Book Review: Only Ever Yours

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill, is set in a dystopian future where ice caps have melted, sea levels risen, and survivors are concentrated within three main zones: Euro, America and Chindia. In the early days of this new world order the people who survived wanted only boy babies. Potential parents purchased gender specific fertility drugs. Unwanted daughters were considered unworthy of increasingly scarce resources and were dumped in mass graves. With families unwilling to countenance raising girls, extinction loomed as a possibility.

“Genetic Engineers were forced to create women to ensure the survival of the human race. And since they had the opportunity, it would have been foolish not to make necessary improvements in the new women, the eves.”

These lab grown babies are placed in nurseries until they are four years old when they move to schools. For the next twelve years they are educated for their role in society. Some will become companions to the Inheritants – the boy babies born more naturally – and be required to birth and raise their sons. Others will become concubines, providing whatever sexual favours the Inheritants demand. A few will become chastities and help educate the next batch of girl babies.

The rules state that women must be beautiful, look youthful and weigh in at a target weight.

“Fat girls are disgusting. Fat girls are lazy. No one will ever love a fat girl. […] Fat girls should be made obsolete.”

Women must be calm, quiet and compliant, never crying or showing any signs of Unacceptable Emotions. Failure to follow the rules can lead to being sent Underground or to the Pyre. Those women who please the men sufficiently may continue to exist until their Termination Date. Even those who are granted a redesign to preserve their youthful looks are not permitted to live beyond forty years of age.

“All eves are created to be perfect but, over time, they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement.”

The story is told from the point of view of sixteen year old frieda as she enters her final year of school. Her best friend, isabel, has become distant over the summer break leaving frieda unmoored and afraid. She has a deep seeded need to be accepted, harbouring thoughts that she is not good enough or beautiful enough. She feels forced to try to befriend megan who oozes confidence and uses her acolytes to ensure she retains her power within their year. megan is ambitious and voices frustration when she is not provided with benefits she hears others are granted elsewhere.

“I can understand her wanting to leave the Euro-Zone, with its four thousand inhabitants and increasingly limited budget, but most of the world’s money is in Chindia now. It may have been the Americas who came up with the idea for the Noah Project, but it was the Chindians who funded the development and construction of the Zones. Np one else could afford it.”

Over the course of the school year the reader learns of life within the school and the limitations girls are required to accept. In the final few months, under strictly controlled conditions, they begin interactions with the Inheritants. These boys will then choose who they want as their companions, most of the remaining girls being transported to the Main Zone to become concubines.

The opening chapters set the scene and introduce this appalling world. Towards the middle of the book the pace slows, the daily activities and concerns growing repetitive. There are only so many descriptions of clothes, shoes, hair styles and make-up along with associated insecurity, jealousy and bitching that I wish to read – even though it is this preoccupation with female looks that is being addressed in the tale. The tension ratchets up as the Ceremony – when the girls will learn what their future is to be – is just a few days away. The denouement is devastating yet perfectly encapsulates the society that has been created.

The author writes in her Afterword

“It is the story of every teenage girl who secretly believes that she doesn’t belong and that she probably never will. It’s the story of every woman who feels under pressure to look a certain way, to conform to a certain behaviour, and who doesn’t even understand why she does so. It’s the story of what it even means to be a woman in a world that constantly devalues you just because of your gender.”

Written with young adults in mind this is a book that can also be appreciated by an older audience who may benefit from a reminder of the pressures faced by young women in our contemporary society. Despite my criticism of the pace, it is a story well worth reading.

Only Ever Yours is published by riverrun.

My copy of this book was given to me by my sister.


