Book Review: Colchester WriteNight

colchester writenight

Colchester WriteNight is a monthly community event that offers members the opportunity to learn from guest speakers, write together, and share their work. The group has been running for ten years and decided to commemorate this anniversary by publishing a short prose collection, in collaboration with Patrician Press. The contributors are a mix of published and as yet unpublished authors (until now…) – members who accepted the invitation to contribute a piece that would fit the theme Open/Open Book. The editors’ choices provide an eclectic mix of short stories from writers honing their craft.

I found this book a tonic to read. On a personal note, when I first started writing I enjoyed creating short works of fiction inspired by weekly prompts put out by the editors at Yeah Write. After a year or so of taking part, and carefully considering the feedback given, it became clear to me that I did not have the requisite skills to write the novel I had dreamed of. What I had learned was that writing is fun and therapeutic but writing longform quality fiction requires a high level of imagination, research and dedication. It takes time, and at the end there may be no publisher willing to take it on. It was this that made me decide to attempt to raise the profile of others’ books rather than create my own. It is good to know that community writing groups exist elsewhere – in person when allowed – and offer encouragement to writers wishing to test their mettle, either for fun or as a stepping stone to potential publication.

What we have here then is sixteen tales, some raw, a few finishing somewhat abruptly, but all highlighting the eagerness of the storyteller to entertain readers. There are impressively imaginative ideas at play in places – Jesus On A Park Bench by Jonathan King was a particular favourite. Life sparks from the pages in many forms.

Recurring themes are explored. Isolation, especially within families where role can subsume innate character leading to often unacknowledged despondency, struck a chord – especially given the ongoing effects of lockdown. Couples struggle with emotional bullying. On Reflection by Helen Chambers takes a possible alternative life to a new level.

There are also more hopeful stories. Lives open up new vistas following the death of a partner. Humour is employed to effect. Open by Wendy James was fun to read despite being about a relationship breakdown.

I enjoyed the idea behind Ms Wiffle’s Open Book by Katy Wimhurst, in which a young woman finds herself capable of offering fellow village residents very specific warnings of future events. I also appreciated the meta aspects of Open Book: 1995, 2009, 2021 by Alice Violett.

The book is described as a ‘celebration of community creativity’. It is a delight to see these writers being given the opportunity to reach a wider audience. It is also good to know that groups like WriteNight exist to offer them friendship and support.

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

Book Review: Chaos

Chaos, edited by Anna Johnson, is the most recent poetry anthology published by Patrician Press. Many of the entries have been included in previous collections but have been brought together here as a reaction to various events affecting the UK over the past five years. These include attitudes to: immigration, Brexit, climate change, the current pandemic.

“In difficult times, then, we turn to Art; poetry, in particular, is one of the pithiest ways to process events that seem extreme.”

Many of the poems are provocative – understandable given that the issues being written about have generated controversy yet little in the way of balanced debate. There appears to be an assumption that readers will agree with the points of view of the book’s creators. There is limited exploration of why these views are not held by everyone.

In their introduction, the editor writes

“I hope there is enough in these pages to console, entertain and feed the spirit.”

Sadly, this was not my reaction. While I am appalled by the selfish and insular actions of too many politicians – lining their pockets along with those of their financial supporters and powerful advisors rather than working to help constituents – the issues are more complex than is suggested within these pages. Solutions are rarely as simple as they are made to appear.

Refuge is a Taxi features an immigrant, Basim, who is obviously intelligent and willing to work hard in order to realise his quiet ambitions. His past still gives him nightmares – of the horrific experiences escaped from. He regards his new home as a ‘land of opportunity.’

I found no poems exploring the messier side of immigration – of those who demand the retention of oppressive culture and damaging familial traditions that break the laws of their new homeland. I’m thinking of such practices as: FGM, ‘honour’ killings, forced marriage, rejection of homosexuality. Freedom and safety are not just the rights of heterosexual men.

It is possible to agree with the headline – show compassion, seek understanding – without accepting behaviour that damages those who also deserve protection.

Closed borders are the subject of several poems. In Something Human the freedom offered by a red passport is compared to the plight of refugees.

“I’ve never pleaded with strangers
to let me in to a cold and foreign nation
where I feel unwelcome,
derided and despised for trying
to save my life.”

