Book Review: Mother

Mother: A Memoir, by Nicholas Royle, is what it says on the cover – the author’s memories of his mother. These are not presented in a linear manner. Rather, they are reminiscences – echoes – that, realistically, cannot include every thought and feeling from each incident recalled. The portrayal of the mother alters a little with each retelling. What emerges is an impression of a spirited woman who was many things – as people are. In looking at her through the eyes of her son, several decades after her death, the reader becomes aware of how much he venerated her. Whilst acknowledging what others may regard as flaws, he saw her influence over the family and many of those who knew her.

Kathleen McAdam came from Scottish lineage and remained close to her wider family throughout her life. She was a nurse, continuing to work after the birth of her two sons. Kathleen married Maxwell Royle. Maxwell was the son of artists yet attended a public school. They had contacts amongst the famous of the time. Their boys were raised to free range but in relative privilege.

As a mother, Kathleen supported her children’s chosen pursuits, fiercely guarding their interests from any complaints made about their activities. Her conversation drew in many of the friends they brought to the house. At no time in this memoir does her son raise any suggestion of resentment over what she expected of him in terms of time and attention.

Another picture that emerges of Kathleen is that of her sitting at the kitchen table – chain smoking, doing crosswords or reading. There is mention of her love life and how she flirted with admirers – Maxwell may also have had a dalliance. Their son offers no hint of what he thought of this at the time or later.

The memoir opens with the impact on the family of Kathleen’s descent into dementia – an illness that led to her slow demise. The author ponders if this could have been precipitated by the death of his brother. This latter tragedy changed all of their lives. The dynamic woman became a shell of herself, existing but without her trademark spark or energy.

Chapters offer not just memories of Kathleen but of the family – at home and on travels. Details are provided of their ancestry including photographs of previous generations. Nicholas and his brother, Simon, were close to cousins and regularly visited their relatives. The impression offered is one of time capsuled properties with space to roam and menageries of animals. Although appreciative, the descriptions make no attempt to make this upbringing appear idyllic.

Mention is made of misbehaviour – of expulsions from school and experiments verging on the cruel. Punishments at home, if they happened, are not disclosed.

The complexity of family life comes through in the short chapters and recollections of changing scenes across many decades. Although there is obvious emotion, particularly in dealing with illness and death, much of the writing is framed as factual.

And this is the book’s strength. The reader is left to form their own impressions. It matters not what they think of Kathleen. This is her story told from her surviving son’s perspective. It would appear that, until the end, to him she was everything he needed her to be.

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

Book Review: She-Clown and Other Stories

She-Clown and Other Stories, by Hannah Vincent, is a collection of sixteen short stories featuring women recognisable from ordinary social situations. Their everyday lives require that they compromise their potential in order to survive the hand chosen or dealt. They are described as feminist stories and this is accurate in a myriad of ways. Some of the women are chafing against the restrictions of marriage or motherhood. Others are pushing for their right to be themselves within a family that expects them to be something else – a facsimile or ideal. The tales are succinct, layered and fierce in their observations. They are also funny and refreshing in the spotlight shone on behaviours.

The titular story tells of an entertainer working at a child’s birthday party. The mothers congregate over wine and complaints about husbands and children. On arrival, She-Clown is introduced.

“‘You probably know half the people here,’ the mother said, turning to Charlie, and it was true that Charlie did recognise some of the faces. One of the men had sat in her car. She had given him a blowjob. She recognised his moccasin shoes. Another man, in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, had fucked her in a laundry room among mountain bikes and drying washing while his wife gave out party bags.”

Charlie goes through her routine, aware of how she is being watched by some of the men. The children accept everything offered as their due, refusing to be impressed.

Other stories tell of parents called to schools – teachers expecting them to sort out a child’s behaviour where it doesn’t fit with the expected agenda.

Single parents push against their situation, and against their lack of agency in the face of authority figures.

Working mothers juggle the satisfaction of their professional lives, trying to find balance with family needs amidst parental criticism.

