Gig Review: Launch Party for Dreamtime by Venetia Welby

dreamtime launch pic1

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.

Dreamtime launch pic2 

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.

Dreamtime launch pic4  Dreamtime launch pic3 (2)

Dreamtime launch pic5

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.

Dreamtime launch pic 6 (2)

Dreamtime launch pic7

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.

Dreamtime launch pic8

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.

dreamtime

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.

Book Review: Like Fado

Like Fado and other stories, by Graham Mort, is a collection of thirteen short stories, the final one of which would pass as a novella in structure and length. Each tale rides on an undercurrent of melancholy. The lives explored are tinged not so much with regret as with an understanding of their transience. Histories are revealed through day to day activity, decisions made coloured by reaction and memory more than ambition. What is conveyed is told as much through the silences as conversation.

“So little time between now and then. Between one moment and the next. Between this moment and the future.”

The collection opens with Emporium, a understated yet powerful evocation of grief and its inevitability due to aging. An elderly widower walks through the small town he and his wife retired to, uncomfortable in an expensive coat that is a tad too small for his girth. The place is as much a character as those he encounters. The life he is living resonates with poignancy.

Each of the stories focuses on people and place more than plot. What is happening is used to deepen understanding of those involved. This is strong and emotive writing, presented in an engaging if often wistful tone.

Tempestade de Fogo hit hard given our current enforced inertia. It explores the pointlessness of existence when days are filled with little of note. A widow living alone in Portugal reflects on how her life as a professional musician could not continue, and the changes this brought. She is accepting of her fate, recognising the hand she had in where she is now.

Via Urbano features a younger cast of characters, yet is another story that portrays how the continuance of life cannot be taken for granted. It is also one of several tales that explores the chasms that exist between friends, however close.

There are stories exploring prejudices in many forms, including racism in Africa and homophobia in Cumbria. These are never polemic. Much else goes on alongside these attitudes. Settings are important and impressively redolent.

The final story, Whitehorn, has a distressing opening that effectively sets the scene but did not appear entirely necessary to what follows. This is a story of a son returning to confront his past following the death of his father. There is more tension in this tale, its length enabling a drawing out before the denouement.

Life and how it changes, including dealing with deaths, are recurrent themes. Each are presented as inevitable rather than something to be fought. Choices made when young have repercussions. Situations drifted into cannot be undone.

The writing is fluid and impressive, conveying thoughts with honesty, although not always the physical pain of certain moments. At times there was an almost nihilistic feel to characters’ reactions. Beauty is found in place and music with people flawed and accepting of this – any worth they may have ephemeral.

While I could appreciate the literary quality, this was a collection that left me dispirited. Perhaps it was just not the right read for a time of lockdown when it can be hard to find a point to the existence we are being forced to endure.

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

Book Review: Astral Travel

Astral Travel, by Elizabeth Baines, tells the story of a family raised in fear of the patriarch’s violence and unpredictable behaviour. It opens with his grown daughters, Jo and Cathy, together in a hospital following their own health scares. This reminds Jo of an episode during childhood. She has been digging into their past, into her interpretation of the memories that scar her, for a novel she is putting together about her wider family. The book centres on her father, Patrick Jackson, dead for ten years when she started writing about him. His actions still cast a long shadow over Jo’s existence.

“Patrick Jackson, my volatile, contradictory and entirely unfathomable father, around whom we’d always had to tiptoe”

Told from Jo’s perspective, the memories still perplex her. Patrick was an abusive misogynist – a popular charmer to those outside the family but a terror within. He would spend money freely in his bids to impress others while his wife struggled to feed and clothe herself and their children. Patrick regularly accepted work away from the ever changing homes they lived in, appearing not to enjoy spending time with his offspring.

Patrick was born and raised in poverty, in a small village in Ireland that he left aged sixteen. He met his wife, Gwen, when stationed near her family home in Wales during the Second World War. Gwen knew only the bare bones of her husband’s history – he relished the power of keeping secrets from her. He took the money she saved or borrowed from her parents and squandered it. Gwen was beautiful, hard-working and intelligent but cowed by Patrick’s deliberately cruel and controlling nature.

Such a family story could make for difficult reading but the writing focuses on the mystery behind why Patrick acted as he did. It acknowledges that a child’s memories may be flawed or incomplete. While always afraid of her father, Jo still longed for his love and understanding – to know him better. In writing her novel she seeks answers to the conundrum of his behaviour.

Within the family, Jo has long been regarded as a troublemaker – her complaints and questions provoking Patrick. When she is beaten she screams and then cries – raising the risk that neighbours may hear. She learns never to talk of her father’s actions. When she leaves and marries, secrets shared cause further trouble, and not just for her.

Jo feels closer to her mother from whom she learns much of the family history through Gwen’s anecdotes and reminiscences. Nevertheless, when Jo complains of her father’s behavior, it is Gwen who implores her not to try to speak of it to him. Always Gwen would claim, ‘Your Daddy loves you really’. It was a refrain Jo and Cathy could not help but question.

Gwen is happy that Jo is writing about her father and answers her questions about their past, albeit glossing over salient details that Jo grows desperate to understand. It is only when Gwen realises how this is affecting her daughter that she relents and offers a more factual account of secrets long kept. History can be rewritten when perspectives change.

The final reveal section had a different feel, the writing style factual rather than emotive. It was strengthened by Cathy’s reaction to subsequent discussion and how to move on. Family members, it seems, often disagree on what may be openly acknowledged and shared – even amongst themselves.

The author is a skilled writer, structuring this story to draw the reader into Jo’s world before opening up to provide a wider point of view. Patrick remains both a horror and an enigma, a victim but one who punished with deliberate brutality those deserving his love. His treatment of his son and the impact this had was particularly disturbing.

The family history going back several generations remained fascinating – the exploration of inherited impact a particular interest. In this vein, I would have welcomed more on its effect on Jo’s children. This was the only thread I felt was not covered sufficiently.

A longer book than many I read but one that never felt drawn out with unnecessary detail. The device of a novel within a novel, of memoir presented as fiction, worked well. A study of family and the many cracks in shared memory. A lingering and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Sunny and the Wicked Lady

“‘Just because she’s a story in a book,’ said Herbert, ‘doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

Sunny and the Wicked Lady, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the third story in a delightful series of children’s books featuring the titular young boy and his cohort of friendly ghosts. Sunny lives in the flat above his parents’ antique, vintage and second-hand shop, where the ghosts mostly rest by day inside furniture or a store cupboard. They come out at night to socialise and pursue their hobbies, although will occasionally join Sunny on wider adventures. Adults cannot see ghosts so Sunny’s parents believe he has imaginary friends. They tolerate this as a phase he is expected to outgrow.

The tale opens with a daytrip to Okehampton Castle – a ruin that is rumoured to be haunted. In a delicious quirk we are reminded that it is not just people who can be afraid of ghosts. The long dead Herbert has been reading a book of ghost stories that left him decidedly nervous. He became convinced that a lady said to have murdered each of her husbands could now come after him.

It turns out that Okehampton Castle is where the lady lived. She tries to follow Herbert, who is subsequently terrified when she turns up outside the shop in her carriage made from human bones. Meanwhile, the proprietor of a new museum starts to buy the ghosts’ favoured furniture. She has nefarious plans linked to her proposed exhibits.

Just like people who are still alive, ghosts can get lonely if denied company. They value their friends and are willing to help them when necessary. First impressions can be wrong, and a willingness to accept what others find important is a strength that should not be mocked. Such awareness is equally valid for adults and children.

The language and structure of the story are perfectly pitched to engage young readers whilst avoiding condescension. Indeed, there is plenty to entertain readers of all ages. The adventures related are enhanced by the wonderful illustrations. Along with the previous books in the series, this is a story of bravery and friendship that I highly recommend.

“‘You only get one afterlife,’ said Walter. ‘You might as well make the most of it.'”

 

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

Book Review: Magnus

Magnus, by Mark Carew, is mostly set on a remote island in northern Norway. Five students are spending a week studying the mosses that grow there for a project that will enable them to complete their studies. The professor overseeing their work owns the island and is nearing retirement. It is he who agreed to accept the outsider, Magnus, despite the man’s infamy putting others off attending. The group is small for what is usually a popular placement.

Magnus is older than the other students as he has struggled to graduate. His many health and behavioural issues have led to the university extending the time he is allowed to continue at the institution. This week, however, is his final chance to attain a degree. Magnus’s contempt for other people verges on the dangerous but the professor considers himself capable of managing whatever situations develop.

The island has no phone or internet connection. Power comes from a generator. Food and drinking water must be brought in. The residents are all but cut off from the world for the week they stay.

Parallel to the story of the island group is a tale of a young, English tourist, Alexander Clearly, who is travelling through Norway is search of adventure. He buys a wolf skin that he wears as a cloak and carries few other possessions. There are hints as to his relevance to the main plot and this is eventually revealed.

The arrogance of these two characters puts their lives in danger as they are determined to survive alone, on their wits, by whatever means. Along the way they encounter kindnesses that are rarely appreciated as most would expect. They are loners who only seem to regard their mothers with any sort of fondness. They wish to mate with women but lack social skills.

The dormitory accommodation on the island leads to issues when Magnus goes out of his way to be unpleasant. The group rejects him and he plots his revenge.

The writing is raw in places, which suits the animalistic behaviour of the protagonists. There is much dialogue but once the pace picks up the tale becomes compelling. I was reminded of Scandinavian Noir in translation despite this being an English work. The sense of place is strong throughout. The rituals described are evocative with the undercurrent of unease building well.

The denouement is tightly woven if disturbing. Magnus is really quite a terrifying creation when considered clearly. The reader, like the professor, will be challenged by the desire to give even dysfunctional people a chance, and the dangers this can lead to. A thought-provoking story that is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

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