Ride the Waves explores the removal of freedom that we are currently experiencing within the UK – how it has been so submissively accepted.

“Running away from each other in public
Get back!
We’re too close!
6-foot rule, or 6-foot under!”

The poet ponders if we have already said goodbye to our rights by accepting the ‘sanitised lies’.

Although there are a number of poems focusing on climate change – blame and fear more than a call to appreciate the still beautiful world – I enjoyed the images of nature in Wild Isolation. Birds and mammals continue their daily existence, even amongst the abandoned litter and other human detritus – while people fearfully isolate themselves from the current plague.

“All left in the lurch   to besmirch green and brown –
While squirrels   maintain their slight sordidness
Without being thought – sweet”

Climate change can be hard to discuss pithily. The need to respect the health of the planet – the life support system of all species – may be incontrovertible. How this is currently being approached, especially given man’s innate behaviour, creates unpalatable reverberations. As examples, wind farms kill birds and are a blight on the landscape. They and solar farms – with their tax funded subsidies – add wealth to already wealthy landowners. These poems suggest we may help with small, personal changes. Advocating for these is worthwhile but also of limited impact.

I have found this review hard to write as I fear opprobrium for not always agreeing with good and honourable intentions without reservation.

The writing within the anthology is mixed, as may be expected from a variety of contributors. Some of the poems have a simplistic structure; others require a number of rereads to unpack meaning. Together they are certainly thought-provoking. The issues explored deserve attention and careful consideration.

It is, perhaps, because humans and their behaviour are the focus of these poems that I did not find the consolation the editor hoped to offer. Instead, I found too much polemic – sad reminders of the misnomers now surrounding ‘fact’ or ‘expert’. We undoubtedly need more kindness, generosity and acceptance. We may also benefit from listening more attentively to those outside our echo chambers.

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

Book Review: Once Upon a Time in Chinatown

Once upon a time in Chinatown, by Robert Ronsson, is an engaging and not too demanding story inspired by a film – Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, released 1974 – that I haven’t seen. The writing has a noir quality and beat, featuring an apparently benign narrator who can never quite be trusted. Within the tale various characters are drawn to a grand but unfinished building in Malaysia – Kellie’s Castle – which actually exists and has the general history used by the author to fine effect. He is a self declared film enthusiast and this shines through in the writing style and references.

The story opens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London in 1996. This introduces the reader to the protagonist, Steven Cross, and plants a seed that he may have been involved in nefarious activities. He vaguely refers to events of the previous six years, pondering how the past is always open to interpretation.

“Yesterday can be changed in its recollection and retelling, particularly if you have something to hide.”

The timeline then moves back to 1990, with the rest of the book offering Steven’s version of how his life changed radically following the death of his mother, Stella, in the late summer of that year. She was a foundling who raised her son alone after his father died before they could marry. These facts resulted in Steven having no known wider family. After Stella’s death, her middle aged and financially stable son cleared their shared house of her belongings. In doing so he came across the name of his father for the first time, and a photograph. Clues to the identity of an enigmatic but never discussed figure from his past set Steven on a road that would eventually lead him to similarly aged cousins who help him piece together their family history. Their forebears’ ambitions and love stories started in Scotland but took them to Malaysia, Lisbon, and to Steven’s locale in London.

The history and culture of Malaysia in the twentieth century has a key role to play but the focus of the story is one of family and expected loyalties. Steven states many times how much he values now being a part of a known and shared ancestry. In light of his actions, the reader may not be quite so convinced of his motives in becoming involved in his cousins’ lives.

Aspects of plot development, particularly those set in Lisbon, at times dragged a little. Nancy’s beauty and the effect this had on men appeared clichéd. Nevertheless, there are enough interlinked threads made plausible and necessary for added depth and progression. Film quotes fitted without feeling shoe-horned in.

The tale is told as a straightforward narration yet there are blurred lines in admitted asides. Steven’s claim to be offering a truthful account are tantalisingly believable – for what constitutes truth when certain facts can always be omitted?

In these strange times I was looking for a story that offered effortless escapism. There is enough of interest in this deliciously equivocal tale to more than meet this criteria.