One story features a young couple recently returned from travelling, who are considering going down the road of motherhood. A catching up is required of one of them if they are to remain together. Love is all very well but people change over time and have diverging desires and expectations.

Not all of the women’s lives revolve around children.

Carnival offers the reader a young women whose office life demands she dress up (never well enough) and accept her boss’s disturbing behaviour. Making a fuss is frowned upon.

I enjoyed the stories featuring older women, many of whom behave badly in the eyes of their offspring. One mother gives her grandson an inappropriate gift, watching carefully for her daughter’s reaction. The grown up daughter of a controlling mother finds a novel way to exert her will when the mother is hospitalised.

These power plays between family members are presented with insight and wit.

In The Mermaid and the Tick a young couple go on holiday abroad at the behest of the husband. The wife is compliant, submitting to his plans despite reservations. When he notices she is fitting in better than he expected and that, while his needs are met, she can enjoy herself without him, his enjoyment is not as he anticipated.

Many of the men featured do not come out well in these stories, mainly due to their habits of wanting wives to revere them while they look lasciviously elsewhere.

A few of the stories offer more surreal elements, set in a world that may be futuristic. One explores how important it actually is for experiences to be real or useful if they are enjoyed by those who partake. Another is set at a dinner party where nobody knows who invited them or the purpose of the evening. There is a hankering for the past, or a might have been present, yet women continue to behave as others expect them to – even in the face of impending chaos.

The Sparrow is set on a successful doctor’s retirement day. It has a poignancy wound around why she ended up in the profession.

“‘Couldn’t be more proud’ is an expression of a surfeit of pride, and that wasn’t David. It wasn’t Daddy’s way either. I assumed it would please my father to have me follow him into medicine, and at a time when there were far fewer women doctors than there are now, but he was more concerned with Howard and his career, for all the good that did either of them. It will be good to have more time for my brother after today.”

It is interesting to consider the drivers in decision making – how women are conditioned to be pleasing. The denouement of this story is quietly moving.

Another moving story in the collection is 3 o’clock which is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she struggles with the tasks necessary to enable her to leave the house – remembering to take her smart bag and good purse, doing up the buttons on her coat – voices from the past haunt her. Each time she opens her fridge she hears ‘Close the door, it costs me money every time you go in there!‘ As she does her very best to make herself presentable she hears her mother-in-law say ‘You could wear the same outfit, Clem, and it wouldn’t look so smart.‘ Oh for more kindness within families…

I commend this collection to you for the variety of themes explored and the assiduity with which they are presented. The lightness of the writing belies the intricacy of the narrative. An entertaining and deeply satisfying read.

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

Book Review: An English Guide to Birdwatching

An English Guide to Birdwatching, by Nicholas Royle, is a novel that plays with words in a manner that makes it a challenge to describe, and in places to read. Written in two distinct parts, albeit with the occasional cross reference and a shared conclusion, it poses interesting questions, mesa and meta, about reactions to literature and those who curate it. Although fiction, it draws heavily on reality, including roles for the author and his Manchester based namesake. It delves into the conceits of the literary world – its creators, teachers and those who consider themselves intellectually superior, who task themselves with what they believe to be essential deconstruction, being, in their own minds at least, uniquely qualified to ensure literary quality is policed.

Scattered throughout the book are line drawing illustrations of birds, a subject referenced throughout.

The story opens by introducing the reader to Silas Woodlock, a recently retired undertaker moving from Croydon in London to Seaford in East Sussex with his wife, Ethel. The elderly couple take some time to settle into their new abode. There are amusing observations on how the ‘old codgers’ prevalent on the south coast of England view one another, how they do not recognise themselves in their fellow aged beings.