Book Review: Tiger

“Edit wanted, with all her heart, to protect her daughter. She wanted better for Zina than love”

Covering an expanse of over 6.6 million square miles, Russia is the world’s largest country by landmass. It includes nine different time zones and shares land borders with 14 neighboring countries. In the Amur region of the far east, forest wildernesses still exist, although they are always at risk from man’s desire to acquire personal wealth at whatever cost to the environment. Here the largest cat on earth, the Siberian tiger, still survives in his natural state. A king tiger will ruthlessly guard and patrol his territory of up to five hundred square miles, within which his females raise their cubs. It is one of the harshest habitats on earth.

Tiger, by Polly Clark, is an exploration of the cost of freedom. Following a prologue set in the Russian Taiga, where a hunter is trying to kill a tiger for its valuable pelt, the story introduces Frieda, an English academic who is researching the behaviour of captive bonobos. Frieda is a morphine addict, using the drug to help her cope with her fears following a vicious street attack several years ago. Frieda has been stealing the drug from her place of work and using it on the premises. She is about to suffer the consequences.

Disgraced but in need of work, Frieda moves to Devon where a privately run zoo requires a keeper. Here she encounters her first tiger, a lone male that is about to be offered a mate. The zoo has purchased a tigress from a Russian dealer. When it is delivered the creature is not as expected.

The second section of the book is based around Tomas who works on a Russian nature reserve in the Amur region. His father manages the venture and is eager to gain the attention of President Putin, who supports the protection of the wild tigers that roam the area. The reader is offered a view of life in the forest, the dangers encountered, and how changing political beliefs have affected the plunder of resources. Decisions made in Tomas’s past haunt him, and he blames his father for his current, lonely existence.

The third section tells the story of Edit, a young village girl living in the Udeghe region, whose grandfather was the local Shaman until such practices were outlawed by the Russians. She has been raised with the traditional stories and songs in which tigers were considered sacred. She is horrified when the man who hopes to marry her assists in the capture and killing of one of these magnificent beasts. Life, however, must go on and time, inevitably, passes. Edit understands that she must marry and is then expected to bear children. She longs for freedom.

Part four opens from the point of view of the tigers as they struggle to survive a particularly harsh winter. The various threads of the tale are then drawn together. There is poignancy and violence. There is cause and effect.

“The mice had changed the weasel’s story. How miraculous it was that all these journeys […] persisted alongside each other, each to be followed and understood separately. Each traversed its own world, with its own time, yet connected with the others at converging moments.”

In developing the various characters the author demonstrates how any action is rarely as simple as good or evil. Men long for a woman to ease their loneliness. They feel satisfied with themselves that they provide for and protect their family unit. Women desire an autonomy that is often beyond men’s comprehension.

“There wasn’t really a place for female things. Leyland was as trapped as everyone involved with tigers in the language of the masculine ideal – the nobility, courage, majesty, and so on, exhibited by the king.”

Yet this tale is more than some sort of feminist manifesto. The men suffer from cultural and personal expectation as much as the women. Love is longed for by all yet becomes a cage – a means of control requiring the surrender of liberty. There is a cost in accepting such captivity. There is also a cost if such strictures are rejected.

In all life situations there is hunter and there is prey; there is fear and there is a willingness to take risks for the rewards these bring.

The writing is taut and fluid. Subjects are explored with nuance and depth. However flawed the characters, they are drawn with empathy.

A thought provoking, engrossing and majestic read.

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

Gig Review: Sam Guglani and Katy Mahood in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I attended a friendly and fascinating event at Toppings bookshop in Bath. Sam Guglani, author of Histories, and Katy Mahood, author of Entanglement, were in conversation, discussing how the intersections and collisions of human experience can be explored in fiction. Originally the evening had been intended to be a discussion between two doctors about how their work in medicine inspired their writing. Unfortunately Joanna Cannon had to cancel due to illness so Katy stepped in. She proved a fine replacement.

The evening opened with introductions and readings. The authors then questioned each other about aspects of their books. I provide below a summary of their discussion.

Histories is set in a hospital over the course of a week and is structured as a series of interlinked stories told from the points of view of a variety of people who inhabit the place. Katy asked Sam if he used the hospital as a vehicle to explore characters or if the characters were a means to explore how a hospital functions.