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

Book Review: Northern Alchemy

“Raised with two languages
is unconscious feasting: two ways of thinking.
One extends the other; can show us another world
yet how all worlds are just the same, but different.”

Northern Alchemy, by Christine De Luca, is a collection of forty poems that are printed in both the original Shetlandic and an English translation. This innovative format works well as readers may challenge themselves to understand the blended dialect of Old Scots and Norse before enjoying the translated version.

The sense of place in each of the poems is strong. There is an appreciation of the beauty and power of the natural world, and man’s place in it. Contemporary references exist but the overall feel is elemental, the language vivid and full-flavoured.

Not all are set on the Shetland Islands. This Material World describes an Icelandic volcano.

“earth rearranging herself, unslept, unsettled;
reminding us of her ways and timelines, our momentariness”

A feeling of timelessness permeates the collection. Beach work sees the narrator shunning the tasks they should be completing to appreciate the moment and treasure it. The importance of such prioritisation comes to the fore when considering the subject of What’s in a name? – the losing of memory when elderly.

“if the name I chose for you eludes me.
I’ll still sense mountain, water, love.”

Although poignant this is a reminder that parents can still exist, and find contentment, beyond their recognition of offspring.

Several of the poems explore the harvesting of nature’s goodness on both land and sea. There is a sense of freedom in walks taken as narrators observe and listen to birds, beasts, fields and streams. Those of different generations are appreciated, their lives leaving an imprint. Births are celebrated.

“The heavens themselves blaze forth nativity,
wrap a blessing round a little one whose first breath
reincarnates the dust of galaxies”

The beauty and pathos within these pages offers a strong evocation of people as just one, transient part of wider nature. Senses are heightened and what is of true value respected. Although never sugar coating, the poems are appreciative of the life and beauty of existence.

An uplifting and powerful collection. Recommended for all, not just those who already enjoy reading poetry.

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

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: Tempest

Tempest: An Anthology, edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, contains a wide variety of speculative fiction, poetry and essays that explore our tempestuous times. Subjects covered include politics, climate change, equality and the possibilities offered from the development of artificial intelligence. Donald Trump appears as himself or in caricature. Dystopias are created to portray imagined post-Brexit worlds or ecological Armaggedon. Although sometimes lacking depth, the collection’s strength is its spread of opinions.

Anna Vaught writes in her introduction:

“I would desist, if I could, from political and social involvement – I know plenty of people who have entirely stopped following the news and/or placed severe limits or careful muting on their social media diet. I understand this, but it is not an option for me or, really, for this press, with its philanthropic bent, passionate sense of questing after social justice and being involved in politics.”

This passion is evident in many of the entries. What is refreshing is the lack of shouting despite the frequent despair so clearly expressed. The issues raise awareness. When there is anger it is controlled and measured.

The opening article, The man who would be Christ, was written in 1988 and is a study of Donald Trump, the property developer. This is aptly followed by a story, The Wall, which I enjoyed until its unlikely ending.

Women must act now looks at the development of robots – artificial intelligence.

“Women must act now, or male-designed robots will take over our lives”

“There are great benefits in the use of AI and we should cherish them. However, the issue is not innovation, or the pace of technological improvement. The real problem is the governance of AI, the ethics underpinning it, the boundaries we give it and, within that, who is going to define all those.”

Whilst finding this subject interesting, I remained unconvinced by the author’s arguments that most low paid, replaceable jobs are held by women because they cannot access anything better. I would have liked references to verifiable studies on this premise, to make the piece appear less opinion. If the only jobs remaining in the future will be in STEM, women are as capable as men.

Some Start Fires is a poem around climate change offering a picture but no solution. Of course, there may not be one as man appears bent on destroying his life support system.

This is Earth is a similarly depressing depiction of man’s selfish tendencies, this time written from the point of view of aliens. Although offering a clear message, its development felt somewhat simplistic.

I enjoyed The cowboy with the calcium spur, a poem that I read as having another dig at Trump.

The Walking Stick imagined a post-Brexit Britain, although I considered the ending another ultimately pointless protest.

Save me from the dogs was a more straightforward story about uncared for children living underground and groomed as criminals. Between the lines lies the question of what options society offers those it rejects.

