuff those who criticise what they are doing. Quite a few of their friends are in fact a little envious that they have found happiness at their age. It is their children, their loved ones, who threaten all that they have gained.

Just as parent’s of young children can fail to regard their offspring’s feelings, convinced that only they know what is best for them, so Addie and Louis’s grown children cannot seem to regard their parents as people with regular desires. They see them merely as old and denounce the relationship. It is embarrassing, inappropriate and a threat to their inheritance.

The protagonists in this book are ordinary, everyday folk trying to get by as best they can. What comes to the fore as the tale progresses is how society condemns the elderly to a certain lifestyle and fails to see them as people who want to live rather than merely survive. Both Addie and Louis are of sound mind yet are treated as incapable of wise self-determination.

It is easy to see why each of the characters thinks as they do. They are rounded and believable with a depth that the author provides with a minimum of words. I loved this tale and feel sated by the telling. I recommend it to all.

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

Book Review: Dark River Melody

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Dark River Melody, by MD Murphy, is a novel that brings

“the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Georgian London to the page”

It offers

“a palpable sense of the capital in all its terrible glory, its poetic squalor.”

The story encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time.

The tale opens with the return to London of Tom Gobey who has been in prison in Botany Bay for the past seven years. His crime was to write a pamphlet criticising the church, government and King. Having served his time he now desires nothing more than to be reunited with his sweetheart, Eileen Dineen, an Irish beauty and fellow republican.

From the moment Tom steps off the boat he encounters trouble. He challenges a slave trader who will remember his face. He finds himself being pursued by an unknown assailant intent on his demise. Add to this his repeated encounters with wandering press gangs and he frequently finds himself on the run.

He comes across an old friend, Johnny Steadman, slumped in a pillory for singing a rebel song in a tavern whilst drunk. Johnny offers Tom shelter but informs him that Eileen is now living with an aristocrat. Tom determines to find her anyway, to discover if she still harbours feelings for him. He is unaware that it is her new man, the aristocrat Saffronetti, who has instructed his henchman, Mr Sticks, to do away with Tom in an attempt to force Eileen to give him the attention he craves.

Mr Sticks is one of the most vile characters that I have ever come across in literature:

“his heart felt black – black and hard as obsidian – and all its rhythms were driven by hate.”

The descriptions of his smell, habits and his treatment of others are vivid and stomach churning. He is an impressively gross creation, terrifying in his apparent unassailabilty and horrible in every imaginable meaning of the word.

This whole tale is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets. The extremes of wealth, privilege and power highlight the injustices of the time. Some things, unfortunately, have not changed.

The book beats with a pulse that is London with the river flowing through its heart. As Tom seeks out his beloved and struggles to escape his various assailants we meet those who, despite their own suffering, are still able to show compassion. When Tom encounters a dark skinned slave they find they have much in common besides their current predicament:

“Both had been rocked on the ocean, sent to lands afar. Both had incessantly dreamed of their native land.”

I did not like some of the coincidences used to progress the plot: Eileen being in the carriage Tom happened to jumped on, the house he rolled into while trying to make his way to the bone setter turning out to be Safronetti’s. However, it is the use of language that is the story’s strength. There is a terrible beauty to the prose, a dark melody that permeates each page.

I loved this book quite simply for the pleasure of reading it. It breathed life. Whatever the oppression and squalor described there remained hope.

Reading this book was like listening to beautiful, haunting music. The sounds will linger in memory long after the last note has been sung.

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

Book Review: Confessions

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Confessions, by Jaume Cabré, is massive in size, scope and literary merit. Given its reach it is hard to classify: a love story, a treatise on evil, the story of a life. Translated from the original Catalan by Mara Faye Letham, the tale has a depth that demands the reader’s full attention. Compelling as the interwoven strands of the story are, it deserves regular pauses for contemplation and for the quality of the writing to be savoured.

The book introduces us to Adrià Ardèvol, a gifted and precocious only son of distant and cold parents. His father, a collector of valuable objects and secrets, pushes his son to study languages. Adrià enjoys this challenge but resents that his father rarely acknowledges his impressive progress. His mother is determined that he should become a virtuoso violinist, all but killing his enjoyment of the instrument with her passion for his success. His violin lessons do, however, facilitate a meeting with another music student, Bernat Plensa, who becomes a lifelong friend.

The book is written as a memoir. At sixty years of age Adrià is succumbing to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. With Bernat’s help he wishes to publish the story of his life, a story that has been driven by dark secrets, history and his unusual, lonely childhood. In many ways his life has been extraordinary, influenced as it was by the inquisition, Auschwitz and his own academic studies and career. As with any life though, his choices have more often been driven by regular experiences: love, friendship, guilt and chance.

There were so many aspects of this book that I enjoyed. As Adrià recalled events he jumped from his own past to that of objects which affected his life, such as the valuable violin that his father had acquired through one of his many nefarious deals. In moving between time periods it is shown that evil has always existed. Ideals are justified by strong leaders who hold power and can force others to act as they desire through promises of glory and through fear. Individual acts of distressing cruelty are as likely to be prompted by personal lust, greed or jealousy as by a shared belief in a cause.

At times the changes of voice in the tale can be disconcerting. I was unsure if this was to highlight the effects of the Alzheimer’s or to illustrate the hazy concept of truth in recollection. Each time an individual recounts a story from their past the emphasis or detail is liable to change. It was unclear at times how much of Adrià’s story came from his books, his thoughts or how he lived his life. All were his experiences.

The valuable violin was a constant throughout the tale. I empathised with Adrià’s actions when, as a young boy, he wished to give it to Bernat. The lonely boy valued their friendship over an instrument which, at that time, was simply another object in his father’s collection, a collection that was given more care and attention than the child. It was interesting that Adrià, like his father, subsequently took pleasure in acquiring historical objects, suffering problems when these were granted undue importance in his life.

Another strand of the story looked at how value is ascribed. Any item is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay. That artwork or artefacts fetch such staggering sums is as much to do with the satisfaction a buyer feels in owning such a piece as in the attributes of the object. Throughout history lives have been barbarically sacrificed to satisfy the wealthy and powerful’s desire for ownership of place, person or thing.

Having enjoyed the complex journey I wondered how the author could complete such a tale. I was not disappointed. The denouement was unexpected but satisfying, rounding off Bernat’s story as much as Adrià’s. The ending fitted perfectly with everything that had gone before.

This is not a book to be picked up lightly but the investment in reading is undoubtedly worthwhile. As a study of humanity, what is valued, and how individuals see themselves and their history it is enlightening. Beautifully written, challenging and perceptive, its narrative will continue to resonate long after the last page is turned.

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