Book Review: Missing

Missing, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Jessie Noon, a middle aged women living in a Scottish border town who works from home as a literary translator. Jessie has been married twice and has a grown up son. She now lives alone with her cat and dog. She believes her house harbours a ghost. She tries to keep her thoughts and feelings in order by following daily and weekly routines.

Much of the action involves the ordinary: Jessie attends a professional conference, shops for groceries, walks her dog, enters into a new relationship. Throughout there exists an undercurrent of darkness, gaps in the narrative. The sense of unease is palpable.

Interspersed with the contemporary tale are chapters set in 1985 when Jessie was eighteen. Her big sister, Gail, would call on her sibling to mind her five year old daughter, Eleanor. Although sometimes resentful of the expectation that she would help, Jessie was fond of the little girl. She did not always treat her as Gail requested, giving Eleanor cola to drink and making promises she couldn’t keep. Jessie’s relationship with her family is now strained.

At the heart of the tale are the words people use, so often misconstrued causing pain. Jessie struggles to maintain relationships despite her desires and good intentions. She understands how people regard her but cannot change what has been done or said. Others choose to leave or cut contact. Jessie may have moved location but must still find ways to live with herself.

There is a tension in the writing, a disconnect between the personal world Jessie inhabits, the expectations of those she encounters, and her desire to somehow fit in. When a postcard arrives telling her ‘I’m on my way home’ it is unclear who is sending or where home may be. The reader is offered glimpses but the portrayal of Jessie remains elusive. Subliminally she may believe her treatment by others is deserved.

This is a glorious evocation of alienation and misunderstanding. Jessie could be deemed tragic but she is also a survivor. The author has created a masterpiece. A haunting tale of devastating insight and depth.

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

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Book Review: You

You, by Phil Whitaker, tells the story of a father whose teenage daughter cut him out of her life after he left her mother. Told in flashbacks as he makes his way across the country to meet her for the first time in seven years, unsure if she will turn up at the rendezvous, it is a tale of inherited hurts and modern manipulation. The premise may sound familiar but its execution soars above similar tales, offering the reader an incisive portrayal of family breakdown and the damage caused by a vindictive parent from a father’s point of view.

Stevie Buchanan now lives in a West Country village but he grew up in the north of England. As he travels to Oxford, where his daughter is studying medicine and the family once lived, he takes her on an imaginary tour of significant places and events from their wider history. In his mind they fly together through time and space to observe her grandparents and parents as children. He wishes her to understand why each of them turned out as they did and how, ultimately, this caused his marriage to fail and her mother to use her children as a means to punish him for not being whatever it was that she needed.

The repercussions of parental actions ripple down through the generations. Parents’ treatment of each other, their attempts to offer what they believe is best for their offspring, perceived favouritism, and the children’s desire for love and to support a parent who is hurting, form a potent mix. The suffering and slights pierce the chrysalis of developing psyches affecting behaviours as the children grow and then become parents themselves.

When Stevie was rejected by his daughter and he came to realise how impotent he was in the face of court orders and social services, he struggled to cope. He joined a support group where other parents in similar circumstances look out for each other. Running through the narrative is a thread on the people he encounters here and their experiences. It makes for sobering reading. These are the parents whose ex-partners wield their children as pawns in their own emotional power plays.

Stevie’s flights with his daughter appear somewhat surreal yet the framework enables the telling of a history that succinctly encompasses the emotional cost of thwarted expectations. Family members and close friends take sides and are sometimes rejected. It is not just the historic damage to his wife that is explained but also Stevie’s reasons for staying as long as he did. Having left, the resulting fallout is better understood alongside the stories of his fellow victims in the support group.

The writing is subtle and concise, causes and reactions vividly expressed without need for lengthy explanations. It is refreshing to read of marriage breakdown from a husband’s point of view, although the focus remains on how the actions of all affect children long term. This is an evocative depiction of family and its reverberations.

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

Book Review: Falling Leaves

“None of the feelings that usually accompanied this transition materialised. I didn’t get the prickly dread at the thought of seeing my mother, or the dull sinking feeling that I was travelling back in time to a place I no longer belonged, that I was getting further and further away from my real life, my world, leaving the present and future behind, that Llangoroth was just a model made out of the past.”

Falling Leaves, by Stefan Mohamed, is a story of time travel. Not of the sort associated with Doctor Who but rather that of aging, and memory, and the pivotal moments in life that are not recognised as such until considered with the benefit of hindsight.

The story opens with a disturbing dream. Twenty-three year old Vanessa, living in London in a gone stale relationship with Stuart, wakes up crying tears of grief yet cannot recall why. She is a graduate and aspiring writer working shifts at a cinema in an attempt to pay her share of the rent. When she tries to write to calm her anxious mind, strange paragraphs flow, vivid and incoherent.

