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

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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.

Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne, offers the varied voices of second generation, working class immigrants during a few days of enhanced racial tension in our capital city. An angry young ‘black boy’, calling himself ‘the hand of Allah’, has murdered a soldier on a street in daylight and then publicly desecrated the body. Far right troublemakers intent on blaming all people of colour for the country’s ills react by inciting further hate filled violence. This then spills into the streets of an enclave of north west London.

Around the tower blocks of a Neasdon housing estate a group of teenage friends, raised under a mix of creeds, are seeking ways to carve a future for themselves. Life in the mixed community is hard with options further limited by family circumstances. The boys come together to play football, chat about girls and listen to music. They rarely talk about the detail of what is going on inside their homes and heads.

Selvon lives with his mother and ailing father off the estate. He is accepted as he regularly hangs out there with his friends. Focused on his training – regular runs and visits to the gym – he is biding his time before escaping to university. His father, Nelson, came to London from the Caribbean in the late 1950s. Nelson taught his son to be disciplined, to focus on self-direction and not get swayed by the wrong crowd.

Ardan lives with his mother, Caroline, who was sent to London by her family in Belfast when she was seventeen. Ardan focuses on his music, Grime, recording creations but keeping them to himself. Caroline fights her own demons, drowning them in drink.

Yusof also lives with his mother but their family is more recently troubled. His father was Imam at the local mosque before he died in a car accident. His brother, Irfan, has since brought shame down on the family. The new Imam has radical ideas and was granted power over the boys by their grieving mother. This Imam and his ardent followers, including former schoolboy bullies, are determined to rein Yusof and Irfan in.

The story is written over just a few days and focuses on the male population. I found the supporting roles granted the women unsatisfactory – where was their strength of character and influence? Given the power of the narrative this remains a minor irritation.

The young residents of the multicultural area are portrayed going about their lives. These are shadowed by circumstances not of their making – they deal as best they can with the world they have been given. When hate filled actions encroach there is fear and anger, a powerlessness in the face of demands from a fracturing community often at odds with personal desires.

The writing adopts a local vernacular that took some time to engage with. It is not difficult to read but I am still unsure what some phrases mean – how does one ‘Kiss my teeth’? Selvon has a sexual encounter with a girl he meets on the estate which was unpleasant to read. What comes across though are lives that are beyond my experience. The portrayal appears searingly authentic.

Having recently read The Study Circle I could empathise to a degree with the Muslim strand of the story. Caroline’s background was familiar. In offering three young friends, raised in the same place but by parents from differing backgrounds, the challenges of lazy attitudes to skin colour and poverty can be explored and contrasted. We need more voices like this in our literature if we are to to better understand the weight of limitations imposed on those raised in such communities. There may be a few who get away but what of those who remain?

This is a dark tale posing questions not easily answered but which, for the good of all, need to be more widely considered. A well structured and captivating read.

Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

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

Book Review: Takeaway

“they reckon about a hundred people in London account for something like fifty percent of all the ambulance callouts. It’s like they want a gold membership card, or a special closeness with their god, the fear of death.”

Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard, offers an uncompromising look at the realities facing an NHS ambulance driver in contemporary London. The honesty is shocking in places so used have we become to expressing thoughts in language deemed acceptable by those who have made it their business to police such things. The tales told are refreshingly devoid of standard public censorship. Although at times derogatory it is to expectations and behaviours rather than people.

Written in the voice of an experienced ambulance driver, part of a team that has established an inner detector honing in on who may actually benefit from hospital treatment, the anecdotes recounted bring to light how often ambulance callouts are unnecessary. Prospective patients are drunk, on drugs, suffering indigestion or simply seeking attention. Families do not wish to deal with difficult or messy relatives. They want the problem of responsibility to be taken away. When a true emergency happens – a heart attack, attempted suicide or road traffic accident – sometimes the kinder action is to accept the inevitable. Those looking on increasingly expect a miracle, as seen on TV.