Sam talked of how a patient arrives at hospital, presents their symptoms and expects a diagnosis. The reality is a lot more messy. Hospitals are often large and sprawling. Patients are ill so not at their best. Doctors will have differing areas of expertise, skill levels and experience. All of these factors collide in their interactions. Discreet people and events combine in ways that they cannot know, becoming more than the sum of their parts.

Entanglement is about the ripple effects interactions create. It was inspired by Katy’s interest in quantum entanglement (a physical phenomenon which occurs when pairs or groups interact in ways such that the state of each can no longer be described independently of the other(s), even when separated by a large distance). She talked of meeting her husband when she was sixteen years old and discovering that they lived a few hundred yards apart. They must have met before – at playgroups, schools or social events – but weren’t aware. She was propelled to write her story by her husband’s illness which created a sudden awareness of mortality, something always there but not noticed.

Katy asked Sam if his exposure to life changing moments in his work as an oncologist had been a catalyst for Histories.

Sam quipped that his children tease him about being obsessed by death. He mentioned a junior doctor who asked a registrar how he coped with the inevitable deaths. The answer was that at least in oncology the doctor cannot mess up, patients are going to die anyway. Although appearing flippant, this is a reminder that as a society death is regarded as remote, its possibility denied, yet all medicine is an encounter with death. In Histories the characters are facing mortality, theirs or those they know. Fiction offers a way of presenting such truths. Sam reminded us that we live in a post enlightened world where an oncologist can request massively expensive tests yet struggles to find funds to provide oral hydration.

Katy mentioned Joanna Cannon’s latest book, Three Things About Elsie, and how it explores attitudes to people’s changing abilities. She mentioned a blog post Dr Cannon had written about how to talk to a patient suffering a terminal illness (do read this). Histories brings out what being a good doctor means, and the uncertainty that always exists.

The authors were asked if they thought that, in the last few years, there had been an increased interest in both the positives and negatives of healthcare.

Katy talked of the expectation of infallibility and the constrictions caused by the threat of litigation, how this affects what doctors can say to patients. She offered an analogy with motherhood. There is a desire to be a perfect mother, yet all that any mother can hope for is to be good enough. Perhaps society needs to accept good enough doctors.

Sam mentioned that we live in a world that is now far less trusting of authority – understandably. He asked how we square this with providers of healthcare when doctors face crisis at every moment.

Katy talked of the care her husband received, which was not always as it should have been. Yet she recognised that doctors are human and working within the constraints of a far from perfect system. She felt it important that we differentiate before ascribing blame.

Both Sam and Katy read again from their books before talk moved on to a discussion of the use of  language, and empathy.

Katy commented that Histories has dexterous language and asked if this could enable or disable the practice of medicine.

Sam talked of providing compassionate care and what this means, that it should not just be a task on a tick list. Language is the currency humans use and there are ethical as well as technical arguments for certain words, for example madness. He talked of culpability, which is explored in Entanglement, what happens to others as a result of our actions but of which we remain unaware. Kindness is a power.

Katy talked of how kindness shapes those around. For some who show care it becomes their prism – they define themselves by other’s outcomes as a result of their acts of kindness.

When questions were invited from the audience one lady told of her experience of a rare illness being diagnosed because an expert happened to be to hand. She wished to stress the importance of everyone bringing their best to their job. She felt that doctors should be more truthful about what they know and can do.

A question was then asked about media representations.

Sam replied that to get away from the false and sentimental it was necessary to be gritty in his writing, to present the internal troubles of his characters. Doctors cannot know exactly how others feel but can understand fear and pain. He chairs a clinical ethics committee and most discussions are not around great moral dilemmas but much more day to day concerns – how much should be told and shared, how to be with patients. It can be tricky arriving at a reasonable stance.