Vanessa contacts her good friend, Alice, but cannot make sense of how she is feeling. Later she has a frightening vision of herself bleeding that quickly disappears. She knows that she has to make changes to her life but baulks at the effort this would entail. She is distracted by a phone call from her beloved Aunt Pauline who is still living in their hometown in Wales. An old friend of Vanessa’s who disappeared without trace seven years ago has turned up on Pauline’s doorstep. Mark looks and dresses exactly as he did when he was sixteen.

Vanessa understands that what Pauline is telling her is impossible but also that she must see for herself this returned boy. When her boss at work will not grant her time off Vanessa quits, pushing aside the future difficulties this will create. Evading Stuart’s questions she travels to Llangoroth, her mind filled with memories of the life she lived with Mark as a teenager. The sense of loss she suffered when he disappeared all but destroyed her, and many of her other relationships.

Pauline, Vanessa and Mark struggle to make sense of the situation so seek answers to some of their questions from Mark’s father. Still traumatised from the secrets and hurt he has been harbouring, his reactions put them in peril. Mark is showing signs of infirmity and Vanessa is still suffering visions. The pair flee to the anonymity of London but in doing so put Stuart and Alice in danger.

It took me some time to connect with the voice of the protagonist. Her language and attitude are that of a contemporary, literate twenty-something year old adult, filled with anger and angst, voicing concern for the future yet often apathetic. Vanessa’s teenage self had indulged in the rave scene and drugs, largely detaching herself from family concerns. Music plays a role, something that may appeal to those with more up to date knowledge than I possess.

As the story unfolds and the tension mounts the tale becomes less about character, becoming more plot driven. It is necessary to indulge the weirder elements in order to enjoy this progression.

Once the scene had been set this became a fast moving and engaging adventure that will appeal to those who enjoyed the author’s Bitter Sixteen trilogy. The exploration of the effects interactions have on others, and of the damage caused by dogmatic beliefs added interest – serious issues are explored in a story that never appears to take itself too seriously.

The style and zest of the prose make this an entertaining, dynamic read.

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

Book Review: The Weaning

The Weaning, by Hannah Vincent, tells the story of a childminder burdened with a terrible history. Bobbi has all the necessary training and certificates. She cherishes the children in her care. She is trying to fill a void in her life with other people’s babies.

The tale opens with an interview. Nikki works in PR, her husband, Rob, is a writer. They want their six month old son, Marcel, to be looked after for a few days each week.

Bobbi quickly settles into their routine. When alone in their home she shows little respect for their privacy or property but grows fond of Marcel. She takes him to the same park where she took her own children when they were young. She daydreams about the boy’s future. A few days a week are not enough to satisfy Bobbi’s need. She will drop everything when Nikki or Rob call on her for help.

At a signing class with Marcel, Bobbi spots a poster asking for child-minding volunteers. A youth worker is running a support group for young people, some of whom have babies. Bobbi applies and, at the first  meeting, is introduced to Kim and Connor. They are being watched by social services who are concerned for the well-being of their little daughter, Jade. To give the young couple some time alone together, Bobbi agrees to babysit.

Back at her flat Bobbi chats to her own children, Lily and Jonny. They are not always receptive. She is also growing closer to a new neighbour, Fox, but worries that her children would disapprove of her being in a relationship. They are difficult enough to communicate with. She will not allow Fox to visit.

Bobbi’s mother is in a care home, her mind drifting away. What is a mother if she cannot be there for her children?

Bobbi seeks an opportunity to bring Marcel and Jade together. Her behaviour is making Nikki wary.

A sense of foreboding permeates the writing. The key elements of Bobbi’s life, which provide its purpose and reason, feel increasingly out of kilter. She makes adjustments others have recommended but is not happy with the changes these bring.

Fox wishes to help Bobbi but believes she must face up to hard truths she has not shared with him. He has been listening to local gossip. In stripping away the scaffolding she has built around her life, her house of cards collapses – the result is devastating.

This book is dark in the best possible way. Even if, as I did, the central tenet is guessed before it is revealed, tension is retained. The denouement packed an unexpected punch. I was momentarily felled.

The writing flows, succinct and penetrating within a structure that perfectly balances compulsive engagement with storytelling. A stunning work that I read in one time forgotten sitting. Highly recommended.

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

Book Review: Nutcase

Nutcase, by Tony Williams, is a retelling of the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong. The protagonist is Aidan Wilson, a hard lad born and raised in one of Sheffield’s roughest housing estates. Surrounded by violence and addiction he goes from young trouble maker to convicted criminal to vigilante. His size, strength and willingness to defend family and friends leads him down a road chequered by brutality.

