Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness

“He is on the fringes, camouflaged within the crowd. To him, the streets are a theatre, with an ever-more complex cast and plot. The flâneur is the only observing audience member of this play. Maybe there are other flâneurs, at different vantage points, but what they witness would be a completely different work. As the characters of his theatre present themselves only randomly, in flashes, the flâneur is our only possible protagonist, both sociologist and anthropologist, alienated and immersed in his city.”

Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, by Simon Kinch, explores a young American man’s ennui as he reaches the end of a three month long tour of Europe. When the story opens he faces a choice – return to his parental home in America as planned or remain where he is. Sitting on a bench in a coastal town between Spain and France he has received a text message from his girlfriend – she is breaking up with him. His reaction is to throw his phone into the sea and abandon plans to visit Paris and then London before flying home as his ticket and visa demands. Instead he returns south, to a hostel in the small Spanish town of Sevilla.

The protagonist, Granville, feels cut adrift. He accepts the easy friendships offered by the other young people he encounters. Knowing that his money is not limitless he finds himself a small job. He observes the lives others lead from his vantage points in cafes and as he walks the streets. He eavesdrops on conversations. Although seeking company, he shies away from attempts by others to get to know him better.

Had he returned to America Granville would also have found a small job to tide him over until he rejoined the road his life would now travel. In dual narratives the reader is offered snapshots of his day to day life in Sevilla and as it would have been in Madison, USA.

The melancholy undertones of the narrative pervade each small choice Granville makes. He is drifting but cannot find a good reason to change this way of living. He misses his girlfriend yet rejects the advances of others if they try to get close. He becomes more interested in the interactions of strangers than in improving his own.

Although told in the first person there is an air of detachment, a recognition that Granville is not behaving in a manner that can be sustained. In Sevilla he can neither speak nor read Spanish yet puts off the need to make longer term decisions. By throwing away his phone he has cut contact with those from home. He recognises that his parents will be worried yet still continues as he is. When crisis points are reached his reactions revolve around avoidance.

Granville struggles with his girlfriend’s rejection, as if not accepting her decision makes it less real. He changes location rather than changing himself. He seeks a dream without the drive to achieve. He is aware yet will not act constructively.

Granville’s drifting is only possible due to his position of privilege, yet the writing engendered a degree of sympathy. The parallel stories provide a vehicle for portraying much that is difficult to express. There have been many classic stories written of men attempting to find their place in a world that rewards behaviour they rail against. This contemporary offering stands with the best.

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

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Book Review: The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased)

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased), by Marie Gameson, is a charmingly idiosyncratic tale told by an unreliable narrator. The prose is quick and witty yet also affecting. Its protagonist is Winifred Rigby, a translator living in London whose memory is not what it should be. She is plagued by her mother and sister’s interference in her life. It took some time to understand why she granted them such freedom to come and go from her home, why they are constantly prying into her personal and private affairs.

The novel is a slow burner but this does not detract from its easy engagement. It explores how memory is curated and how the past shapes current perceptions. Individuals cling to what they consider important, which may mean little to others, even those who were also there. The same events will be remembered differently, reasons forgotten or fragments misunderstood.

The story opens with an old man knocking on Winifred’s front door. He is Fred Fallowfield and was her history teacher at school. He believes that his dead father is responsible for causing havoc at his home and that an essay Winifred wrote when she was fourteen holds the key to sending this disturbed being on its way. Fred’s wife catches up with him and tells Winifred he is suffering from dementia.

Fred will not be swayed from his conviction that only Winifred can help. Eventually she agrees to undertake research into mystic funeral rites from the East, at his behest. Meanwhile her own life is brightened by a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend who, along with his girlfriend, proposition Winifred. She readily accepts and must then keep their liasons secret from her sister.

Another old schoolfriend, Diana, is also eager to rekindle their friendship. Winifred regards all her relationships with an air of detachment and is surprised to discover that she and Diana were once close. She makes a visit to Diana’s family home and lost memories are stirred.

Winifred does still care about her father who sells The Big Issue outside an underground station. Her sister talks of their father as though he is dead.

