Book Review: The Peckham Experiment

peckham experiment

“What had she imagined we would write, out there amidst the pigs and the peasants?”

The Peckham Experiment, by Guy Ware, tells the story of identical twin brothers, JJ and Charlie. Born in 1932 to parents who considered themselves communists, the boys were orphaned during the war. Their older sister took them in when they returned from their countryside evacuation, encouraging them to continue with their education. JJ became an architect, working for the local council to provide housing for the working classes. Charlie was a quantity surveyor at a company contracted to build these homes, replacing overcrowded inner city slum dwellings condemned as unfit for human habitation.

When the tale opens, eighty-five year old Charlie is trying to put together a eulogy for JJ whose funeral is the next day. As he reminisces about their long lives the reader learns of their political inclinations, how these weren’t enough to prevent their exemplary aims ending in failure. They wanted to provide decent accommodation for everyone as a right, alongside the post war years’ free education and health care. The modern tower blocks commissioned suffered structural defects and people died as a result.

Despite his apparent socialism, Charlie was something of a snob. When required to work on projects outside of London, he was disparaging of the regions. Even in the city he was wed to the particular area in the south-east where he grew up. JJ opts to live in one of the tower blocks he was responsible for having built, continuing to do so for as long as he was able, perhaps as a way of assuaging his guilt for signing off a design that proved flawed. The brothers were successful professionally but remained aware that some of the lucrative deals they accepted came with questionable backhanders.

What we have here then is a story of two brothers that mirrors the birth and death of the ideals of the welfare state. Conceived to provide for everyone, when everyone was pale skinned and recognisably local, it envisaged a future utopia for the ‘right sort’ of working class family. When the political landscape changed neither Charlie nor JJ could avoid facing the compromises they had accepted, and what these had cost. The vast increase in social housing stock was followed by right to buy, gentrification, and then privatisation. JJ reacted by withdrawing. For a time, he and Charlie lost touch.

“Life goes on. It isn’t heroism, isn’t even stoicism. Or commitment. It’s just brute fact.”

The writing style captures the voice of an elderly man whose body may be failing him but who is not yet ready to join his dead brother. They may have been identical twins but were also individuals. In telling their story the reader is reminded that socialism in Britain has always been multifaceted. The interweaving of countrywide and family politics is masterfully done.

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

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Book Review: Eastmouth and Other Stories

Eastmouth

Eastmouth and Other Stories, by Alison Moore, is one of a new series of books being released by Salt Publishing – Salt Modern Stories. This particular collection of short stories is written by one of my go to authors although, until now, I had yet to read her in shorter form. Each entry in the collection reflects Moore’s trademark style – understated and quietly disturbing. Lurking riptides beneath the smoothly flowing surface will pull readers inside her carefully crafted worlds. Perfect for spooky season, these are tales of ghosts – real and imagined? – alongside manifestations of fears that can be hard to supress when inhabiting dark and lonely places. There are malevolent spirits aplenty, particularly in houses and other supposedly safe spaces. These have been patiently awaiting their chance for mischief or revenge.

Twenty-one stories are included, opening with the titular Eastmouth. Like several others in the collection it is set in a tired, English seaside town. It tells of Sonia, a young woman visiting her boyfriend’s parents. Their welcome is unfettered, unlike their willingness to grant Sonia personal agency. Her boyfriend reveals concern when she will not comply as expected.

Many of the stories exude this need to gain control of another’s personal decision making. Partners attempt to undermine confidence. Help is offered that proves anything but beneficial. Other recurring themes include the presence of water in less than benign circumstances. Unsettling scenes include clever use of a variety of ordinary yet increasingly claustrophobic settings.

Characters are mostly British and exhibit the tics that, being so recognisable, can be amusing. When this develops into something more sinister it is done without fuss, as fits the psyche. Small town life and attitudes are captured skilfully, the apparent stoicism spilling over into an eventual need to deal with an irritant who won’t listen or learn. Readers will almost here them quietly state, ‘but you made me do it’.

A Month of Sundays is a curiously uplifting tale of an elderly gentleman attending a funeral. His last friend has died, going the way of the rest of their circle. The gentleman wondered how many would attend the service so is surprised to find the crematorium chapel more or less full. In chatting to others afterwards he finds himself accepted for unanticipated reasons.

The unexpected turn taken in Common Ground makes it both poignant and exasperatingly relatable. A new neighbour tries to ingratiate himself on the woman next door. When she remains unwilling to go on a date, to do as he wishes and thinks she should, he starts to complain about a tree in her garden. It becomes a metaphor for the way she has acted in the past although cannot admit to regretting.

“She can imagine how he is feeling now: righteous and miserable.”

The collection finishes with Ooderwald, a tale of the myriad ways one can say, ‘I lost’. The story being told is wound around the protagonist’s study of the English language, the many complex tenses few can define clearly yet with subtle differences in meaning. The losses suffered may differ in perceived scope but all cause degrees of suffering.

An eminently satisfying read from a master storyteller with a deliciously chilling imagination. Perfect for curling up with as the nights draw in – if you dare.

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

Book Review: Stewkey Blues Stories

stewkey blues

In the press release that accompanied Stewkey Blues Stories the author writes:

“Short story collections usually harvest the results of a decade or so’s commissions. But this one, in which all pieces are newly-written, emerged out of the 2020 lockdown, a time when I was pretty much confined to my home county of Norfolk.”

This is not, however, a collection that mentions the pandemic. Each story is set mostly in Norfolk, exploring the ‘oddity of the place and the effect it has on the people who live there’ across different timelines. Characters are a mix of visitors, incomers, and others whose families have inhabited the terrain for generations. Some stories offer snapshots while others precis decades lived unremarkably. What pulls them together is how apparently ordinary the lives depicted are, so ordinary that under the author’s piercing lens they are shown to be extraordinary.

I enjoyed all fifteen of the stories that make up this collection. Each is finely crafted with relatable characters whose quirks are mined for interest and plot. Varied relationships are explored: friendships, love affairs, work colleagues, school contemporaries. Several brought home the awkwardness inherent in being of a certain age.

I particularly enjoyed CV which takes the reader through the life of Danny as he navigates a never quite what he was aiming for future. Brief mentions of memorable events, contemporary at the time, help to anchor what is happening at each stage. While the reader may root for the protagonist as he moves from job to job, it is easy to understand his wife’s frustrations.

The Boy at the Door brought back the unspoken miseries and loneliness of childhood on the cusp of adolescence – the emotional intelligence still to be developed. Unlike many portrayals of this age, the boy is not seeking illicit experiences but rather trying to navigate events of which he has little understanding.

In Breckland Wilds features a long time resident, Hecky Knock, who inherits and then sells the family farm, retiring to a cottage. There is some resentment from his sister due to the divvying up of proceeds but this is nothing compared to the resentment Hecky feels when property developers appear down the road. When let down badly by someone he considered a new friend, his reaction is explosive.

Couples featured are often blinkered to the other’s needs. Sunday with the Bears tells of an amusing visit to the home of three elderly and privileged men by an arts journalist and his new girlfriend. The men indulge in much name dropping and vapid cries for attention, all the while wanting things done just so. The young woman observes her boyfriend in a new light under their influence.

“he was just like every other man she had ever known, which was to say ever so slightly insecure and getting by on self-confidence rather than talent. This posed the question: just what exactly was she getting by on?”

One story offers up a reminder of the inadvisability of attending a school reunion after decades of negligible contact with anyone else involved. Another features a self-entitled rich girl who decides a day spent fruit picking could be a lark. Polite, middle class kids are taken advantage of. Families on holiday discover they do not all enjoy activities promoted as worthwhile entertainment.

I was somewhat surprised by the number of characters with links to Oxbridge given these halls are closed to the vast majority. This did not, however, detract from the fun to be poked at those who believed themselves admirably cultured, either through wealth or contacts. There were also plenty of characters with more grounded experiences, some poignant, others through choices made.

Somewhere Out There West of Thetford is set on a residential caravan park. A lorry driver offers help to an elderly woman, discovering she is mostly estranged from her daughter. The ending was unexpectedly satisfying.

New Facts Emerge takes a Norfolk based accountant into London where she must work on Christmas Eve. It is a reminder that the county, despite its atmosphere of remoteness, still feeds workers to the capital.

The wide variety of experiences explored keeps this collection fresh and of interest. The author writes with elan as he excavates the core of the human condition. The reader is left hoping that Norfolk avoids the encroaching homogeny of modern expansionism. Each story provides a highly enjoyable and still lingering read.

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

Book Review: The Retreat

the retreat

The Retreat, by Alison Moore, is a gloriously mischievous study of human interactions and behaviour when a group of six strangers come together on a small island for an artistic retreat. Alongside this tale is the parallel story of a writer who takes up an offer to stay alone on an island, that she may finish the novel she has been trying to complete for many years. Moore’s trademark undercurrents of foreboding shadow both storylines adding to the interest and tension. The sea surrounded setting is as much a character as the people inhabiting the closed off spaces.

The prologue introduces Sandra who, as a child, holidayed with her family on the island of Liel. From the window of their sea-front hotel, Sandra can see the smaller island of Lieloh, a place that anchors itself in her imagination. Her mother tells her it is privately owned, occupied by Valerie Swanson who was an actress in the era of silent films. Sandra is drawn to the idea of artistic types coming together for lavish parties, mingling in hope of meeting the resident celebrity. Between times Swanson could enjoy the peace and seclusion of her immaculately kept surrounds.

The second story focuses on Carol, a city dwelling short story writer who enjoys the finer things in life. Her friend, Jayne, is concerned when she learns Carol plans to stay alone on a private island, owned by a friend, until the first draft of her long discussed novel is finally complete. Jayne worries that Carol will struggle with the solitude, especially in the big old house where she will live. Carol, however, is determined to proceed.

“She wants to write the novel that for years she has been talking about writing. She wants to appear in window displays. She wants to be translated and read around the world. She wants a Netflix series, or to see her work on the big screen.”

Sandra once harboured a desire to attend art college but took an office job instead as a safer option. With middle age now approaching she wonders if it is too late to nurture what latent artistic talent she may possess. When she spots an advertisement for a fortnight long retreat on Lieloh, she signs up with high expectations.

“Here she is, on her way to live in Valerie Swanson’s house, among artists, in a little community. She imagines them supporting and inspiring one another, fetching vegetables from a kitchen garden, cooking together.”

Despite her best efforts, Sandra struggles to fit into the group that forms seamlessly around her. This is not a new experience – she recognises it from childhood. Sandra is required to share a room with a woman who is messy, offending Sandra’s more ordered habits. She is bossed around by another who expects everyone to follow her house rules.

“she speaks with a confidence that would prompt Sandra’s mother to say, as a disapproving aside, ‘She’s very sure of herself.'”

With no allies, Sandra feels she must acquiesce, trying to quash her simmering resentment. As the days go by she becomes ever more aware of how critically she is being viewed. Decisions are made for her without consultation. Sandra reacts by withdrawing, trying not to care and to focus on her painting. In doing her own thing, making it obvious she has no interest in chosen shared activities, she alienates the group further. Disappointment and loneliness lead to ever more risky undertakings as she tries to salvage her reasons for being on the retreat in the first place.

Carol settles into a routine and makes progress with writing her novel. Around her the old house creaks and groans, taking on a life of its own. The reader may decide if it is her muse or undoing, if her story is one of fantasy or horror.

Given how many writers appear to dream of going on a retreat, some with like minded individuals and others alone, these parallel stories offer both humour and a darker note of caution. They are a reminder that artistic types are all too human, with all this entails. Egos are easily bruised. Talent begs an appreciative audience. Jealousies fester. Those regarded as outsiders may be tolerated but will be kept on the margins. Established cliques have hierarchies and codes of conduct guarded opaquely by those who enjoy their sense of belonging.

As is typical for this author, the writing throughout is taut and spare. Threads are woven together with skilful precision. There is a warmth and depth to the character depictions and to the evocation of place across both storylines. The reader may never fully get to know Sandra, who has obvious flaws, but enough is revealed to garner sympathy. The group’s actions may appear unkind but are not without basis.

Carol’s story provides elements of the uncanny with plenty to unpick around the wisdom of longer term solitude. This is particularly interesting to consider given the years we have just lived through.

A spicy yet understanding take on tribal behaviour, artistic endeavours, and the effects of aspiration, judgement and rejection. Another excellent novel from an author deserving the widest acclaim.

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

Book Review: He Wants

he wants

He Wants, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Lewis Sullivan, a retired teacher who has lived his entire life in the same Midlands village. A widower, he is visited daily by his daughter, Ruth, and follows a predictable routine. On Sundays he walks with his elderly father, Lawrence, from the latter’s care home to church. On most other days he will walk to a local pub for a half of shandy and more interesting food than Ruth brings. Lewis misses his wife’s cooking. His restricted lifestyle is not what he once aspired to but he recognises that it was his inability to make life-changing decisions, to take risks, that has led him to this insular old age.

In taut and spare prose, Lewis’s past is revealed. As a child he dreamed of being a hero but never found the opportunity to act out the events he played over and over in his head. An avid reader, he regarded himself as a disappointment to his father who had tried to encourage a more adventurous spirit. Now he in turn observes his coddled grandchild and worries about the boy’s anxiety when encouraged to undertake any outdoor activity.

