Book Review: A Jealous Tide

A Jealous Tide, by Anna MacDonald, is an elusory and richly evocative tale of people whose anchors to their small worlds prove inadequate for the shifting tides they face as life progresses. Narrated by an academic based in Melbourne, who is looking back on a winter spent in London, the prose is deeply embedded in her sense of place. Family, friends and other acquaintances are occasionally mentioned but mostly the story focuses on the narrator’s reaction to the stimuli of her surroundings – both immediate and awash with memory. 

Opening in Melbourne, the first few chapters set the scene. She feels a ‘familiar restlessness’ so books a flight to Heathrow. There follow several months during which she prepares for her extended break. She shares significant events from her backstory. She walks to calm unease, often by a river or down to the sea. Water is a recurring theme, both the comfort it offers and the danger it brings.

Enmeshed within the academic’s personal story is that of an RAF Lieutenant who died in the winter of 1919 from injuries sustained rescuing a woman from the River Thames. He had survived the war. The narrator speculates that the woman was broken by grief due to the conflict.

The narrator sets out to explore how lives are affected by trauma, especially those saved from suicide attempts. Starting with studies into shipwrecks – those who drowned and those rescued – she becomes engrossed in finding out what effect this has on the remaining years before death.

“I wanted to know what happened to these men who had been made strangers to the known world by their time cast away.”

In London, the narrator bases herself in Hammersmith – as she has done on previous visits. She walks the streets and along the Thames. She indulges in mudlarking, taking items found back to her bedsit to clean and examine before returning many to the river. In her turbulent imagination she gives these fragments stories, augmented by the research she undertakes at the British Library and Wellcome Collection.


Plaque to the Lieutenant on Hammersmith Bridge (currently closed)

The imagined story of the soldier who died and the woman he rescued add tension to the present day narrative. The characters are imbued with unsettling emotions, similar to those sometimes felt by the narrator.

“struggling for breath in the tourniquet of surrounding streets”

“the woman draws her two arms across the empty cavity of her chest”   

The impact on soldiers of being sent to war – the horrific actions and experiences they must accept there – segue with those who have survived shipwreck. 

“These men have been adrift in an inhumane place. But their real misfortune, it seemed, was to return from there.”

The many ‘stories of the drowned’ she collects leave the narrator feeling unanchored – a ‘sense of loss’ and a ‘creeping calcification’. She copes by introducing strict routines to her days. She considers her life as that which has

“already passed: the places already passed through, the people already passed by”

“the present could be felt only as the varying weather on my shoulders, as a shifting breeze or the welcome warmth of the sun.”

Water was where man came from and, in the narrator’s research, to which many will return. The small items collected from the Thames mud are all that now remain of those who once passed through the city. She is drawn especially to a fragment that bears markings resembling a map – reminding her of the streets she walks repeatedly and the life lines on her palm.

There are references to literature and films (I had to use Google) along with mentions of places of historic interest in the Hammersmith area (I am familiar with the location so could enjoy these). Mostly though the prose is a lavish array of imagery – never cloying, at times disturbing due to the ever present riptide of death.

This is an impressive piece of writing that pulls together a story of displacement and the struggle to survive life’s challenges. An intense but deeply satisfying read.  

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

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

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

Book Review: London Undercurrents

London Undercurrents: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines, north and south of the river, is a collaboration by two London-based female poets, Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire. The former concentrated her research around the Islington area although she has lived in many boroughs of London. The latter lived close to Battersea Park, overlooking the then derelict Power Station. Both had to dig deep to find the voices and experiences of local women, commenting, ‘It should not be so hard to find them.’

The poetry cycle created is presented in sequences that flow with the river running through the pages, offering up women from all walks of life over many centuries. All those included are based on research, with Background Notes at the end of the book explaining what inspired particular poems. There are also links to the project’s blog where interested readers may find out more.

Opening in Battersea Fields, 1685, we are reminded of the agricultural history of what has now been swallowed up by the changing city. Women grew crops and tended cattle. Goods were sold at markets or by peripatetic street sellers. The timeline moves back and forth, offering accounts of female office and factory workers. Their essential tasks kept businesses running, families afloat, yet they were neither noticed nor remembered. Many of the roles came with a risk to health, pay docked for time missed due to illness. From the age of thirteen these women were required to earn their keep.

