Book review: Us

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Us, by David Nicholls, is an easy to read yet perceptive and (in places) laugh out loud funny story about a middle aged husband and father whose family life is falling apart. Douglas is a fifty-four year old Doctor of Biochemistry who has been married for almost twenty-five years to the artsy Connie. They have a seventeen year old son named Albie who is close to his seemingly cool and hip mother but not to his strait laced father. When Connie, faced with the prospect of an empty nest, announces that she wishes to leave their marriage Douglas determines to make their last family holiday (a Grand Tour of Europe and its artwork that he has already organised in meticulous detail) so successful that she will change her mind. Naturally things do not go to plan.

The book is written from Douglas’s point of view thus allowing the reader to understand that he recognises his failings, particularly as regards his son who he is trying to mould in his own image, a sensible and practical approach to the harsh realities of the modern world. His descriptions show that he has a typical seventeen year old boy (except, perhaps, for the closeness to his mother) with his filthy bedroom, unsociable hours and refusal to wear a coat. Douglas is frustrated and saddened that their relationship so frequently descends into acrimony even though he recognises that this is often his fault. I particularly empathised with the line early on:

‘But the unrequited love of one’s only living offspring has its own particular slow acid burn.’

Albie made it clear that he would prefer Ibiza with friends to ‘posh interrailing’ with his parents. Nevertheless they set off on their odyssey with each stop along the way requiring many visits to the art galleries that Connie wished to share with her son. Douglas tags along, quoting at length from guide books in an attempt to sound knowledgeable. He struggles to appreciate much of the art, a state that I can sympathise with. Perhaps for this reason I was amused by Chapter 39: A Brief History of Art which, in less than a page, covered everything from cave paintings to the current confusing free for all. It made more sense to me than any other history of art that I have read.

Much of the book is looking back. Douglas muses on the way we form memories, how parents work so hard to give their children happy childhoods filled with fabulous experiences yet what is remembered is bad television, advertising jingles and arguments about wasted food. However children behave they are loved by their parents whilst other people’s children are often regarded as bratty. When Douglas tries to discuss this phenomena with Connie they row, she thinking that he is suggesting that her son may be regarded as bratty and taking offence. I recognised that inability to see her child as others might.

It is these details that I enjoyed in the book, these truths that are rarely considered yet which affect life so fundamentally. The tale told is sad and funny, depressingly truthful yet somehow uplifting. It is lightly written but with moments of depth and clarity alongside the humour and pathos.

I shall avoid spoilers by glossing over the denouement. Suffice to say that ends were tied and I felt satisfied that the characters developed had not been compromised to achieve a particular conclusion. Families are made up of individuals, each with their own dreams and tolerances. This book was thoughtful and entertaining; I would recommend it to anyone who has experienced the raw reality of family life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Strange Girls and Ordinary Women

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Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, by Morgan McCarthy, is a mixed bag of a novel. It tells the separate stories of three women whose lives collide, a narrative device that is common enough, yet which in this case frustrated me as I read the book. Moving between the early chapters felt abrupt, an irritation. With two strong and one weaker plot I felt pangs of annoyance each time I had to work my way through the less engaging segments in order to progress with the story.

The chapters given over to Alice, the middle aged housewife, were excellent. The writing flowed effortlessly as the plot drew me in. Her backstory and experiences felt real and I could immerse myself in her history and concerns.

Kaya, the young woman struggling to rise above the life she had been dealt, was an unfolding tale that I thoroughly enjoyed. As the author developed her character I felt that I was getting to know someone, a young woman learning wise lessons from her experiences. I particularly liked her growing interest in philosophy and candid perceptions of the world. Of the three women, she seemed most able to see people for what they were.

The weak link, in my view, was Vic. Compared to the other two strands of the story hers felt two dimensional. There were jarring inconsistencies, such as when this naive and religious misfit masturbated; she was presented as too straight laced, harbouring strong feelings of guilt, for such activities. I pondered the possibility that the author deliberately wrote this socially challenged character in a less empathetic manner, but still found the writing of her backstory shallow.

As the three strands of the story came together the book gained strength, the compelling tales overtaking the staidness of Vic’s earlier contribution. The denouement of all three characters tales was satisfying. I felt that I had got to know the entire cast and their final scenes suited the rounded personalities that had been created.

So much of this book was well written and it is a story that is worth picking up. Perhaps the early chapters given over to Vic were deliberately constructed to match her limited outlook and stilted personal growth. Whatever the reason, if indeed one exists, I felt that this weakened an otherwise engaging and enjoyable read.

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

 

Book Review: Season to Taste

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Season to Taste, by Natalie Young, has the byline ‘How to Eat Your Husband’, which is pretty much what the plot of the book is based around.

Lizzie, who has been with her husband for more than thirty years, hits him over the head with a spade one Monday morning in March. She is then left with the problem of how to dispose of his body. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life in prison she decides that it must vanish without trace, and decides that the best way to accomplish this is to eat it. How she proceeds with her plan is described in stomach churning detail, alongside a dissection of their marriage.

No aspects of Lizzie’s actions are glossed over. In grotesque detail the author describes the means by which the body is bled, cut up into manageable chunks, and frozen. Over time each piece is then thawed, prepared and consumed. The feel, smells and tastes are all recounted along with Lizzie’s reactions to what she is attempting to do. She is a skilled cook and, with the help of a few internet searches, chooses suitable garnishes and accompaniments to go with the body part she is dealing with. The graphic descriptions are nauseatingly believable.

I found the book depressing to read, not least because Lizzie seemed to have few happy memories to recall from her long marriage. Her secluded cottage in the woods with its large garden seemed only to oppress her. She appeared unable to see positives in the few people she allowed herself to come into contact with, describing problems and flaws over achievements.

There were suggestions that Lizzie had become the way she was due to the manner in which her mother and husband had treated her. If her husband did little to bolster her self esteem then it was clear that she had treated him little better. We are only allowed to see the husband through Lizzie’s eyes, indeed much of the book is written from her point of view, so it is hard to form a balanced opinion of any of the other characters.

However Lizzie was treated, it is still difficult to accept that the way she behaved could in any way be described as a reasonable response. The book is well written, and an interesting slant on cannibalism, but is unlikely to make any reader think that this is a tempting means of corpse disposal.

I did not find the book an enjoyable read. Perhaps I had hoped for a little black humour, or some relief from a more typical supporting cast. By concentrating so fully on Lizzie’s view of the world the book remained bleak. Given her macabre activities it seems somehow appropriate that, despite my acknowledgement of the skill with which the story was told, I found it sickening more than satisfying.

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