When Lewis was eighteen he experienced two pivotal events. Lawrence took him to see the preacher Billy Graham in Manchester, where they stayed with a couple they met at the event. Lewis also befriended Sydney Flynn, a local boy his age who was willing to rebel against his parents’ strictures. The pair’s time together was short lived but significant. Both sets of parents regarded the boy their son occasionally hung out with as a damaging influence.

The author’s writing is imbued with shadows and inference. There are shocking moments when it is made clear the role a secondary character is playing. The lives exposed are steeped in melancholy, the wanting and realisation that life offers few second chances. Conforming to parental and societal expectations comes with a price tag.

Moore has long been one of my favourite authors and this work once again confirms why I hold her in such esteem. She is a master at capturing the darkness lurking withing the everyday, of the damage carried by those who appear ordinary, that they suppress but cannot escape.

He Wants is published by Salt.

Gig Review: Launch Party for Dreamtime by Venetia Welby

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Last Wednesday I travelled to London for my first book event since lockdown began in March 2020. Venetia Welby, author of the fabulous Dreamtime, had invited me to the launch of this, her second novel. The venue chosen was Vout-O-Reenee’s, a private member’s club perfect for what turned out to be a well attended and convivial party. Copies of the book were being sold by Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books. I was delighted to hear afterwards that he sold out, although do hope that those who couldn’t pick up a copy on the night have now made their purchases elsewhere. Dreamtime is such a good read.

Attendees were warmly welcomed to the party and invited to partake of a Dreamtime Cocktail. Deliciously refreshing as it tasted I suspect a few of these may send the imbiber to their own dreamtime a tad earlier than anticipated. I made the pragmatic decision to switch to white wine after one glass.

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A selection of fine cheeses and chutneys were available for the hungry. Seats in a small outdoor terrace offered a few moments respite from the friendly hubbub inside. 

Numbers quickly increased with new arrivals finding friends and acquaintances to chat to. There appeared to be a good mix of family, friends and fellow authors, although I spoke to only a handful of guests. With my natural reticence I was grateful Venetia had been happy for me to bring along my husband. We enjoyed observing and soaking up the atmosphere.

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All were in attendance to celebrate the publication of a book so there was excitement when the author stepped forward to give a reading, the crowd gathering round to hear her bring life to her characters.

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When finished, the appreciative audience applauded and called out as one, ‘More! More! More!’ – a first in my experience at a literary event. Venetia’s riposte was perfect, suggesting that those wishing to find out what happened next could buy the book. And they did.

The evening was far from over with more mingling (me trying to recognise faces from social media). As numbers gradually started to thin husband and I took our leave.

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It was lovely to be back amongst bookish folk after so long, and well worth travelling to the city for. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Dreamtime, I recommend you rectify this soon.

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Dreamtime is published by Salt and is available to buy direct from the publisher (click the above cover for link) or from any good bookshop.

Book Review: Dreamtime

dreamtime

“The details of that day continue to shimmer and twist, overlaid by layers of stories. What is memory, what dream, what haunting?”

Dreamtime, by Venetia Welby, opens in September 2035. Sol, an American woman approaching her thirtieth birthday, is nearing the end of her stay in a rehab facility that has weaned her from a drug habit. Sol spent her childhood in a controlling desert commune in Arizona before being taken into care, where she was regarded as troublesome and moved around frequently. Her best friend from her early years, Kit, may be the only person in her life who has not used and abused her. She gravitates towards older men, father figures, hankering after the man who left before she could know him. Her mother has always refused to talk of Sol’s father other than to berate his desertion. When she finally gives up his name and occupation, Sol determines to track him down.

Since leaving the commune, Kit has had a more stable upbringing. He remains damaged by his early experiences, grounding himself by always being there for Sol. When he learns of her plan to travel halfway round the world in order to meet the father she believes she has found via the internet, Kit agrees to accompany her. He is in love with Sol but harbours an unspoken fear that they may share paternity.

“The ever-present suspicion that what he wanted most might never happen was a tinnitus of the soul.”

The near future setting is key. Climate change and man-made pollution have rendered parts of the world all but uninhabitable. Sea levels have risen and ‘natural’ disasters increased in frequency and severity. Commercial flights are to be banned imminently giving Sol and Kit’s journey a time-critical element.