One of the headline contributors is Sam Jordison and it was no surprise that his article, Rage, had Brexit as its subject. He suggested that those who voted to leave the EU did so out of a desire to return to times they remembered as better.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the Leave Vote was inspired by misplaced yearning for the years when Baby-Boomer voters didn’t have such bad backs, still had flowing locks and something more to look forward to than nights in watching repeats of Mrs Browns’ Boys. They imagined that everything was better before we joined the EU, because that was when they personally felt better.”

Populists are on the rise… is a cogent essay, first published in the Guardian in 2018, that appears to offer more balance than is normally apparent in newspapers writing for their loyal readers. Perhaps it was simply good to consider some alternative opinion.

Nature and culture provides a discussion on the damage to ecosystems from globalisation.

“We have come to believe that harm to the world is inconsequential, or at the very least if something is lost then it can be replaced.”

The essays around nature and ecological collapse put many of society’s current political preoccupations in perspective.

I readily admit that there were certain pieces throughout the collection that I didn’t get. Neither can I comment on subjects I know little about, such as Palestine. It is good that the publisher offers space to such potentially divisive subjects and divergent opinions. Refreshingly, the authors make their cases without getting shouty or insulting.

The Job takes an interesting idea – a future where most people do not work – and weaves a story of coercion. Although sometimes lightweight, I enjoyed many aspects of this tale, including its ending.

A narrow escape for the Chelsea Hotel takes another dig at Trump, exploring what is valued in life other than money. I couldn’t help thinking its conclusion was reprieve more than escape but the Russian angle was a neat addition.

We should own the stars is an fascinating essay on AI and equality with reference to Bladerunner. This entry was a particular favourite of mine.

Tempest on Tyneside offers a vision of the region as a sought after destination offering beer and football while southern England disappears under water. Ironic as this turnaround is to consider I thought the apparent interest men had in female footballers a stretch too far. It says much about the reader what imaginative aspects of a story can be accepted.

As with any collection of opinions there will be favoured and disregarded contributions. What I enjoyed in the reading was that disparate voices were included. Projects such as this, which take us outside our carefully curated echo chambers, are always worthwhile.

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

Gig Review: Launch Party for The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught

Last Thursday evening I travelled to Bath Spa for a book launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Author Anna Vaught was celebrating the publication of her second novel, The Life of Almost, and her supporters packed the bookshop out. It was a friendly and fun event involving books, chat, readings, wine and delicious snacks. This is my sort of party.

    

Anna talked about her two published books (her first was the autobiographical Killing Hapless Ally) and her writing inspirations. For The Life of Almost these were: her family; her love of Pembrokeshire; Welsh myths; Dickens’s Great Expectations.

She and two of her friends then gave readings from the book before Anna’s husband, Ned, spoke of his wife’s prolific writing and his pride in her achievements. Anna does not have a dedicated space for her craft. She writes at her kitchen table surrounded by family life. The time for this must be squeezed in around her many other commitments.

    

Questions were invited from the floor and Anna spoke of her next books. Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2020. A fourth novel is currently out to submission and she has started writing a fifth.

In talking of her characters Anna explained that many are based on wider family members and the stories they have shared with her. She wished to capture these before they were lost. Her family do not read her books so she has few concerns about their reaction to her representations.

Anna then offered to sign books and there were a flurry of purchases before a queue formed. As it was getting late I had to slip away.

    

The Life of Almost is published by Patrician Press. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Anna’s launch party was just one of the many enticing events in Mr B’s Autumn schedule.

Book Review: The Life of Almost

“how do you tell, when you come from a storied landscape, what is alive and what is dead? What is really there and what was only intended, presumed spoken into being? Can you tell?”

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaught, is the story of a storyteller. It is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the landscape presented as a living, breathing influence on residents whose hearts and histories are intricately bound to the place where they were made.

The storyteller is a young man named Almost Llewhellin. He begins by introducing his cast, the bulk of whom are wider family members, many of them dead. His story is populated by unhappy families, infidelities, cruel mothers and damaged children. It opens with Almost briefly escaping the confines of the home he shares with his brutal sister to find comfort by the sea.