Although badly paid and monotonous, the various jobs the women accomplished provided a spirit of camaraderie that they valued. When the ‘war effort’ required that they take on roles traditionally worked by men, many enjoyed the freedom and new skills learned. By the time the men returned, the women had changed too.

Not all the women featured are what may be considered traditional heroines. Yet it is clear that their actions, although more harshly punished, are no more or less reprehensible than that of men of their time.

The subjects are fascinating in the history they recount – presented in vivid, evocative stanzas. Good poetry such as this can convey so much in so few words.

I enjoyed the poems focusing on the working classes more than the better off, perhaps because their stories are less well known. As the punk from 1977 states, these women are:

“thrashing against
your label of ‘Woman’ –
what you want us to be”

Were you aware that Arsenal Women Football Club are only permitted to play at Emirates Stadium on occasion? Unlike the men’s team, mostly they are required to train and play elsewhere.

In the notes about the poem featuring a family of coin counterfeiters in 1893, we are told that women would be burned at the stake if caught; men were hung.

When the picture halls opened these provided a welcome if brief escape from the drudgery of everyday experience. There were also occasional trips to the seaside. Battersea Women’s Pub Outing provides a glorious image of women drinking and laughing together, larking about and being noisy. Why does this appear more shocking because they were female?

The sequence on education reminds of the importance of being taught to think rather than merely follow – of challenging the prevailing narrative and societal expectations.

And it is in provoking thought that these poems find their strength. Individually they are structured and written impressively. Put together, as they are in this collection, and they are powerful. They provide a social history of the city from an angle rarely considered. The voices of all these women deserve to be heard.

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

Book Review: Black 13

Black 13, by Adam Hamdy, is the first in a proposed new series from the author of the high octane Pendulum trilogy. It introduces the reader to Scott Pearce, a former operative with MI6 who was driven out of the service when he refused to stand down after an horrific engagement in Islamabad. He believes the perpetrators are still at large and seeks some form of retribution. Scott is a formidable individual whose skills, strengths and lack of personal ties allow him to make clear decisions that may put him in mortal danger but for what he believes is the greater good. He is loyal to the former colleagues who have remained loyal to him.

The story opens with the murder of one of these colleagues, Nathan Foster. Like Scott, Nathan is no longer working for a government agency but is struggling to get by as a civilian. When a young lawyer, Melody Gold, recruits him on behalf of a shadowy client to investigate goings on at a bank, Nathan is drawn to the chance of some danger and glory. He has grown bored with his mundane work as a private investigator for suspicious wives or employers. However, what he discovers at the bank terrifies him and ultimately leads to his demise.

The action then moves to a beautiful beach location in Thailand where Scott is working under an assumed identity as a climbing guide and tutor while seeking gunrunners he believes are connected to what happened in Islamabad.  He is appalled when Melody turns up to recruit him in place of Nathan as only three people in the world should have known Scott’s location. With his cover compromised and powerful enemies on his tail he returns to England. On confirming the details of what happened to Nathan he plots revenge.

Scott asks another of his trusted former colleagues, Wayne Nelson, to act as bodyguard for Melody who is now also in danger. He contacts Leila Nahum, a disabled Syrian refugee and accomplished IT expert with an horrific personal history, whose life Scott saved during an MI6 operation. This small team works to find out who Nathan’s client was and who was behind his killing. What they uncover goes to the heart of the British establishment and beyond, into global networks of politics and wealth.

This is a slick, tense and fast paced thriller. Beneath the vividly described action – the fights, car chases and imaginative means of escape – the author effortlessly slips in thought-provoking social commentary. Arguments put forward can be made to sound reasonable to the disaffected who see their concerns being ignored by those in authority. The narrative explores how ordinary people can be radicalised and how some will go on to commit indefensible atrocities. It is a warning, a clarion call, for what could be happening in Britain today.

The varied and well drawn characters add to the enjoyment of what is an intense and compelling story. It offers escapism but is inventive enough to carry the reader through the many battles and complex conspiracies. Explication never detracts from the adrenaline fuelled escapades. Recommended for those who enjoy well written and electrifying action thrillers.

Black 13 is published by Macmillan.

I am touched and grateful for the limited edition proof I received, with a personalised inscription from the author.