Back in London an editor for the London Literary Gazette, Stephen Osmer, completes an essay and promptly falls off his perch. His untimely death at the age of twenty-seven ensures he will be remembered as brilliant, despite having published little. Known for his ‘intellectual candescence’, his knowledge of Dickens, and his witty if somewhat cutting commentary, he harboured a deep seated jealousy of those who, unlike him, had succeeded in publishing creative work. He was contemptuous of ‘the self-enclosed nature of academic life’ yet lived wholly within his own specialism’s rarefied world. Much like the south coast elderly population, he was unable to recognise himself in those he observed.

Back in Seaford, Silas and Ethel are being driven to distraction by the gulls noisily breeding on their rooftop. In an attempt to get her husband out of the house, Ethel suggests he enrol in a creative writing workshop. As a result he writes a short story – The Gulls – and promptly loses the only copy of his manuscript. He is subsequently incensed when he discovers his words published in an anthology under another’s name.

Alongside these dastardly goings on, the reader is taken back to the final months of Stephen Osman’s life. During this period he had insulted both the Nicholas Royles at an author event in Manchester. When he makes his escape, inadvertently abandoning his beautiful girlfriend, Lucy, she meets southern Nicholas Royle’s wife, Portia. This leads to an invitation to a party for the literati, held at the Royle’s house in Seaford, where the two storylines coalesce. Prior to this is an erotic scene offers up a cliched male fantasy – perhaps an attempt at attaining the Bad Sex In Fiction award once won by the other Nicholas Royle.

Other interactions at the party are more amusing. The attending intellectuals are vying for attention, sorrowful that their kind are not as revered as they once were. The party ends with a somewhat improbable bang after which action returns to London and the creation of Osman’s final essay.

Part two of the book contains seventeen chapters, each titled Hide. Many of these are clever if somewhat dense plays on language and its meaning. The tableau around which these musings are wrapped include elements of surrealism. There is pondering about man’s attitude to killing and eating birds, his belief that he is a higher being despite having existed for a much shorter time. Although interesting ideas and concepts are aired I found part two much less engaging.

The writing wanders in many different directions, much as a stream of consciousness would. The mix of fact and fiction is disconcerting in places as is the inclusion of the two Nicholas Royles. There is plenty to think about, and the author is unafraid to mock himself and his associates. At times I felt the prose became didactic and I have no doubt many references passed me by. Although clever the second part was not always entertaining. Adding it to the novel appeared experimental rather than necessary.

Would I recommend? Perhaps to those who enjoy wordplay – literature lovers unafraid to laugh at their own conceits. I am glad to have been given the opportunity to appraise, even if it wasn’t the easiest of reads.

Book Review: Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago

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Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, by Douglas Cowie, reimagines the love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. Their relationship spanned two decades although their mutual passion burnt out much more quickly. Each was looking for something the other could not offer leaving both dissatisfied. It is an interesting exploration of why couples get together, and why they fall apart.

Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer and intellectual. She was the long term partner of Jean-Paul Sartre and made her name writing the feminist text, The Second Sex. She and Sartre had what has been described as an open relationship. Although only touched on briefly in this book, Simone scandalised society by taking lovers of both sexes, some of them underage.

Simone and Sartre were core members of an intimate circle of Parisian philosophers and friends who held a high opinion of themselves, regarding their work as of vital importance. They welcomed the diversions offered by others but retained the belief that they themselves were superior.

Nelson Algren was an American writer, considered ‘a bard of the down-and-outer’. He met Simone when she telephoned him to ask for a tour of the ‘real Chicago’ on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance. Their affair started immediately and was characterised by short periods of passionate intensity followed by long months apart during which they both, although Simone more especially, poured out their desires in frequent and lengthy correspondence.

Nelson resented the continued presence of Sartre in Simone’s life. He wished her to move to America which she would not countenance, believing that Sartre needed her and that their work was too important to set aside. Simone believed that Nelson should appreciate this and make the most of the limited time she offered him. She became upset when he allowed her intransigence to colour his behaviour.