Almost has mermaid friends who can shed their sea garb to explore the land and spy on its inhabitants. He is besotted with Seren, the adopted daughter of his wealthy benefactor, who treats him with disdain. Almost takes an apprenticeship with the local undertaker – there are detailed descriptions of how to prepare a body for burial. Attitudes towards and treatment of the dead are recurring themes.

“Death in life and life in death”

The story is of those who went before and who continue to shape the living. Almost comes to understand why each family member behaved as they did. There are the missing, the murdered, the mute who still exert influence. There are unexplained forces that could be used for good or evil.

Almost travels to London, tries to settle in Wiltshire, but is drawn back to Pembrokeshire and his tangled heritage. The puzzle of his links to each cast member is revealed, the reader invited to consider what truth may mean.

“To be sure closes doors”

The garb of the mermaids could be the vitality of young women, a lure that must then be shed to pacify their controlling men. The direction Almost chooses for himself could be a demonstration that even the most difficult start in life need not lead to perpetual anger – with the damage this can wreak.

Set in contemporary times, the narrative brought to mind Shakespearean soliloquies albeit peppered with Welsh vernacular. It took me some time to engage with the language and form which has a dream like quality and poetic repetition. There are numerous literary quotations and references, most of which I could not place.

I read about a third of the book – my copy is 160 pages – before becoming engrossed and wanting to know what happened next. The world conjured has a mythic quality, the story a dark beauty. Having finished, its impact lingers.

“Who am I? Did you make me, or am I really just so?”

Although dealing largely with death there is a playfulness in the telling, an invitation to accept possibilities and rise above expectations. For readers open to a story that may not be quite what it first seems, this is a beguiling, ultimately satisfying read.

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

Book Review: My Europe

My Europe is an anthology of stories, poems, drama and essays exploring Britain’s relationship with Europe in the wake of the contentious referendum result that could lead to Britain leaving the European Union in a process commonly referred to as Brexit. The publisher writes:

“The anthology is about Europe, not just the EU, but in the interests of fairness we tried to include more pieces in favour of Brexit. Alas, it proved difficult”

In trying to present the facts around such a complex and emotive subject, certain of the short essays are a tad dry to read. Nevertheless, they succeed in offering up information that is too often drowned out in hectoring rhetoric by supporters on both sides, and in the click-bait seeking media. The dismay felt by so many at the unleashing of previously suppressed xenophobic hatred has led Remainers to consider the prospect of Brexit an unmitigated disaster. What is rarely now mentioned, but is acknowledged within these pages, is that the behemothic bureaucracy of the EU is far from ideal.

“In truth, Brussels is a democracy-free zone. From the EU’s inception in 1950, Brussels became the seat of a bureaucracy administering a heavy industry cartel, vested with unprecedented law-making capacities. Even though the EU has evolved a great deal since, and acquired many of the trappings of a confederacy, it remains in the nature of the beast to treat the will of electorates as a nuisance that must be, somehow, negated.”

In the first essay, Suzy Adderley writes:

“For many Tories, the neoliberal stance of the EU is not problematic, but free movement of labour and loss of sovereignty are anathema, while for left-wing socialists, the neoliberal structures are highly problematic whilst they would support the free movement of labour and regulatory structures. So it seems to me unrealistic to expect either main party, as presently constituted, to as a whole or entirely support or reject Brexit.”

Throughout this book there is clear headed recognition of why the referendum vote went as it did (hindsight being a wonderful thing). There are also attempts at increasing understanding of the cost of Brexit should it go ahead. This does not just explore the social cost, although the allegorical stories and poems cover this effectively. Several essays try to measure the economic impact, especially on those already so badly affected by recent government policies promoting austerity. Long term membership of the EU has created legally binding agreements as well as financial obligations that cannot easily be unpicked. Lawyers are being kept busy.

As I read each contribution I noted that the authors had travelled to countries in Europe and experienced their different cultures, something that many people will not have had the means or opportunity to do. The authors’ desires for wider European assimilation suggests that when they have been fortunate enough to travel abroad they have not been ring fenced with like minded tourists in coastal resorts but rather have explored and interacted widely. There is no acknowledgement of the ability and privilege this reflects.

There is mention of the problems of anger and nostalgia, a sepia tinted nationalism that has little basis in reality. With the country names and borders of the world in constant flux this is not a purely British phenomenon.