“we’re judged on how many of those dead people we can bring back to life. Most of those dead people are dead for a reason. Forty years of smoking, drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. […] Only five percent of people come back when we do CPR and the rest of it. Out of that, how many of them actually have a quality of life? A tiny amount. […] The natural way of dying is the heart stops beating, oxygen stops going to the brain, the brain cuts out. As you’re going through that dying process, your head is most likely producing some psychedlic, drug, and you imagine you see a tunnel of light or the gates of heaven. Imagine you’re going through that relatively blissful drug experience, and some [f- c-] starts trying to reverse it […] your relatively pleasant death is turned into this brutal forty-minute procedure […] I feel sorry for the people for whom it’s their last experience on this planet.”

The ambulance teams have regulars – patients with complex issues that cannot be sorted by a visit to A&E. The drivers must also circumvent a bureaucracy that values public perception, targets and adherence to listed procedures over what may be of longer term benefit to the patient. There are run-ins with the police, with violent criminals, and with privileged office workers on a night out who require protection from the effects of their own idiocy.

When an ambulance is called – say to pick up an elderly person who has fallen over because carers are not allowed to lift people, or because a woman is suffering vaginal bleeding (monthly?) – that vehicle becomes, for a time, unavailable. This is rarely a concern as callouts missed are unlikely to be time critical. Knowing this the drivers are not always rushing to get back to work.

Although trying to act in a calm and professional manner drivers are human and can become enraged by the way they and the services they offer are treated, especially when they decline to comply with self-entitled expectations and problem shifting.

Written as a series of short and fascinating examples of cases, this book provides mordant entertainment through attitudes and reactions to incidents. It is also food for thought about how each reader would wish to be treated should they one day require an ambulance team’s skills and services.

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

Book Review: The Bespokist Society

The Bespokist Society: Guide to… London is a carefully curated guide to the dreamiest, most hipster, creative places to go in our historic yet vibrant capital city. It embraces the artisan, the carefully sourced, the importance of experiencing. It includes interviews and features that bring to the fore the values of the team behind this pocket sized cornucopia of well hidden delights. As co-author Nastya Petrov advises in her introduction,

“if you’re bored of London, you just need to spend more money”

The guide is handily divided into sections highlighting the best places to be found in Central, East, West, North and South London. Here I provide just a a soupçon, a flavour of those that the authors have deemed worthy of the attention of discerning readers. I pluck these tiny tasters from the BS pages.

For those wishing to cleanse their inner bodies, Fecal Matters has branches in Soho, Marylebone and Notting Hill. These fancy ‘bottom parlours’ offer a choice of bowel-stimulating music followed by judgement free, refreshingly honest fecal analysis. Afterwards clients are sure to step out with a spring in their step.

Why not work out by joining former child cyclist Ed Whitworth’s continuous cycling jamboree? Simply download the app, day or night, to discover where to join the pack.

For innovative culture, The Coventry Theatre is hosting See It, Say It, Sorted – The Musical. As with all the best creative dramas inspired by government messages, the results are both informative and hugely entertaining.

Nastya interviews Roland Kim who wishes to cause a little disruption to the traditional dining experience at his V-Gastro on Liverpool Street. Roland challenges critics to find any other top restaurant that can boast zero food wastage. Who needs to actually eat?

Over in Knightsbridge is the minimalist gallery of internationally renowned painter and plasterer Nina Saviceu, who is also a vociferous advocate of left-handed rights.

In South Kensington, luxury hoteliers Ritz-Carlton have teamed up with Armani and Greggs to provide a unique, collaborative hotel experience. Amidst the opulent surroundings, piping hot platters of warm bakes and pasties are available day or night.

Visitors to the city may wish to join the Icelandic community in Hangar Lane as they celebrate the local courgette harvest with a wild festival of juicing.

Sours and Sweets in Brixton offer a bewildering selection of international bitters, including a range matured in casks crafted from ancient Californian Redwood trees. The sharp tongued service at this venue is refreshingly contemptuous.

The Old Penge Picture House provide imbibers with a bargain basement all-Scottish wine list, ideal for a boozy night out.