Book Review: The Ground is Full of Holes

The Ground is Full of Holes, by Suzy Norman, is written in an abrupt and often opaque style. Much is inferred but little explained with the plot unfolding mainly through ongoing dialogue and character’s thought processes. The story focuses on a middle aged couple, Nancy and Marcus, who have been married for a decade and have no children. They live in a small terraced house in Fulham, West London, that is not entirely satisfactory to either of them – for differing reasons. Irish born Marcus is a consultant anaesthetist at Barts Hospital. Nancy is on extended leave from her high ranking position in the banking sector. Their marriage is under considerable strain.

Circling this couple are Nancy’s sister and her husband – Georgia and Shiv. Before Marcus, Nancy had been involved with Shiv and there are still tensions because of this. Neither Nancy nor Marcus are maritally faithful although they do not admit this to each other. Marcus’s current affair is with a nurse who assists him in operations. Nancy has her eye on another of her old flames.

Nancy clearly has ongoing issues to contend with that her family are growing impatient with. She turns for solace to her friend, Anna, who has troubles of her own.

His wife’s behaviour frustrates and at times angers Marcus. The fallout from this leads to a tragic error at work. Everything he has built appears to crumble at a time when Nancy needs her husband’s attention. Marcus directs his anger at his in-laws, deflecting the shame he feels for letting down, as he sees it, his own parents.

It took me some time to engage with the writing style and structure to the extent that I nearly gave up reading around a quarter of the way in. Once it became clear that development is more character study than plot driven I was able to accept what was being explored and dissected. I did not always enjoy the reading – the hankering for romance without effort at times veered too close to elements of genre fiction – although there is plenty to consider in the handling of troubled relationships. It is a family tale offering a snapshot of flawed characters, a marriage, and the difficulties inherent in wider family posturing and expectation. I did not find it satisfying to read.

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

Book Review: Judderman

From the publisher’s website:

“Established in 1919, The Eden Book Society was a private publisher of horror for nearly 100 years. Presided over by the Eden family, the press passed through the generations publishing short horror novellas to a private list of subscribers. Eden books were always published under pseudonyms and, until now, have never been available to the public.

Dead Ink Books is pleased to announce that it has secured the rights to the entire Eden Book Society backlist and archives. For the first time, these books, nearly a century of unseen British horror, will be available to the public. The original authors are lost to time, but their work remains and Dead Ink will be faithfully reproducing the publications by reprinting them one year at a time.

Dead Ink hopes that you will join us as we explore the evolving fears of British society as it moved through the 20th Century and eventually entered the 21st. We will begin our reproduction with 1972, a year of exciting and original horror for the Society.

We invite you to join us as we look to unearth who wrote for the society and what connected those writings to the family itself.”

 

The Judderman is a shadowy creature, a liminality between cautious fear and nihilistic despair. The protagonists of this story, Gary Eider and his older brother, Danny, have spent many years seeking out the darker elements of London that go unseen by those who prefer to focus their lives on more mundane concerns. Now Danny is missing, and Gary is reading his journals looking for clues as to where his brother could be. The two men love their city but recognise the horrors that exist in the cracks, under the radar, and on the hills where the wealthy live.

“The important things to see are there and were always there, but you need the tools to see them.”

Gary’s concern for his brother is not shared by their parents, his girlfriend, Lisa, nor the cousin who bears the scars of a war that is still waging. They have never shown interest in the topics that piqued the brothers’ curiosity – London Incognita.

“Gary became fascinated – obsessed, Lisa would say – by how two people could be looking at the very same thing and have totally different experiences. If that was the case, what was reality?”

Gary goes searching for tidings of Danny amongst the mudlarks and burned-out hippies. London is changing, as has always been the case.

Clearances: “A people and a culture, told that it was no longer of any value. Fled, were pushed”

Months pass with no news from Danny or clues as to his whereabouts. Gary finds himself alone in his search, increasingly ostracised, sinking.

“Why wouldn’t they look? I figured if they chose to truly see, then they may have to do something. To act, and to change.”

The refrain of a children’s song haunts Gary. Could his brother have found the Judderman? Did the Judderman find him?

The underlying horror of the tale is not only what could lurk in the shadows but all that is ignored in plain sight. Wars have left scars that go unspoken. Racism and violence are rife. The wealthy satisfy their appetites with impunity. Some things never change.

The author turns over the rock that is London and enables the creatures festering beneath to scuttle away from the unexpected exposure. In that brief glimpse, the reader may understand how the Judderman survives. It is a warning about the risks of revealing that which few wish to see.

A story for fans of horror and contemporary folklore. A dark and compelling read.

Judderman is published by Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: The Faculty of Indifference

The Faculty of Indifference, by Guy Ware, drew me in from the start but couldn’t always hold my full attention. The story has various strands, as stories do, and some were more compelling than others. I persevered and was glad I did despite particular sections failing to engage.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Exley, does not work for an insurance company, although this is what his employer instructs him to say if asked by outsiders. Instead he jokes that if he answered the question he would have to kill the inquirer. He has also been known to say this to his seventeen year old son, Stephen, who asks him each evening, “How was it today?” This started as a joke because Stephen felt he had taken on the role of wife in their household of two, cooking dinner and deciding what shopping would be needed. Robert’s wife – Stephen’s mother – died when the boy was a toddler. Robert has never sought to replace her.

People die, this is inevitable. When Robert was twenty his father killed himself, although by then the older man had been living away from his wife and son for many years. Like Robert, his father worked for the Faculty – Robert’s wife, Mary, had worked there as well. Robert had recruited her and she had become a rising star despite her frowned upon choice to have children.

Mary had spoken to Robert about the importance of cultivating indifference. On a bad day at work – as a result, perhaps, of failing to instigate action – many people could be killed. Such incidents must be lived with.

Robert’s role is to ensure that nothing happens. He is given files on suspects and may order surveillance and intervention. In a city the size of London it is not possible to watch every potential terrorist. Those working for the Faculty must make choices based on disparate facts and occasional observation. They must never talk about what they do.

The story covers the years just before and after Stephen attends university. Like his mother, he is interested in philosophy. He keeps a journal that he writes in code and that his father takes to work to be deciphered. They never mention this strange form of communication. They rarely talk about anything of import.

As well as the events that make up Robert’s days, chapters detail the contents of Stephen’s journal. Working for the government intelligence services brings with it suspicion and a need for secrecy. The interlinked webs of truth and fiction can be a challenge to differentiate.

Stephen is interested in his paternal grandfather and writes about the man’s life, even though the details he has been told are limited. I found these sections of the story slow to read although they prove notable later.

Robert’s days are of more interest until he is assigned a task dealing with a prisoner and a game of Go commences. The convoluted threads then slowly come together. The reader must decide which moves have been feints.

Key elements in the story are the importance of past and future to the present. Death hovers in the background and Robert appears to almost look forward to his. Stephen has also shown an interest yet Robert refuses to confront how his son is feeling.

“His argument concerned only the prolongation of an intolerable present for fear of – in the certainty of – an even more intolerable future. When you reduced life to that dilemma, was it possible to remain indifferent? Was one forced to live as if life might not be intolerable, forced to hope that it might even be improved?”

The denouement is something of a monkey puzzle with plenty to chew over but an undercurrent of melancholy. Stephen and Robert’s story may finish but the work of the intelligence services remains.

A story of grief and its many facets, of abandonment and strategies for self-preservation. This was a complex and not always comfortable read.

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

Book Review: Plume

Plume, by Will Wiles, is set in contemporary London, albeit one that makes no reference to multiculturalism. Its protagonist is Jack Bick who works as an interview journalist for a glossy lifestyle magazine. It explores such fictions as: truth, memory, aspiration, and social media.

When Jack first moved to London it was still possible to get a foot in the door of journalism without first serving as an unpaid intern. It was possible to believe that, one day, he may become a home owner in the city. He mixed with the right people; moved into a rented flat with his girlfriend. The raw edges of his life could be smoothed over with a few drinks at the end of the day.

The story opens at a weekly work planning meeting. Jack is zoning out, not just from boredom but from the effort of not being found out for what he has become. His timekeeping is erratic; the work he submits unoriginal and shoddy. The word is that there will be cutbacks and he fears what this could mean for him.

The shockwave from an explosion in the east of the city barely registers initially but marks the beginning of what Jack believes may be the end of long desired possibilities.

He resents the rent he must pay for a dark little flat that suffers noise intrusion from neighbour’s building work. He resents that his ambition is growing ever further beyond his reach. Jack is an alcoholic. Hiding the effects of this from colleagues is becoming increasingly difficult.