The pair fly to Japan where they discover the virtual world conjured via the internet does not reflect reality. Floods and earthquakes have unleashed pollutants and viruses. Wars and colonisers have all but wiped out indigenous cultures. Americans, who maintain a large military presence in the region, have caused much of the damage yet they mostly remain immune from justice. Those living back in their homeland hear nothing about the desecration wreaked.

“If you can’t trust what you see in the news, isn’t your only choice to live? Seize every experience by the balls. If you thought about the long-term consequence of every action you’d never do anything at all, would you? Terrified into inertia.”

Following the few leads they have, Kit and Sol travel from Tokyo to Okinawa, an island shadowed by dozens of US bases, there under the pretext of offering protection from China. As Sol descends once again into self-destructive behaviour, Kit finds himself struggling to protect her. Both are discovering that the Ryukyu archipelago harbours many ghosts of its past.

“Children don’t really need it explaining, though, that there’s another world that’s just as real as this one we call reality. I’ve always felt it. It’s just that it can’t be pinned down to any point on our spectrums of time or space. An in-between place.”

The author captures evocatively the hallucinatory nature of existence when in a strange place and under the influence of narcotics. She introduces many elements of local folklore alongside the impact of fear – real and from dreams. Kit may be more stable than Sol in his chosen behaviour but they both carry the scars of their shared history.

The intensity of the tale ratchets up when Sol and Kit are separated. The islands are hit by a typhoon and then an earthquake. Rumours of where her father could be lead Sol on an ever more risky trajectory. Kit must decide if the cost of trying to rescue her yet again is worth paying.

Welby’s writing style is original and uncompromising – as she proved in her debut, Mother of Darkness. Dreamtime is a step up but not away from this ability to conjure empathy for those whose behaviour is rebarbative. The sense of place – and how out of place incomers can be with their self-entitled behaviour – adds strength to a captivating tale tinged with regret. Man’s destructive behaviour continues despite the clear warnings of where it will lead. This is a disturbing journey exploring many varieties of abuse – of people and place – and the ripples triggered.

A story laced with shadows and beauty that reminds the reader how much we look away when to see becomes challenging. An arresting window into a future that is worryingly believable.

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

Book Review: White Spines

white spines

Nicholas Royle collects books. He does not choose titles he wishes to read, although often he will read them. What he seeks is an aesthetic. He trawls second-hand bookshops, including charity shops, searching for suitable spines to place on his bookshelves. He could buy on-line but this doesn’t appeal. The potential for discovery when browsing eclectically curated displays in shops is a part of the pleasure he derives from his pursuit.

White Spines focuses on his Picador collection, from when the imprint was mostly consistent in cover design (1970s to 1990s). He also finds what he describes as anomalies, adding these to the back of the double stacked white shelves on which he places his finds. Although pleased when a book is in good condition, he values inscriptions and inclusions – ephemera placed by a previous owner between pages and then forgotten when the book is donated.

This is very much a book for lovers of books. Royle takes the reader on a journey around the country describing where and how he found particular titles. There is an element of memoir as he has been collecting these books for decades. His various jobs over this time have granted him access to those in the writing business – authors, publishers, agents – whose names and works will be familiar. Knowing of his obsession, some have gifted him white spine Picadors. Royle cites one incident when he solicited such books as payment, something the author involved may have subsequently regretted agreeing to.

When travelling, for whatever reason, visits to second-hand bookshops feature. Finds are described lovingly, cover artwork appreciated. There are occasional transcripts of overheard conversations, or of interviews conducted as additional research. A digression into the issues faced when another author shares your name was of interest. Short sections describe some of Royle’s dreams.

There is a degree of melancholy looking back at the time when Picador published these uniform editions, when there was more trust and freedom amongst those tasked with choosing authors and titles. Of course, it is only with hindsight that readers can see how certain of the writers and artists found lasting success. There were also those whose work was pulped without telling them.

This history certainly adds to the appeal of the book, but it is Royle’s knowledge and ability to write with enthusiasm that draws the reader in. An enjoyable window into the life of an unapologetic collector. A call to appreciate books for more than their words.

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

my picadors

Book Review: Every Seventh Wave

every seventh wave

“To live on the edge of things, he thought. To meeting of two worlds, a liminal frontier, from known to unknown”

Every Seventh Wave, by Tom Vowler, tells the story of Hallam, a middle-aged man recently released from prison. He is living in the crumbling remains of his old family home on a sea-facing cliff in the far south-west of England. The tale opens with him watching a woman enter the water at dusk and disappear below the surface. He rushes to her aid, thereby setting off a series of events that will change the trajectory of his reclusive existence.

