Book Review: The Squeeze

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

I have long been a fan of Lesley Glaister’s work. Her stories are perceptive, engaging and memorable with just the right degree of humour and originality to lift the difficult subjects she explores. Thus I eagerly awaited this, her latest publication. It is perhaps unwise to approach a book with such high expectations.

The Squeeze revolves around two characters who must each find a way to survive the choices they have made. Neither can become the person they long to be and, whatever befalls, life will only ever move forwards.

Marta grew up in Romania under Ceaușescu. Her father had high hopes for his daughter but was killed just before the regime was overthrown. Instead of preparing for university, Marta works in a chemical factory and helps to care for her little sister. When a well groomed stranger starts to woo the tired and yearning teenager, she ignores the warnings and accepts his attentions. Within weeks Marta has been abducted, trafficked, and forced into prostitution in the UK.

Mats is a businessman in Oslo with a pragmatic wife, Nina, who refuses to have the child he so desires. Mats is offered a transfer to Edinburgh and Nina tells him to accept, but that she will stay where she is. Mats considers himself steady and loyal, always eager to do what is right. If those he loves do not respond in kind he feels let down.

On a drunken night out with a work colleague in Edinburgh, Marta and Mats have sex. To Marta he is just another punter but Mats is wracked by guilt. When their paths cross again Mats is seeking absolution. It will cost him dear.

From this point on I found the development of the story somewhat preposterous. The day to day life and future prospects of the sex workers are achingly evoked but Mats’ reaction to his indiscretion seemed overblown.

Although wishing to be generous and giving, Mats is weak and needy. The women in his life, drawn by his looks and gentle demeanour, become frustrated by his lack of empathy, his expectation of gratitude for unasked for efforts. He wants his new wife to fit an image he has created, becoming disappointed when she strays from this construct. He thinks longingly of Nina, unaware of how she regards him.

The reader views Mats through his wife’s eyes as she records her thoughts – therapy for post-natal depression. There is little communication in their relationship.

Marta’s friendships with the other sex workers are touched on but never fully developed. The woman she travels with, Alis, is given a voice in the narrative but remains elusive. Despite living in the brothel for years little interaction is detailed.

The denouement may be regarded as auspicious, or perhaps just another chance for Mats to set himself up for further disappointment. He appears to have learned little over the years.

A great many social attitudes and issues are packed into this story, all insightfully portrayed yet somehow lacking coherence. It is written as a novel but at times reads as a series of vignettes. Each is effectively crafted and interlinked yet missing a degree of fluidity.

Any Cop?: The tale is easy enough to read and offers layers to unpick but is not as strong as I had expected. The characters are well drawn in their aloneness but action too often felt cumbersome. I am left dissatisfied.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: How to Be a Kosovan Bride

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill, follows the trajectory of two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other becomes a Returned Girl, rejected when her husband accuses her of lying about her virginity.

The Returned Girl determines that she will not accept a marriage to a lesser man just for the sake of form. Instead she will pick up her studies and, despite the skewed entry system, try for university. Her family support her efforts, ignoring the looks and comments from their local community.

The Kosovan Wife quickly falls pregnant, much to the delight of her husband and his parents with whom they live. They regard her as a good girl, believing their son has made an excellent choice. The Kosovan Wife is grateful that, for now at least, he leaves her alone.

Interwoven with the lives of these two women are related tales of the previous generation during the Kosovo War. Many are still haunted by the cruelties inflicted by the occupying soldiers from whom they fled into the mountains, where they struggled to survive the hunger and cold. Those who returned often found that their homes had been destroyed. Although wishing to move forward, the older generation’s hopes for the future are at odds with many of the young women’s dreams of personal freedom, which traditional living precludes.

The Returned Girl is much taken by the idea of life in London. University offers her the chance to meet foreigners and secretly, scandalously, she dates boys her family do not know. She acquires an interest in politics. She starts to write down her relatives’ stories from the war.

The Kosovan Wife is also writing, as a means to escape the increasing unhappiness of her married life. She retells an old folk tale in which a good woman is wronged by a series of men. Unlike the Kosovan Wife’s experiences, these men are taken to task for their behaviour and thereby gain understanding.

The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. Whatever path taken, the glimpsed alternatives bring into question choices made. Tradition and poverty prove as constricting to women as closed borders.

This subtle exploration of the complexities of life in newly liberated Kosovo is presented in nuanced, engaging prose. A modern history told through its people. An intelligent, rewarding story.

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

Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

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

Book Review: In the Absence of Absalon

This post was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, is a book unlike any other I have read. Its protagonist is an unnamed investigator who is looking into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor, who has also disappeared. The reader is regularly reminded of these core facts.

The story, if it can even be called that, opens with the investigator standing outside a townhouse. By the close he has negotiated the entrance gate, traversed a small area between this and the front door and entered the house. The means by which he succeeds in these feats, and the digressive thoughts that go through his mind as he does so, are described in assiduous detail.