Several of the essays that purport to understand the Leavers’ point of view concentrate on the economic penalty Brexit would bring. There are mentions of important issues such as protection of workers rights, cross border health care agreements, research projects that pool resources and funding in order to share results across universities. Whilst not wishing to discount these potential problems, I thought it a shame that presentations for the Leavers side of the argument focused entirely on the negative aspects. Likewise, those authors waxing lyrical on the benefits of remaining in the EU concentrated on the social and cultural benefits of an open Europe, largely neglecting to mention the costs and frustrations of continuing EU membership.

In his essay, The Levellers and the Diggers, Giles Fraser writes:

“the bastard conqueror isn’t the European Union – we freely gave the powers away. But the EU has meekly become his servant. The bastard conqueror is international finance that ignores borders, locates itself offshore to pay no tax, and has the EU in its pocket. Look at how the EU dealt with Greece, imposing crippling austerity on its people. Look at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the massive trade deal that the EU has been negotiating – mostly in secret – with the US. Under the terms of this deal, large companies will be able to sue nation states if they introduce policies that curb its profits. I’d vote against TTIP if I could. But because of the way the EU is negotiating the deal, I have no say in the matter. And nor do you. The EU has become a neoliberal club, and I will not worship the God they serve.”

In committing itself to a timescale for leaving the EU without a clear idea of what must be achieved, the current British government has set itself up to either fail or wander blind into unchartered territory. The EU will not make it easy for Britain because otherwise other countries may follow suit.

In the publisher’s conclusion she states:

“There might possibly be eventual benefits in leaving the EU, but it could take a generation. […] The true tragedy is that Brexit is a distraction from far more important problems needing to be addressed”

The Brexit issue has become so polarised it is difficult to debate. I applaud this attempt at presenting both sides in what is an informative and engaging anthology with a variety of writing styles and a mix of contributors. It would be a step forward if readers from both sides could allow their strong opinions to be rationally questioned. While such an outcome appears elusive, books such as this provide necessary insight.

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

Book Review: Killing Hapless Ally

haplessally

Killing Hapless Ally, by Anna Vaught, is a fictional memoir exploring mental illness and how the protagonist, Alison, learns to cope with her life through the creation of an alter ego and a host of imaginary friends. It is brutally frank, painful in places, but also darkly funny. Despite the suicide attempts and self harm, Alison is trying to find a way to survive in a world that she believes perceives her as a nuisance and a misfit.

As a child Alison always felt rejected. Her mother, Maria, told her she had not been wanted, that she should have been left at the hospital in a bucket. If she had to have a daughter Maria wished her to be a graceful, slender and beautiful little girl. Alison was plump, clumsy and struggled to stay clean. Her middle class parents were well regarded by their local community. All treated Alison with contempt.

Hapless Ally was the personality Alison thought would be more acceptable to her family and peers, an alter ego created as a shield against the verbal and physical onslaughts she endured. As well as hiding behind Ally in public, Alison developed obsessive routines and a shocking vocabulary. Only in private could she be her true self, confiding in a series of invented friends drawn from music and books.

The story explores snapshots of Alison’s life from as far back as she can remember – visits to relatives; attempts at ballet, music lessons and brownies; school and then university; caravan holidays with her parents. All are seen through the eyes of a deeply unhappy girl desperate to find acceptance.

As an adult Alison comes to realise that she is living her life with the soundtrack of her mother’s scathing criticism always in her head. She seeks help, but fears that she will not be able to cope without the strategies she has relied on for decades. She marries and has children, but then suffers a severe mental breakdown. Hapless Ally is conspiring with her dead mother and an exorcism is required.

The writing is intense, sometimes rambling, always coherent. The disjointedness can make for challenging reading but is effective at conveying the fragmentation of memory, especially from childhood, the overlap of sensation with events. It is fascinating and somewhat disturbing to look at adult behaviour through young Alison’s eyes, to see what a child absorbs and the impact of circumstance.

The story has been drawn from the author’s own experience of mental health issues. The authenticity this brings makes it a somewhat disquieting read. Although not an easy subject to explore mental illness deserves wider discussion. This book does not attempt to offer easy answers, but it generates important questions.

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