Celebrities love London where they can pretend to be normal people. As Max Fairbrother said of his latest trip to the city from his home in LA,

“Throughout my visit, they kept up this incredible show of not noticing me”

My favourite interview was with Thomas Sahko, human historian and urban wordsmith. When asked what he loved most about London he eloquently replied

“Every morning, I sip a ruby grapefruit juice on my balcony while looking out over the Stanmore skyline. I think to myself that under these leaden clouds, nine million souls are bobbing about on an ocean of uncertainty, yet each one is holding onto his own individual truths like a life raft. That thought gives me the strength to get through my day.”

He goes on to advise a first time visitor to seek out an old man and demand that he tells you his story.

The pages of this little guide are packed with ideas to facilitate days of dining, culture and vivid new experiences. It *may* be a parody but as Londoners will know, there exist actual venues that could be slipped in seamlessly.

Witty and entertaining – the perfect gift for your basic hipster.

My copy of this book was generously provided by fellow book blogger Paul Cheney, who writes as Halfman, Halfbook.  

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – An Overview

I spent last weekend in London, driving from my home in Wiltshire through Friday afternoon rush hour traffic to Hammersmith where I stayed for two nights with my daughter. From there we travelled across the city to attend the Greenwich Book Festival being held at the Old Royal Naval College on the banks of the Thames. This glorious venue is just one of the aspects of a friendly and vibrant festival that makes it so special.

Taken from Wikipedia:

The Old Royal Naval College is a World Heritage Site managed by a registered charity to “look after these magnificent buildings and their grounds for the benefit of the nation”. The buildings were originally constructed to serve as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, which was designed by Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712. The hospital closed in 1869. Between 1873 and 1998 it was the Royal Navel College.

Originally the site of Bella Court, built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, it was rebuilt by Henry VII and was thenceforth more commonly known as Greenwich Palace. As such, it was the birthplace of Tudor monarchs Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was demolished in 1694.

Since 1998 the site has had new life breathed into it through a mix of new uses and activities and a revival of the historic old site under the management and control of the Greenwich Foundation. The buildings are Grade I listed. In 1999 some parts of Queen Mary and King William, and the whole of Queen Anne and the Dreadnought Building were leased for 150 years by the University of Greenwich. In 2000 Trinity College of Music leased the major part of King Charles. This created a unique new educational and cultural mix.

As well as being of historic interest I include these details as the University of Greenwich supports the book festival. The ambience of the site is enhanced by the wonderful music that drifts across the lawns from the Trinity Conservatoire.

Such aspects are in addition to the location across the Thames from the Isle of Dogs, and the imposing presence of the Cutty Sark on the western edge. When booking the events I planned to attend over the weekend I made sure to allow plenty of time to explore and enjoy these features. That the weather was kind throughout was an added bonus.

I will be writing in more detail about each event attended but post this as an overview and introduction. Book Festivals vary is scope and cost. I believe that Greenwich offers an excellent experience as well as being good value.

There were numerous free workshops and creative outlets provided for children of all ages, from very young to young adult. As well as favourite characters and authors there was storytelling and a variety of shows. Interest in art, theatre, dance and music were catered for. Hands on advice was provided on drawing for graphic novels including comics and Manga. Exclusively for the adults, author interviews and discussion panels represented a range of literary output including commercial, history, genre-defying, experimental and poetry. Ticketed events typically cost around £6 per person. If purchased early it was possible to buy an all events pass.

One of the more expensive events was the Festival Party on the Friday evening. I was pleased to discover that the bar provided here did not take advantage of its captive audience and was reasonably priced. Such details matter in an attendees overall impression and willingness to return.

Mobile food and drink vehicles, including a tea room in a double-decked bus, were parked up alongside the main venue lawn on the Saturday. I learned that, due to its heritage value, bunting on the building had been banned. Children climbing up onto the window ledges caused some consternation but they were undoubtedly having fun.

Helpful volunteers provided directions to events. The pop up bookshop was run by the local Waterstones and stocked books written by participating authors who remained on hand for signing. It was an open and friendly festival with authors, publishers and organisers wandering freely rather than hiding out in the Green Room.

My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the festival and found much to discuss afterwards from the panels attended. The best recommendation we can give is that we hope to return.

For those interested in future festivals you may follow updates on social media:

Twitter: @GreBookFest 
Instagram: greenwichbookfestival
Facebook: Greenwich Book Festival