The investigator is confident of his ‘unsurpassed experience and training’, putting to use his ‘superior knowledge and deeply felt instinct’. The task on which he is embarking – gaining access to the house – must be achieved under pressure as he believes he is being pursued.

There is a thread regarding Absalon’s wife and possible links to another colleague, Knox, who owns the townhouse where the action, such as it is, is taking place. The investigator’s relationship with these characters may be pertinent, although little is made clear. This is despite his determination that all thoughts and considerations should be fully understood. His obsessive punctiliousness takes up much of the narrative.

The investigator observes, makes a point, offers clarification, explores other potential meanings and digresses to comic effect.

“people die all the time but let it never be said that he brought anyone’s death forward significantly by not taking an extra moment to define as precisely as he possibly could, the terms he was using to express himself during his thought processes.”

These thought processes include a consideration of how one can tell that a car is facing the wrong direction: a field study is suggested to ensure full and proper understanding; advice is offered on safe and visible clothing for such an undertaking; detailed instructions are provided on driver etiquette when traversing narrow roads.

“Satisfied that the point had been made adequately clearly, even when judged against his more than exacting standards, he terminated this illuminating interlude so as to engage, once again, more directly, with his investigation.”

There are outpourings on the meaning of dead when applied to a bolt or a leg, a pondering on who can be said to cook a pizza that is prepared elsewhere, the means by which a key may be located and removed from the pocket of a pair of trousers that are tight fitting. The urgency with which the investigator approaches each of his tasks retains reader engagement despite how little is actually achieved.

Any Cop?: This is sapient, daring writing that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. It is convoluted, at times dense, and often absurd. Such inversion and introspection may not be for everyone. Those who engage will revel in the wit and perspicacity of its circumlocutory perambulations.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Photographer

This review was written for and originally published on Bookmunch.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel is proof that a consuming and fully detailed story may be told in under two hundred pages. The depths of the novel are to be found as much in what is implicit as from the elegantly crafted prose. There is insight and interest, flavour and nuance. Such writing deserves appreciation.

Set in Germany around the time of the Second World War, the protagonist is a young woman named Trude who lives with her controlling mother, Agatha. The generation before suffered hardship due to scandal which Agatha and her war scarred husband toiled to put behind them. Agatha is determined that her daughter will be the fruit of their labour.

Trude understands that her mother wants only what is best for her yet has a need to live her life for herself. When she meets a young photographer named Albert, who makes her feel joyously alive, she ignores Agatha’s derision for this boy ‘from the gutter’. They marry, travel and have a child who they name Peter.

Albert and Trude have a somewhat turbulent marriage, the negative aspects of which drive Agatha to intervene. She regards her actions as necessary for the good of her child and beloved grandson. The result is Albert being sent to fight in the war leaving his small family to seek a means to survive without him. Trude must decide how to deal with her mother’s betrayal.

The war reaches its conclusion and there follows a massive and confusing exodus from east to west. In a refugee camp near Hamburg the family are reunited but much has changed. Peter is not the son Albert envisaged, the child is unused to the presence of a father. Between them stand Trude and Agatha who must make difficult choices with the balance of their family, the direction of their futures lives, at stake.

Told from each of the imperfect characters’ points of view this tale offers a candid look at family dynamics and hurts caused as assumptions are made. At its heart is a love story, not a romance, that spans the three generations. Pragmatic decisions have led to difficult truths being accepted. The challenge is to leave them at rest.

Any Cop?: The writing is spare yet strikingly affective, touching the essence of each individual with precision. This is an impressive work of literary fiction that remains compelling and accessible. Like fine wine, it is best savoured and shared.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

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

Book Review: The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, by Xan Brooks, is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrals and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past.

Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their paternal grandparents who run a now failing pub. Money is tight so Lucy, along with three other young teenagers, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, the home of Lord Hertford. His Lordship runs a charitable foundation which helps injured war veterans and has provided accommodation on his estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men.

The leader amongst the children is Winifred. She and Lucy become friends. They refer to the damaged soldiers as the Funny Men and have their favourites, regarding the behaviour required of them as distasteful but not so much worse than other tasks demanded of them at home. The forest evenings have interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their difficult lives. Despite why they pay for the youngsters company, the Funny Men provide an enlightening, if disquieting, diversion.

“He tells her that the trees in the forest are several centuries old but have been kept healthy by a process called pollarding, which involves stripping back the upper limbs. When a tree is top heavy it will topple or split and very likely crash into its neighbours and bring them down as well. The pollarding prevents that; it ensures growth and progress. He says that every society, however advanced, could use some pollarding every now and again.”

When events force an end to these outings Lucy and Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate gathers misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his peers at drug fuelled parties. Over the course of a summer he draws the Funny Men into this web. The heir and his father believe themselves to be forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat. Naturally they regard themselves as superior.

“Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. This is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all. […] Let me state it quite plainly. Men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself.”

The author has created a compelling tale and so much more. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. There is a lingering poignancy but also resilience and determination. Despite the catastrophic climax the denouement is uplifting.

A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging. It should be relished by every discerning reader.

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