Sam referenced Seamus Heaney’s essay in which he differentiated between craft and technique in writing: craft is the skill of making, it wins competitions, it can be deployed without reference to feelings or the self; technique defines a stance toward life, a definition of a writers own reality.

And with that the discussion was drawn to a close. The audience were rapturous in their reactions to the discussion and eager to talk to both authors. I managed to catch a few words with Sam when I asked him to sign my copy of his book. When I looked for Katy she was surrounded, deep in conversation, and I was by now out of time. I did manage to introduce myself to Ann Bissell who was representing The Borough Press. It is always lovely to put faces to names I follow on line.

This was another excellent author evening organised by Toppings. If in Bath do check out this fabulous independent bookshop.


Histories is published by riverrun (click on the cover above to read my review)

Entanglement is published by The Borough Press

Book Review: Histories

“Only this morning, brushing her teeth, she’d listened to a young woman on the radio announcing that her father was being denied treatment, then an interview with a minister about rationing and resources and so on. As though every drug, every penny, has to be made available for every treatment. All the while printers breaking, then nurses, then doctors.”

Histories, by Sam Guglani, is a set of interlinked stories – histories – of the nurses, doctors, patients, porters and cleaners who populate the oncology department of an NHS hospital during the course of one week in October. It is a humane, devastating exploration of the effect of sickness on those who suffer, observe and treat it. Beautifully written it offers an empathetic observance of the many types of people encountered and their coping strategies when dealing with death.

Unlike other books written by doctors this one does not emphasise the stresses caused by the long hours worked. Rather it looks at the relationships between medical staff at all levels, their expectations, and those of patients. Doctors are not homogeneous; they each cope differently with a job that demands they save lives when what they are doing on a daily basis is trying to postpone death.

The consultants featured are at different stages in their careers. One is wealthy and arrogant, believing that patients want their doctors to appear confident and professional, even on days when they may feel crumpled and rushed. He is growing his private practice, the status conferred by the cost of treatment making certain patients consider him the best.

“It’s no big secret. The more elusive or expensive or glamorous a medical opinion, the more hope a patient invests in it, the more trust. He’s convinced of it. Desire and trust are so perfectly aligned in the practice of medicine.”

He talks of the need for self-care, that he always ensures he takes breaks. He is accused of not caring for those requiring consultations, of finding time for his private patients when those coming through the NHS must wait.

“Look. I get that you’re clever. Busy, capable. All that

And so?

I know you can do it all, Nathan. But you give nothing.

What do you want me to give?

It’s just a set of tasks for you, isn’t it? Medicine. While you stay intact.

You want us – what? You want us to break?”

Another consultant becomes frustrated when patients demand tests and treatments that she does not consider necessary. They accuse her of withholding due to their age. They ask for a second opinion from someone more senior. She feels relief and then guilt when she signs them over to someone else.

The junior doctors are still finding their way, struggling to deal with the daily experiences and fear of missing signs of illness progression, or of being blamed for unnecessary escalation. The nurses and other staff members at times resent the doctors with their sometimes acerbic discussions of patients in their care. Yet all are affected by the age and demeanour of the never ending stream of patients.

“We’re drawn to the young and the beautiful in hospitals. We flock to them. We meet them differently to the elderly, say, or the obese, the vast majority of mentally and physically fraying persons that fill these buildings. […] As though, at some level, we really do believe that beauty renders us invulnerable to suffering.”

Patients’ loved ones talk of the unfairness of this suffering, asking why them? as if illness should be deserved. The medical staff have learned what is almost a script in order to deal with the human pain that daily surrounds them. They may care but cannot survive the job if they care too deeply.

In spare yet emotionally unsparing prose the author presents a cast who are at moments of medical crisis. Their stories are told with sympathy but also realism in an environment where patients are demanding miracles. This is a powerfully understated, beautifully written portrayal of life in a hospital, from many perspectives. A recommended read for anyone who may one day require medical treatment.