The woman, Anca, is a teenager from Romania. She claims to have no family or friends for Hallam to contact and appears in no hurry to leave the shelter he reluctantly offers her. Hallam’s life has been shadowed by loss, everyone he ever cared for leaving him. As the days pass he finds it hard not to daydream of a future that includes Anca as his willing companion.

Hallam’s backstory is revealed slowly, in snippets and then detail. His family moved to the house on the cliff when he was an adolescent, running it as a guest house. Hallam and his older brother, Blue, struggled to fit in with the local teenagers. Blue was always seeking adventure, unafraid to take risks and encouraging Hallam to follow him. Their parents’ marriage was not a happy one and the boys sought escape from the atmosphere this generated.

Another thread in the story is the horror of human trafficking. The reader will learn of the trade in people and how victims are coerced and kept compliant. The gangs running such operations understand how to remain beyond the powers of law enforcement. Amongst themselves disputes are resolved with pitiless violence.

The starkness and venerable power of the setting are evoked with skill and depth. Complexities of character are recognised, with the reader trusted to see beyond what is narrated. The writing is spare yet lyrical despite the harrowing subjects dealt with. The tension built into the denouement had me gasping for air.

It was this that made me appreciate more deeply the scenes where Anca faces the prospect of drowning. Each of the characters is, in a way, caught in the riptide of the life they have ended up with. The author is uncompromising in his portrayal of the consequences of choices made; the waves keep coming whatever breakers are built.

A disturbing yet satisfying tale that both appals with its harsh truths and engages the reader. An impressive and affecting story that I recommend.

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

Book Review: Fox Fires

Fox Fires, by Wyl Menmuir, is both moving and, in places, chilling. It explores family and loneliness in its depiction of a mother and daughter relationship. A key character is the setting, and the author conjures it skilfully. The importance of belonging, of being wanted and accepted, includes choosing for oneself a harbour in which to exist.

The story unfolds in a coastal city-state – O – that has only recently been reopened to visitors. A curfew remains in place. The locals are wary of divulging information to strangers. They know the authorities remain watchful; spies are everywhere. The city was built as a labyrinth to confuse invaders, although it has suffered many wars from without and within. It has its own language and distinctive physiognomy.

The protagonist of the story is Wren Lithgow, the nineteen year old daughter of Cleo, a renowned concert pianist. They live a peripatetic lifestyle, spending time in the major European cities where Cleo performs. Wren was raised in apartments that held the family furniture and other belongings, transported and arranged to conjure a feeling of home wherever they may be. As a child she was left alone, or cared for backstage by anyone available. Now she has become part of the team that keeps her volatile mother grounded and capable of playing.

Wren knows only the barest bones of detail about her father. Cleo let slip several years previously that her daughter was conceived in O. Wren found a photograph of her mother with a man, taken in the city. She possesses a mechanical doll from the place. When her mother agrees to perform in O – the money offered being too generous to turn down given their current circumstances – Wren determines to search for her father, or at least find out what became of him. Cleo continues to refuse to answer questions, dismissing her daughter’s curiosity with contempt.

Having spent her life moving from place to place, Wren is capable of picking up new languages quickly. She also discovers that she looks like O’s native people. Cleo demands, in her usual imperious manner, that Wren remain in their apartment, carrying out tasks that will be specified via her pager. If she is to find her father, Wren knows she must do so independently. It will be the first time she has left the often toxic cocoon of her mother’s attempts at care.

Setting out alone to discover the city, Wren finds a library she hopes will aid her research. She also encounters an English speaker, and risks getting to know him better. From here her quest appears more attainable, although what she discovers about O and its culture suggests her search must be carried out under the radar. Trusting anyone in a place subdued by constant surveillance proves difficult.

The authorities in O wish to encourage tourism – to project an image – but are also wary of tolerating change in locals’ freedoms. Cleo understands the inherent dangers, and tries to reel her daughter in.

The author builds elegant if dark layers within the story that enable the reader to delve in deep, although it may also be read straight. Wren is a determined young woman, she is a will-o’-the-wisp, she is an embodiment of the city.

Much as I enjoyed the author’s debut, Booker longlisted The Many, this tale has a more fluid and accomplished feel. There are similarities in the shadowy undercurrents, and the skill with which threads are woven together. Menmuir has spun a fascinating web that captured this reader’s attention fully. I was left sated while still thinking through issues raised.

A piercing, thought-provoking and highly recommended read.

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