Winifred is trying to earn enough to enable her to return to Taiwan where she had been teaching English and where she last felt at peace. She has embraced Buddhism and practices mindfulness, although still keeps forgetting to complete simple, basic tasks. Her sister derides her apparent preference for all things East over West. Winifred believes her sister and mother are taking the money she earns, that they gave away her life savings, to keep her where she is.

As each of these threads is developed the reader gains a clearer picture of how Winifred is regarded by others, and how challenging many people find dealing with someone who behaves differently. Relationships are formed over time with shared memories being key. A recurring theme is the difficulty of grieving for the loss of a loved one when they are not yet dead.

The denouement fills in the gaps between what have been gradual reveals. Family is portrayed at its best and its worst yet there remains hope and understanding amidst the complexities of lives lived. Over time people change, however much those who love them struggle to regain what they once were.

The writing is deft, light and entertaining throughout with a depth of understanding that lingers well beyond the final page. A sagacious and captivating story that deserves to be widely read.

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

Book Review: Fair of Face

Fair of Face, by Christina James, is the sixth novel in the author’s DI Yates series of crime thrillers. Set in contemporary Lincolnshire it first introduces the reader to Tristram Arkwright, an inmate of HMP Wakefield who, as a reward for good behaviour, works in the prison library. He strikes up an illicit correspondence with Jennifer Dove, a city analyst turned bookseller who supplies the maximum-security jail with its reading material. Bored with the ‘honest intentions and humdrum goals’ of the local citizens, Jennifer considers her secret correspondence with the incarcerated librarian an exciting diversion. Both are attempting to play mind games believing they can retain the upper hand.

The action moves to Spalding where the bodies of a mother and her infant daughter have been discovered in their beds. The house is run-down and in one of the roughest streets in town where everyone knows everyone else’e business and few men seem to stick around. The murder house had been checked after the postman found the front door wide open early in the morning on his rounds. The dead woman’s foster daughter, Grace, is missing.

DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong are called in to investigate. When Grace reappears with a friend, Chloe, both girls are acting strangely. These ten year olds are gently questionned but do not seem able to account for their whereabouts over the weekend just past with any consistency. Chloe seems more upset about the two deaths than Grace.

Due to the girls’ ages social services become involved. Marie Krakowski is a big hearted woman who DI Yates resents for her determination to protect her young charges. Her persistent interference during formal interviews makes getting the truth from the two children a challenge. Another social worker, Tom Tarrant, is held in higher esteem. Both social workers are familiar not just with the girls and their chequered backgrounds but also their troublesome wider families, details of which they are reluctant to share citing client confidentiality.

The murder investigation keeps coming back to these youngsters, one of whom is a survivor from a previous violent attack on her family. Although the perpetrator of this atrocity was apprehended there are secrets to uncover that could potentially have a bearing on the more recent case.

There are a number of links between characters which I found somewhat challenging to follow – uncles, nephews, siblings, partners, employees and social workers had multiple interactions and a variety of roles. The point of view kept switching between chapters which interrupted my concentration as I worked out who was narrating and their relationships. Having a Tim and a Tom didn’t help my attempts to retain a coherent overview. I wondered if some of this would have been clearer had I read previous books in the series.

There are many detailed descriptions of clothes, some of which seemed unnecessarily acerbic:

“Marie was wearing a floor-length red cotton tartan skirt and a jacket with a nipped-in waist (insofar as it was possible to nip in Marie’s waist)”

One of the characters plays a role that subsequently appears superfluous to the plot.

Despite these minor criticisms the writing remains engaging. I had guessed many of the reveals early on but had by no means worked out them all. Introducing two ten year old girls as potential witnesses or even suspects to murder was a plot driver I haven’t encountered before. The difficulties this presented to the police investigation added food for thought.

A crime novel that held my attention and offered sufficient originality to make it worth the read. Where I am sensitive to what I regard as over emphasis on looks and dress, others will likely find this helps picture each scene.

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

This post is a stop on the Fair of Face Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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

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