Those living on the estates Aiden roams have low expectations. They deal drugs to make money, steal whatever else they need to use or sell, and get off their faces on alcohol and other drugs at every opportunity. Many of them take on jobs labouring, transporting goods (many stolen), or in the shops and pubs they frequent. Few stick to anything long term. Sex is recreational with babies a byproduct, accepted but with little responsibility.

Aiden is one of five siblings. As they grow up and leave the family home to set up with partners or friends they look out for one another whenever they are able. At times Aiden has his own place to live but there are regular periods when he stays with others for work or to escape trouble. This is accepted practice in his community. There are fallings out and regular fights. Aiden acquires a reputation that is both a threat and a means of survival.

There are girlfriends along the way but they bring their own dramas. When one young girl calls on Aiden to help an abused child he ends up in a situation that will haunt him. As will happen again, the grapevine carries different versions of his involvement. He will struggle to shake off the rumours some delight in spreading.

Aiden moves around the Sheffield and Leeds areas, spends time in prison, moves to Swansea, and gravitates home. He makes enemies, there are deaths, and he is blamed for his apparently uncaring behaviour. Relations of those he thwarts threaten retaliation. Damage to property is a distraction, bodily harm a regular and accepted risk. The violence of the lifestyle is gut-wrenching, the depiction all too believable.

The denouement comes as no surprise with the portrayal offering insight into the attention span and attitudes of the internet age. Few it appears place value on a life that lacks what the middle classes would describe as prospects, especially when that life has been spent recklessly.

The narrative style is almost blasé yet remains jaw droppingly intense. There are occasional asides about the lives minor characters will go on to lead which provide lighter relief. Nevertheless, the majority of what is being depicted remains horrific, especially that it has been normalised throughout the estates. I cannot say if it is realistic but that is certainly how it reads.

I haven’t been as perturbed by a storyline since I read the incredible We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire yet even it has characters who desire a better way of living. Aiden Wilson and his family never seem to consider this a possibility. Given their repeated actions I am guessing this could be a depressingly pragmatic point of view. I am left pondering what it would take to instigate change, if the Aiden Wilsons of our world would even welcome such intervention.

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

Author Interview: Simon Okotie


Photo credit: Evgeniy Kazannik

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Simon Okotie, author of In the Absence of Absalon, which is published by Salt.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in east London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. We moved to Norfolk in the late seventies – seemingly one of few black families in the region at the time. I moved back to Norfolk last year.

2. Can you tell us about In the Absence of Absalon?

It is the second book in a trilogy. My editor, Nicholas Royle, recently described the first book, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, as about ‘a man travelling 200 yards on a bus’. In the Absence of Absalon is somewhat less dramatic: it is the story of a man taking his keys out of his pocket – that’s the first half of the book, at least, as he does actually enter a townhouse in the second half. The third (as yet untitled) novel – forthcoming from Salt in 2019 – is about a man walking down a ramp; rather, it is about a man taking precisely four-and-a-half steps down a ramp leading to a pedestrian underpass (which I think is excessive – I am currently trying to edit out one of those steps).

The plot of the first book has been described as ‘slight’; whilst ‘In the Absence of Absalon brings us to a later stage in the emerging non-plot’, which is ‘wafer-thin’. Nicholas Lezard said, in the Guardian, that the whole of In the Absence of Absalon is largely a matter of qualifications, of trying, in tightened and tightening circles, to get to the essence of what it is to be alive in a contemporary city. And of course it is also a joke about the very nature of the detective’s search for clues. For here everything is of equal significance: that is, immensely significant on its own terms, and yet, when placed against the wider backdrop, of absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

I would say, though, that there is more to the plot than has so far been reported!

3. What inspired the book?

The books were inspired by a black man, known as Marigold, who was often seen in Norwich during the ‘80s unofficially directing traffic on the inner ring road wearing yellow rubber gloves. The original Marigold is still well known in Norfolk. He died in May 2015.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

The latter (although with my current work-in-progress – my fourth novel, a thriller – I am attempting to incorporate more of the former).

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Strange to say that I don’t really think of myself as ‘a writer’: I prefer to say, simply, that I write. After all, I can only produce meaningful work when my sense of self-identity (as ‘a writer’, or as anything else) is at its thinnest (although I’m not saying that identity is unimportant, or that issues of racial, gender or other strands of identity are absent from what I write). Fredric Jameson, writing in the London Review of Books about fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude, says that, at its best, to write (and to read) is to ‘lose ourselves in [a] precisely situated oblivion’, which nails it, I think.