Jack plans to interview a reclusive author, Oliver Pierce. Contact was made through a mutual acquaintance who has developed a new type of social media app, due to be rolled out further afield. Jack’s boss would prefer if he interviewed a property developer at the forefront of recent regeneration projects. Between them these people represent everything Jack has missed out on, including the financial success that would enable him to buy rather than rent.

A key character is the setting and the effect London has on its residents. As the plot and associated action moves between areas – the pockets of wealth and still dodgy streets – what is seen and what is believed is shown to be key to satisfaction and behaviour. Landlords look to enhance their assets with little regard for pesky tenants. Middlemen step in to assist those who can pay.

Jack is not the only man facing a crisis. Oliver has agreed to be interviewed because he wishes to atone for past behaviour – a lie he has been living that generated his success. Both men’s actions are erratic and often dangerous yet they are not as autonomous as they may wish to believe. There are manipulations from shady sources, and from the mirage of a lifestyle they are encouraged to pursue.

The author has captured the zeitgeist, particularly around Shoreditch, and presents it with wit and candour. Interspersed with keen imagery are nuggets of local reference to amuse. As a reader of Kit Caless’s book I was tickled by the man in Wetherspoons photographing his shoes. The Winterzone event that Jack and Oliver attend encapsulates the conflicting interests and benefits of widespread city regeneration.

Beneath the personal facade lies a yearning for rose tinted pasts and futures alongside a desire for authenticity, whatever that may mean. Yet life can only be enjoyed within the confines of personal comfort and security. London is an amalgam; it is alive and it is dirty. Those who pass through, however long for, see only fragments through a glass darkly.

The writing is fluid and entertaining, the characters well rendered if of a type. There is much to ponder, more to enjoy. Despite my reservations about breadth of representation, this is a piquant and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate.

Book Review: Ordinary People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I first came across Ordinary People at a book festival event where the author was one of the speakers on a panel. Here I learned that the story is centred in South London, near Crystal Palace, and is about two couples with children as they experience relationship crises. This didn’t sound like a book for me. Then it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction alongside several other novels I have recently read and enjoyed. I decided to set aside my preconceptions and give it a go.

It is a book in two halves. I quickly became absorbed in the lives of the lead couple, Melissa and Michael. The role of the second couple, Damian and Stephanie, is significant to the plot but plays a more supporting role. The writing brought to mind a contemporary Jane Austin and I was duly impressed. It is an engrossing story offering understated insights into the ordinary issues and frustrations of family life. These are presented unvarnished but with a degree of sympathy. There is an added dash of humour to soften any darkness explored.

We are introduced to M&M (as a friend refers to them) at a party to celebrate Obama’s election. This is hosted by two brothers who used to live in North London but moved south as they

“were conscious of their privilege and wanted to be seen as having survived it spiritually”

Their guest list featured

“all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew […] less eminent guests were chosen on a sliding scale according to rank, connections, looks and personality”

Melissa and Michael are also moving – from their small flat to a house south of the river. They want a garden for their children to play in. Financial constraints lead to compromises so their new abode is far from ideal. The area suffers regular knife crime. The house is old and Melissa soon begins to sense malevolence.

Before this becomes a key issue there are growing problems in the M&M relationship. Melissa feels that her essence is being suffocated by the demands of motherhood and takes out her frustrations on Michael. He in turn is saddened that his beautiful and vital young partner has turned into this disdainful and inattentive shrew who is no longer interested in him sexually, an important aspect of their affinity in his view.

Melissa misses the professional working environment – although we later learn she is harbouring rose tinted memories – and rails against the mundane requirements of the daily care of small children. She feels guilt at her boredom and at how easily she falls into the competitive conversations typical amongst groups of mothers at the places she goes to escape the confines of her home. When Michael returns from work each evening he is berated for not doing more to ease Melissa’s burden. Pointing out that he has to work to support them fuels her anger.

All this is portrayed in: bus journeys, visits to a park and soft play emporiums, meetings between friends. These friends include Damian and Stephanie who we are introduced to at their home in Dorking. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie adores motherhood and would be content were it not for her husband’s perceived obdurateness. Damian resents that they moved out of London – he misses the buzz of the city. His father died recently and this has affected him more than he realises. Added to this he harbours hidden feelings for Melissa.