When Nelson realised that he could not get Simone to behave as he wanted he took other lovers before sinking into depression. He had always mixed with gamblers, drunks and drug addicts; now he became one of them with disasterous results. Simone wished to rekindle their romance but remained unwilling to either give up her life in Paris or to have him join her long term.

Early on it is clear that the lovers are not satisfied with even the little details of each other’s lives. For example, they criticise the other’s attire. Simone deals with this by buying clothes she approves of for Nelson and throwing away what he has chosen. She is unable to see that she would not accept such behaviour from him.

When they travel they take pride in not being tourists, never noticing that locals mock and take advantage of their obvious inclusion in this set. Simone and her friends sneer at the bourgeoise with all the pompous contempt of intellectuals convinced of their own superiority. They laugh at Nelson when he offers to punch a man who verbally assaults Simone. Although seemingly accepted he comes to realise how he is regarded:

“a silly American man bewildered at everything she showed him […] eager for her pats on the head, a pleasent enough sideshow, and useful proof of her shabby and shitty theory that she and Sartre were better than everybody else.”

The prose is taut, pacy and compelling. The tension between Nelson and Simone is presented in their actions, their conceits and pretensions showing how deluded they were. Their love was for an ideal that the other was unable or unwilling to fulfil.

I did not warm to the characters but this is a fascinating study of how people see themselves, how they believe they deserve to be treated by others, and how hard done by they can feel when this does not occur. The observations of the human psyche are sharp and concise.

Not always a comfortable read as it shines a light on conceits and delusions with which many live. A fascinating account of a group of writers whose work may be admired more than its creators.

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

Book Review: We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire

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We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire, by Jules Grant, tells the story of an all female gang of drug dealers in Manchester. In getting to know these women the reader gains an understanding of their lives and why they live as they do. To those of us born into privilege, by which I mean a life that offers the possibility of shelter, sustenance and safety within the law, this is a rare opportunity to gain some empathy for those who are often regarded as the dregs of society.

Donna has had a tough upbringing. She lost her mother to drugs and her father to prison, suffering a short period in care before escaping to the streets to fend for herself. She now leads the Bronte Close Gang alongside her second in command, Carla. Donna is god-mother to Carla’s ten year old daughter, Aurora, a child who considers herself streetwise and who her mother is trying to protect.

Both Donna and Carla are gay. They prefer the members of their gang to be likewise inclined as it removes the danger and complications of interference from the men they must deal with on the streets, who treat their women as property.

Donna has built up a business dealing drugs in the city’s clubs, successfully hiding her nefarious income by laundering it through a cleaning company. The Brontes have a quid pro quo relationship with the all male gangs who work the surrounding turf. When Carla falls for one of the gang member’s woman, just as a police operation takes out the top tier of the major players in their scene, she endangers her associate’s lives. Donna realises that she no longer knows who amongst the men she can trust to assist.

The Brontes are not the only all female gang. When Carla is shot the women agree to combine resources and set up a sting operation to flush out the men they believe are to blame. Complications arise when Aurora goes AWOL. Donna believes that the greatest danger to the girl is if she falls into the hands of Social Services, having suffered this fate herself.

The author succeeds in showing how law abiding citizens look to these women. They despise the southern students who pass through Manchester to attend the university. They cannot comprehend what most would consider normal, family life as this is beyond anything they have experienced. These women fight to survive, accepting the danger as necessary if they are to live autonomously.

The story is raw and unflinching in its depiction of life in the underbelly. By telling the story from Donna and Aurora’s points of view they are presented as humane in their skewed world where choice is limited to fight or go down. Their hardness is a veneer, carefully cultivated to enable them to survive.

The story demands sympathy for those who most would deride. Such people would mock this sympathy and the lack of understanding obvious in any solutions proposed. This alone makes the book challenging to read because their are no easy answers to a situation generations in the making.

A fast moving thriller that lays bare a way of life that will continue to exist unless a cure can be found for the underlying causes. It is depressingly clear that within a society which prefers to punish, this is unlikely to occur.

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