Book Review: Whiteout Conditions

“I think about all that I have expected that turned out to be wrong, in the dark before sleep, remind myself the joy and love and success found by all regular people I know are not meant for me, and when I remind myself of this, I can picture the look on my face, and would prefer no one sees it.”

Whiteout Conditions, by Tariq Shah, is set over a two day road trip that old friends, Ant and Vince, take to attend the funeral of Vince’s young cousin, Ray. The narrator is Ant, who flies into his old home town, from where Vince will drive them to the wake. Ant left many years ago, something Vince appears to resent. Vince is now married with kids. Ant has no living relatives left. He has not been good at keeping in touch. He doesn’t know if he will be welcome but is drawn to funerals, claiming to find them ‘kind of fun’. Ray died in horrific circumstances – a teenager whose family have been left devastated.

Around these bones of a plot the author constructs a story of everyday violence, grief and the costs of living in its aftermath. The car journey is fraught, shadowed by sniping conversation as Ant and Vince try to process their shared backstory and the lasting hurt this has created.

“What we say never changes. How we say it reveals our age, a history invisible to the stranger’s eye, one that is never really addressed by those familiar with it.”

The writing is taut and direct with much conveyed through dialogue and memories of shared conflict. The ancient car they travel in has footwells filled with trash from takeaways. The weather travelled through is filthy – roads clogged with slush and angry traffic. All this adds to the untidy atmosphere of provocation as Vince tries to gain a handle on why Ant left, what he has been doing, and why he has returned. There is no welcome for an old friend in these pages, rather they spill over with bitterness at the hand dealt and how it has been played.

And yet the reader will be drawn in, made to feel. In gaining an understanding of Ant’s life there is growing empathy. His coping mechanisms for losses suffered can at first appear insensitive but he has always had to harden his veneer to survive. Vince has his own demons, leaving little energy for a man he feels rejected by. There may be little to admire in either of their behaviour. This does not detract from what is a compellingly told tale.

I was almost afraid to read the final few sections such was the tension built and my fear of what images would be put into my head. The denouement fits with what went before adding a forward trajectory to a disturbing act of vengeance.

A dark yet somehow moving account of lives stymied by circumstances as much as choices made. A pithy yet potent read for those undaunted by brutal reality.

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

Gig Review: An Evening with Joanna Cannon

Last month my husband and I spent a weekend in Salisbury to celebrate his birthday. As I do when I visit anywhere new, I searched out the bookshops and found this window display at Waterstones.

salisbury goats and sheep

“Why don’t you go?” my husband asked. I smiled. The city is an hours drive from our home, along narrow, windy roads, and I do not enjoy driving in places I am unfamiliar with. I don’t go out much because I am nervous in company. I could find many reasons why I would not go.

Fast forward a few weeks. My daughter is home from uni and Joanna Cannon is in the news for her latest book deal. As a medical student and writer my daughter was interested in this author’s story. She offered to accompany me and drive us to the event.

Thus, last night, we set out on a road trip. We arrived at Waterstones early and took our seats in the front row. You can see the backs of out heads on the left in this picture (posted on Twitter by PostConsumerBookClub (@PoCoBooC) ).

jocannonevent

An impressive following of bloggers had congregated on the right but I was much too shy to introduce myself as they chatted happily together beforehand and then again at the end. Perhaps the evening will be written up on their sites too.

The event was hosted by Tom Bromley who knows Joanna from her time at the Faber Academy where he teaches. They talked of her initial application, what she hoped to achieve on the course, and she mentioned how she went on to attend the York Festival of Writing in 2014 where she won their Friday Night Live competition (she wrote about this experience here.)

12936607_10201608092120186_2909152903143283888_n

‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ has now been sold in many countries around the world and Joanna talked of the edits that certain territories requested. A glossary of British confectionery from the 1970s has been included in some translations. Most wished to retain the Englishness which is at the heart of the story.

We were treated to a reading and I was reminded of the humour of the book. Its appeal is the gentleness with which it is written yet it has scope and depth. Joanna told us that her aim was to write a book which gave a voice to those who struggle to fit into society. As a psychiatrist she understands these issues through her dealings with patients.

12931020_10201608092960207_2156479140585749225_n

Audience questions were invited and Joanna talked of trying to fit in time to write her second book alongside the publicity required for her debut. She described her writing process (very early starts to each day and editing as she goes along) and of how what she says is not always reported as she meant (if you are reading this Joanna then I hope I have managed a degree of accuracy).

The topics discussed flowed and it seemed that no time at all had passed before Tom drew proceedings to a close and audience members were invited to have their books signed. The couple sitting behind me unpacked at least seven copies – authors must love such readers!

I introduced myself and was happy to be recognised. I am delighted with the inscription in my proof.

     12717975_10201608092560197_5131201775590343747_n       12931157_10201608092320191_8333600260805303681_n

‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ is published by Borough Press and is available to buy now. To read my review, click on the image below.

goats and sheep

 

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

haroldfry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a road trip story with a difference. The protagonist is sixty-five years old and is travelling on foot. Although his journey teaches him a great deal about himself, others and life, the lessons learned by those he leaves behind are at least as powerful. This is a story of loss, and of the particular loneliness experienced by those who build walls around their emotions.

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and rarely goes out. He worked the same job for forty-five years but has few friends. His wife spends her days cleaning their already clean house and finding reasons to berate him. His days stretch before him with little purpose.

Into this sterile world arrives a letter from a former work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who Harold has neither seen nor heard from in twenty years. He learns that Queenie is in a hospice with terminal cancer. Unsure how to respond, he pens a brief reply and sets out to post it. When he reaches the post box at the end of his quiet, residential road he keeps on walking.

Harold has no plan and cannot explain his actions, even to himself. A chance encounter with a young cashier at a garage where he stops for food places the seed of an idea into his head. Rather than go home he decides that he must continue to walk, from Devon to Berwick, a journey of over five hundred miles. He will reunite with Queenie and somehow keep her alive. He is wearing yacht shoes, his usual shirt and tie; he has his wallet but no provisions and no phone.

As he walks Harold mulls over his life. He has many regrets but also imponderables over how he could have engineered more favourable outcomes. As well as this self analysis he starts to appreciate his surroundings, to which he had previously paid little attention. He encounters strangers and starts to listen to their stories.

Harold’s wife, Maureen, is left to come to terms with her husband’s inexplicable behaviour. She first feels anger and then bereft. A lifetime of not talking about how they feel prevents meaningful communication. Each must find their own way forward, one step at a time and alone.

This is a poignant and beautifully told tale. Harold and Maureen are recognisable to anyone who knows people of this age. How they are seen by others matters to them yet has stifled their potential. Their journeys are both physical and metaphorical.

I loved the language and imagery, how ordinary the cast of characters felt in what is an extraordinary tale. Those who helped along the way offered hope in a society that can seem so flawed. There remained selfishness, especially when the press became involved, but individuals shone through the collective toxicity.

A feel good tale with depth, advocating a willingness to look beyond the net curtains that shield inhabitants from the outside world. Read this book; laugh, weep and remember what it is to express love. I recommend it to all.