There is an amusing scene when Stephanie’s parents attend one of their “monthly in-lawed roasts”. Stephanie’s father offers passive aggressive advice, making clear that Damian is not good enough for his princess. Although Stephanie defends him, Damian silently agrees.

“had he really fallen in love at all? Was it just that she had made him feel adequate and dynamic, that she was focused and forthright in her plans for her life when he was not”

At around halfway through the book I realised that the perceptive, amusing and dynamic pace had slowed and my interest was waning. When the pace picked up again the tone felt more soap opera than penetrative. There are arguments and foolish reactions. The couples splinter and reconcile. It is smoothly written but lacking the verve of the earlier portrayal.

A group holiday adds interest before the focus returns to London and Melissa’s growing fears centred on her house – the effect she is convinced it is having on her daughter. Michael is struggling to reconcile the woman Melissa has become with the woman he fell in love with.

The denouement is neatly achieved but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed. The initial potential – that elegant capturing of the nuances of modern coupledom, of parenting in the 21st century – was not sustained.

Throughout the story there are references to music that I could not appreciate as I knew few of the artists and do not listen to those whose names I recognised. I am guessing that this will appeal more to readers whose age better fits the protagonists (late thirties). The author has created a playlist for those interested.

Near the end of the narrative Michael Jackson dies. This bookending with celebration and then grief over well known people of colour fits with one of the themes explored – the differences in lived experience of the dark and light skinned British from the professional classes.

Any Cop?: I’m not going to condemn what is a well constructed and generally satisfactory read. The first half exceeded my expectations and made me glad to have picked up the book. The second half denied it the status of modern classic.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Place of Safety

A Place of Safety, by Martin Nathan, is a story of the darker side of family life. Told from the points of view of four narrators, each recalling events with slight deviations, it opens with the aftermath of a devastating house fire. Three bodies have been recovered, two of whom are presumed to be the owners, David and Esme Guralnick. David had recently left his long time job at a local estate agency that was sold a year ago to Alice, a young woman of Greek descent, who purchased the business with the help of her father. She is now facing financial difficulties.

Alice is one of four sisters but, unlike her siblings, has not married. This is another failing for which her mother berates her. Alice’s father had a string of affairs over many years and eventually left the family home. Only Alice still retains contact, something her mother and sisters view as betrayal.

“My mother had turned into an angry grass widow so many years before, with little pretence that there was any affection left for him. They didn’t split up for years, continuing to live around each other in silent hatred.”

David Guralnick and his wife had been planning on relocating to the coast and Alice had been handling the sale of their South London property. A young couple, Andrew and Carol, had shown an interest and arranged a viewing. The meeting of the potential buyers and sellers to discuss the details of what fixtures and fittings could be included had not gone as Alice expected. Now the house and contents have been burned to a shell.

Alice’s sisters are planning a gathering for their mother’s seventieth birthday. Alice knows she must attend but that it will be a trial during which she will suffer much criticism. She regards David and Esme as a couple to aspire to with their long marriage and plans for the future. She is unaware of the tensions that percolate, that they can barely tolerate each other at times and heap culpability for disappointment with how their lives have turned out.

Carol has been seeking a cause to live for since she was a teenager. When she hears Andrew speak at a meeting she seizes the opportunity to align herself with his cause.

“My family had never been people who embraced life. They lived solitary lives, regarding each other in silence, rarely deviating. Each day like the last, no change forseeable in the future. Each night they mutely congratulated each other that things had not changed. No better, but also no worse. All the potential disasters in the world had passed them by for another day. They expected me to live the same way; any suggestion I might adopt a different pattern of behaviour was perceived as a threat.”

Each of the families depicted expect their children to accept and adhere to prescribed behaviour. Reaction to deviation varies from vocal disappointment to outright rejection. The scars of guilt and resentment fester across both generations. Whilst relationships suffer, the perpetrators and victims mostly continue along their chosen paths shouldering the burden of recrimination. In one case, this weight turns deadly.

The writing has the tension and engagement of a thriller but retains sufficient originality to avoid the clichés and predictability more typical of the genre. The denouement answers the questions posed throughout the narrative but leaves the reader with plenty to consider.

A disturbing depiction of the damage caused by familial demands and expectation. Discomforting yet compelling, this is a piquant and thought-provoking read.

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