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

Gig Review: Christopher Fowler in Bath

This year I spent Halloween at Waterstones bookshop in Bath where Christopher Fowler was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and obvious fan of his amiable guest. The event was the final stop on a tour for The Book of Forgotten Authors which I review here. Although I am only familiar with this and a handful of the author’s more recent Bryant and May series of crime novels, Christopher has published over forty books that cross several genres. As well as books, his other works include screenplays, video games, graphic novels, audio and stage plays. He writes a weekly column in The Independent on Sunday where the idea for this most recent publication germinated.

Steve described The Book of Forgotten Authors as a cornucopia of author delights including excellent digressive essays. He read out the names of a number of the authors included, many of which the audience were familiar with. Christopher commented that although their names may still be recalled, few of the readers he has asked could list these authors’ books. I got the impression that he was addressing a well read audience in Bath, perfect for the discussion that ensued.

In whittling down his list of hundreds of forgotten authors to the ninety-nine featured, Christopher was not interested in the obscure but rather recognisable writers whose books have been eclipsed. After mentioning them in his newspaper column, he received letters, often from author’s families. They subsequently corresponded and set up meetings, thereby enabling Christopher to gather the fascinating snippets of data he cites in his book. He made the decision not to include anyone living in case of upset by being listed as forgotten.

Christopher is obviously well connected within the arts. There were references to films he has been involved with and mentions of writers who are acquaintances and personal friends. Most of the discussion though was of his interest in books, how they are valued and how this changes over time.

He talked of pulp fiction from the sixties found in paperback fairs, some of which were written by well known names under pseudonyms, with artwork from highly regarded sources. Having grown up in a house containing few works of literature he spent much of his childhood in a library, frequenting second hand bookshops when he had money to spend. He now takes an interest not just in titles considered collectable but in the treasures that can be found tucked away between their pages – letters, notes and similar ephemera.

Christopher talked of the peaks and troughs in book fashion, how an experimental novel from the sixties is now being sold as a mass market paperback. He applauded the small presses such as Persephone who are republishing works that do not deserve to remain forgotten. He is a fan of ebooks as they enable out of print books to be more widely shared which may help prove there is demand for them in hard copy.

He also mentioned the books that deserve to be forgotten. He believes some authors whose work has remained popular had contemporaries who were even better yet disappeared from retail shelves. As he talked of books I was not familiar with, although Steve and several in the audience were agreeing with his words, I pondered how much book appreciation is a matter of personal taste.

In his Bryant and May books Christopher told us that the weirdest things are often based on fact, toned down because readers would find them too unrealistic. He does not like writing gore, preferring to create unease and trust reader’s imagination – disturbing rather than distressing. His books have been optioned by the BBC although he believes the scripts may not have captured the essential quirkiness of his elderly detectives. He mentioned that he bought back the rights of one book he was unhappy with after publication.

Christopher’s next book, due out in 2018, is based around the theme of a country house murder. The one after that will explore the theme of loneliness. His many fans will be happy that there are plenty more books in the offing. He has also written a fantasy epic but has yet to have it accepted for publication.

Steve had ensured that there was a good stock of a variety of Christopher’s books available to purchase. Those queuing to acquire his signature each presented sizeable piles of his works. It was good to see Christopher taking the time to chat as he signed. All seemed to have enjoyed the event.

As well as the pleasure of meeting Christopher I was able to introduce myself to his publicist, Elizabeth Masters. It is always lovely to meet those who kindly send me the books I review.

The Book of Forgotten Authors is published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and is available to buy now.


Book Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors

The Book of Forgotten Authors, by Christopher Fowler, is a book for bibliophiles. It offers the reader details and anecdotes on ninety-nine authors who were once hugely popular and are now no longer in print. It is a very personal selection. The author admits that some of those chosen produced work that was predictable and not particularly well written, yet it has a charm that he finds appealing. Others he dismisses. Of Georgette Heyer and Eleanor Hibbert he opines that they wrote novels packaged in

“the kind of pastel covers no man would ever pick up.”


Each author listed is necessarily given just a few pages. Although superficial this is enough to provide a flavour of why they became popular before sinking into obscurity. Interspersed with the listings are commentaries such as ‘The Forgotten Books of Charles Dickens’ and ‘The Forgotten Booker Winners’. Although esoteric in places these make for interesting reading.

From some of the quotes provided I would suggest many of these authors deserve to stay forgotten, yet this reaction demonstrates just how personal individual reading experiences can be. In talking of the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong:

“sometimes you want to wring the necks of her protagonists for picking the one option that will get them into deeper trouble. But hey, bad choices make good stories.”

I’m not sure that I agree.

The book is written with a deft and humorous touch. It is also moving in places. The chapter on Polly Hope was a particular favourite.

It is not so much the quality of the literature produced by these forgotten authors as their passing popularity that warrants their inclusion. Tastes change over time as do readers’ offence radars; authors can be sidelined when their evocative voice grates modern sensibilities.

I did not always agree with the conclusions the author reaches. The Forgotten Queens of Suspense opens with

“Ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all.”

This sounded familiar. The author is more generous suggesting

“Today women read more than men, and female authors have finally been accorded the prestige they always deserved.”

If only this were truly the case.

The output of many of the authors listed was prodigious, especially compared to current expectations. Like today some was also abtruse. Thomas Love Peacock is described as an acquired taste, seemingly for good reason. In writing of his tome Nightmare Abbey:

“it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words”

“the book doesn’t so much end as stop. My paperback version is so old that some of the pages fell out, and it didn’t feel entirely necessary to put them back in the right order.”

Do authors such as this deserve a reprint?

There are scathing comments about readers who are described as ‘intellectually inert’. As an example, the author clearly dislikes the once popular little book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When a teenager I found this uplifting. Perhaps my more jaded, aged eye would not agree but at the time of reading it did its job and connected.

The author writes kinder words on the renowned Dan Brown:

“The real sin of bad writing is being boring, and Mr Brown is certainly never that.”

Well, he bored me.

Of course, agreeing with the author’s point of view is not the point. What this book offers is a window into the vagaries of the publishing world and its readership, the changing tastes and fickle loyalties. It is packaged in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into and refering back to over time.

I welcomed the insights into the ever evolving literary world, its discoveries and appropriations, pretensions and fads. So much has changed and yet much remains the same. As a great author, who has not been forgotten, once wrote: a man is not dead while his name is still spoken. For these ninety-nine, Mr Fowler could be a lifesaver.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author, riverrun.

This post is a stop on The Book of Forgotten Authors Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Larchfield

Larchfield, by Polly Clark, is an intricately constructed tale of the devastating impact of prejudice and hate. Set over two distinct yet entwined time periods, it introduces the reader to two young poets – Wystan Auden and Dora Fielding. Both have recently had their debut collections accepted for publication but, for personal reasons, have left the supportive circle of the Oxford literary elite to live in the Scottish coastal town of Helensburgh.

The book opens in 1930 when Wystan travels north to take up a post teaching English and French at a small boarding school for boys, named Larchfield. His part in the tale is loosely based on known facts. The reader will know him as W.H. Auden and he wrote The Orators during the two years he spent in this place. The poem is a meditation on paranoia and repression set in Helensburgh. The author also lives here and mined her experiences to portray the suspicion with which those regarded as outsiders are treated.

Alternate chapters follow modern day Dora, recently married and expecting her first child, who moves to a seafront apartment constructed when a large house, once owned by a wealthy shipbuilder, was divided up into more affordable living spaces. Dora’s husband, Kit, was raised in Scotland and has an involving job as an architect so is easily accepted. Bereft of her friends and facing the challenges of new motherhood, Dora struggles with the local’s expectations of how she should behave.

Kit and Dora live below an elderly couple, Mo and Terence, who are popular members of the community and church. Dora finds her neighbours’ blatant antagonism difficult to bear. Kit is sympathetic but believes his wife is over reacting. When the health professionals also berate her, making thinly veiled threats for the choices she makes in caring for her child, Dora seeks solace in escape.

Wystan is barely coping with the legally required suppression of his desires. He visits a good friend in Berlin where their lifestyle is overlooked, but in early 1930s Germany this is about to change. The consequences when an individual will not conform to what an intolerant society considers necessary for the wider good has been proven to be devastating.

The comparative similarities in how Wystan and Dora are treated will be recognisable to any modern mother, as will Kit’s assumptions that his wife’s complaints are overplayed. When both protagonists refuse to back down and act as is demanded, the ramifications, although shocking, seem inevitable.

Like its protagonists, this is a book that does not conform to a standard. The originality is never a challenge as the prose is so satisfying to read. I felt Wystan and Dora’s pain and frustration, their determination to remain true to themselves. As Dora realised early on, belonging requires giving up something of self.

“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

The plot threads are intense but also entertaining. The writing throughout is utterly captivating. I enjoyed everything about this book but especially how it made me think and feel. It is a literary depth charge that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: All Things Cease To Appear


All Things Cease To Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage, is set in a remote farming community in upstate New York. In the late 1970s the town of Closer was on the cusp of change. Traditional farming had become financially unviable and the land was being bought by developers, eager to cash in on a growing demand for country escapes from the city elite. The residents of the town, who had known each other all of their lives, were forced to adjust.

The Hale family have been farmers for generations. When their farm fails the parents choose the ultimate way out leaving their three teenage sons to cope as best they can. George Clare, a newly appointed college professor, buys the old Hale farm at auction. He is aware of its history but chooses not to share this with his young wife, Catherine. She senses that her new home hosts a sadness but does her best to make it comfortable and welcoming for the sake of their toddler daughter, Franny.

Catherine struggles to settle away from her life in the city. She wishes to be a good wife and mother but misses the regard she enjoyed as an intelligent, working woman. Her husband is distant and critical, taking from her whatever he desires, by force if necessary, and belittling her efforts to find a niche in this watchful town. Over time she befriends Justine, a wealthy neighbour who is viewed with perplexity for being comfortable in her own skin.

“she’d discovered her true self […] peeling away the carefully wrought costume designed by her parents to find what glimmered beneath.”

“Gone were the scare tactics that indicted her body as a biological enemy, routine strategies of degradation that made her nearly desperate for a partner, someone who could love even her.”

George is wary of the changes in his wife. His method of dealing with people who do not follow his agenda is to ruthlessly gain the upper hand in their relationship, at whatever cost. He sets out to take from Justine as he has succeeded in doing with his wife.

The Hale boys are offered casual work by the Clares and through them we get to view life through the eyes of the younger generation of the town. The eldest Hale, Eddy, is involved with a young waitress whom he works alongside at a town inn. When George notices the girl, she too is drawn into his web.

The plot is one of life, of the dramas played out behind the closed doors of a marriage, of the intrigues of the disillusioned and the issues that haunt from upbringing. At the core of this story is George, a man capable of doing what many may secretly consider but rarely act upon. The author takes the reader inside the heads of each of the key characters, to rattle around amongst their dreams, ambitions, and day to day anxieties. The brooding undercurrents of the tale penetrate as they go through the motions of work, home life and socialising. Underneath the facade of acceptable behaviour there exist strangled lives.

The lyrical prose and imagery make this a beautiful read yet the pace is that of a thriller. From the off we know that a tragedy will unfold. There is evil lurking in plain sight yet so many look away, unwilling to pry for fear of what they may find and the personal repercussions if exposed. So much is endured despite all futures being unknowable.

I loved this book for the quality of the writing, the intriguing exploration of the secrets kept through inculcation. The plot development makes it a page turner but it is the portrayal of people and their myriad complexities that truly impressed.

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