And to answer the question, my favourite part of writing is where it takes me in my reading.

6. And your least favourite?

Poverty!

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I’m with Franzen:

“Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you towards content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended. The result is a silo in which, whatever side you’re on, you feel absolutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

Yes. I think it is readers, in a sense, who create books. I am grateful when people engage with my novels – whether on-line or in print – and am fascinated by the different interpretations of the so-called ‘action’, regardless of whether people like the work. Reviews always feed in, somehow, to my work-in-progress.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I am a public transport enthusiast, and like nothing better than a good bus or train-journey (outside of rush hours): an ideal place, often, to read, write and reflect.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I have just finished Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which is devastating, as was Philippe Sands’ East West Street.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I would love to have spent time with the Buddha.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I find it impossible to compute this question, as a highly introverted, private person!

 

Thank you Simon for providing such interesting, and entertaining, answers to my questions. 

You may follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonOkotie 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about In the Absence of Absalon. 

In the Absence of Absalon is published by Salt Publishing who I previously interviewed here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, published by Salt

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, which is published by Salt.

 

This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many by Wyl Menmuir and recently received a Costa First Novel shortlisting for The Clock In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

In the Absence of Absalon is a sequel to the brilliantly original Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?, a lengthy book but one whose plot could be reproduced in its entirety in a brief paragraph:

Marguerite is investigating the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor. He starts in a hotel where he has seen Harold’s wife Isobel entering a lift, he climbs the stairs to the floor where she alights and observes her eating in a restaurant with her baby and a friend. Ejected from the hotel, he then follows them and seeing her hail a taxi, and realising she has spotted him, he boards a bus and goes to the top deck. Concerned that Isobel may be on the deck below and that some of her associates may be following him in another bus he decides to leave the bus. He lets the passenger beside him stand up and walk down the aisle, and then follows him down the aisle, pausing to allow another passenger (a businesswoman) enter the aisle between them. That lady appears to pay his bus fare. At the next stop he rings the bell twice in the manner of the conductress so as to cause the bus to set off again – and while the bus is still accelerating away goes down the stairs and leaves the bus. As he is exiting he sees Harold through a window of a showroom the bus had just passed.

Clearly the author has decided that the pace of that book was inappropriate and has slowed it down for this book. The sequel features an unnamed detective carrying out “his investigation into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s transport advisor, who had been missing”. At the start of the book the investigator is approaching a townhouse, owned by Richard Knox, who Harold was known to have fallen out with before his disappearance. He believes he is being closely followed by Harold and that the house holds the key to resolving the mystery of his disappearance. By the book’s end he has walked up to the gate of the townhouse, looked for and found in his trousers the keys to the house, found that the apparently padlocked gate is not secured, walked up to the door which is opened by Harold’s wife Isobel, walked towards the stairs resisting the distraction of a ringing phone by then changing his plan when he hears a baby crying.

The narrator has been trained and mentored by Marguerite and is similarly meticulous in his thoughts – unlike Marguerite his thoughts are typically more focused on the actual case in hand though and (with the exception of rare Marguerite digressions into areas only very tangentially related to his investigation (one particularly entertaining one starting with a reference to whether Isobel is free to leave, quickly departing by route of the ease of leaving a non-dinner party into a four page discussion of what the concept of cooking and preparing means in the context of the three types of pizza (take-away, shop bought and home-made))) are often related to his physical progress and the motions of his body.

Overall a hugely enjoyable and at the same time thought provoking book and one very much in the unique style of its predecessor. Comparing it to that there are negatives and positives.

On the negative side, at times the physical descriptions shaded at times into a level of tedium I did not experience in “Whatever Happened …”. The book also makes, like the paragraph above extensive use of brackets, but, unlike the paragraph above does not seem capable of correctly un-nesting them, by omitting the use of double (or triple) closing right brackets. Only a mathematical pedant would notice this – but of course this is exactly the type of book a mathematical pedant enjoys!

On the positive side, the much stronger aspect of this book compared to the first, is the greater sense of meta-narrative in a number of senses: the unnamed narrator refers at times to what the investigator may be doing during chapter breaks; the investigator himself is aware (without understanding the mechanisms) that his thoughts and actions are somehow being monitored; the footnotes relate even more closely to the case than before; the narrator himself starts to get involved in the book, in particular as it ends following the investigator into the room where they baby seems to be crying “determined, once again, to understand the circumstances of his disappearance”. As a result the real conceit at the heart of this series – examining the very idea of sheer complexities of life and how they can be rendered in fiction, comes out more strongly.

This and its predecessor are highly recommended.

GF

 

You may read my review of In the Absence of Absalon here.

Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with Simon Okotie, the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc