Book Review: Lanyards

Lanyards, by Neil Campbell, is the third book in the author’s Manchester Trilogy. I have not read the previous two works, Sky Hooks and Zero Hours, also published by Salt. From what I can quickly glean online, this current story is narrated by a man who could be around the same age as the author. Their background, work experiences and publication history appear similar. The narrator enjoys reading Knausgaard among many other male writers lauded within certain literary circles. I pondered if Lanyards could be a work of autofiction.

Campbell is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School. On their website his biography is as follows.

“Neil Campbell was born in Audenshaw, Manchester in 1973. While working variously as a warehouseman, bookseller and teacher, he had poems and stories published in small press magazines, and edited the literary magazine Lamport Court from 2003-2008. In 1999 he completed an MA dissertation on the short stories of Raymond Carver at the University of Manchester, and went on to graduate from MMU’s MA Creative Writing programme in July 2006. His short story collection Broken Doll was published by Salt in March 2007 followed by a second, Pictures from Hopper, 2011, and an e-novella, Sky Hooks, in 2014. He has also had two poetry chapbooks, Birds and Bugsworth Diary, and a story collection Ekphrasis, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and had a story in the Best British Short Stories 2012.”

Although much of this matches details shared by our protagonist, the narrator expresses disdain for Creative Writing courses – not least because the working class cannot afford them.

“I wanted to read great literature and try to write great literature and the further away I could get from Creative Writing the better.”

The story being told jumps around in time offering snapshots of the narrator’s life. Opening in childhood he describes: the gift of a BMX bike, hanging out with his friends, stealing from sweet shops. He writes of later when he had a job in a warehouse. This work follows a brief football career cut short by injury. Football remains important but as a spectator sport.

The narrator’s friends include local poets who meet up in pubs. Here they offer advice to upcoming writers along with the opportunity to read their work in public. At one spoken word night he meets the woman who will become his wife, an Asian born British woman who opens his eyes to casual racism.

The bones of the book are the jobs the narrator must accept to earn a living. The agency he signs up with finds him temporary work supporting SEN students and at a call centre – zero hour contracts. Wrapped around this precarious working life are the narrator’s social hours, spent mainly in pubs imbibing copious quantities of alcohol. His partner tries to interest him in theatre but he remains unimpressed, falling asleep during one show he regarded as tedious.

The narrator harbours disdain for many habits of the middle classes while nurturing his personal preferences and grievances. For example, he hankers after the old kind of pubs finding too many are now

“All too clean, somehow, too family friendly.”

The style of writing is conversational, like catching up with an old acquaintance. There are lengthy sections of dialogue interspersed with descriptions of the narrator’s day to day experiences. He recounts: days at work on his various jobs, nights out with friends, outings with his partner, football matches. The reader gains a feel for the life he is living, including his resentments and ambition as a writer.

Despite the interesting style and substance of the prose I did not become emotionally invested in the characters. Travels around Manchester painted a vivid picture of recent changes in the city, with frequent mentions of bypasses and supermarkets, but did not convey if these are more widely regarded as an improvement. At times there are sparks of anger over government policy or as a result of nostalgia. Given the choices the narrator makes I was unclear what it was he expected.

Clearly stated is a desire to emulate the authors he admires alongside derision for writers who hawk their wares on social media. All of this is conveyed within a commonplace existence where jobs are offered and lost with little regard for the worker – sadly, it has always been thus.

And yet, there is something within the tale that burrows into the mind of the reader – a spark of malcontent that demands attention. Within the ordinary life portrayed is a vibrancy, an insistence that good writing is worth pursuing. As readers we can be thankful that such attitudes persist amongst those whose voices should be heard.

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

Book Review: The Complex

The Complex, by Michael Walters, is set in the near future. Technology has being harnessed to carry out many tasks. AI that we already know of has been further developed. There has been a war although few details of this are provided. What is clear is that the structure of the world portrayed has subtly changed.

Two couples and their teenage children are to spend a week together at a luxurious if remote retreat. Awe at the beautiful location and scale of the place is soon overtaken by concern over an occasional malevolence. Although it is still spring, the fruit and vegetables in the extensive gardens are ripening. The place is off grid and appears to harbour its own climate.

The story opens in a self driving car as Gabrielle and Leo Hunter leave the Areas accompanied by their son, Stefan, for a week’s holiday. The family have been under stress since the death of Gabrielle’s father. One of her clients, Art Fisher, has invited the family to join him, along with his wife and daughter, at a place he has access to in the mountains. Although wary, Gabrielle has agreed. As all will soon find out, Art can be persuasive.

Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, are both preparing for their Finals after which they must decide on their future careers. Art has plans for Fleur to join him at the influential Fisher Industries. She has other ideas that she is pursuing in secret. Stefan is considering harnessing his tennis skills to turn professional. He has little interest in the studying his parents wish him to engage in during their week away.

Despite the glorious views and sunshine, the house in which the two families stay is a shadowy presence that increasingly gets inside the residents’ heads. Vivid dreams are recounted in which their backstories merge with the present. Gabrielle is taking medication and regularly needs to sleep, something Art encourages. Leo is disturbed by his faltering short term memory, struggling to differentiate between the fantasies he indulges in featuring Art’s wife, Polly, and the reality of their interactions. While the adults struggle to navigate a situation that is turning to quicksand, the children explore a virtual reality game. There is a need to interpret what is happening in the physical world and how this is affected by episodes playing out in each of their heads.

As the pernicious house gives up its secrets certain answers are provided. Readers must also immerse themselves in the labyrinth of connections and speculations. Control is being fought for in a game where the objectives and conditions of participation are unclear.

There are shades in the writing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, although The Complex is much more accessible and compelling. The questioning of developments brought to mind the first season of Dark which I have recently been watching on Netflix.

Well paced and skilfully constructed this twisty and disturbing story had me questioning the virulence of technology we all too easily accept. It is a layered and deliciously unsettling read.

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

Book Review: Melting Point

To be clear from the outset, I didn’t get on with the style of writing in this short story collection. It is published by the mighty Salt Publishing so I started with high expectations. The stories are varied and eclectic. There are fine ideas yet I struggled with their execution. I will try to explain.

The opening tale, Crime and Bread, initially struck me as quirky. Imagery is a key feature as the reader is introduced to the protagonist, a female, who states

“But life only makes sense to me when I’m burning the candle at both ends, I can’t stand that dullness, when things go stale, I can’t stand that grey area. I need sequins, raisins, spices from Morocco, French wines. What would they say if they saw me tail-spinning out of control, intravenous needles hanging from me”

So, she is looking for adventure.

She shares her dreams, then a story she is reading that she phones a friend to discuss. She sees a poster in a window that she wishes to own. Rather than purchase it, something not beyond her means, she plans to steal. The narrative follows her thoughts, actions and their consequences. The language is rich and sensuous. The reader is left to make what they will of a nebulous denouement.

I moved on to the second offering, The Watery Gowns, which explores the transformative power of confronting personal fears. The protagonist, a female, is staying in a Greek villa offered to her for a few days by parents of a friend. She goes diving with locals. She borrows their little boat to get closer to the rusting remains of a shipwrecked freighter. Again, the language is rich in description and imagery. The female’s emotions are heightened by every experience.

In Erasing the Waves the language becomes more crude in places. Two men meet after many years. They had been good friends at university. One is professionally successful while the other is frustrated by the anxiety caused by  their less than successful freelance career. Conversation veers in a variety directions.

“He said nothing. For the first time I had a fear of the evening going wrong or ending in recrimination or tension, which was not what I wanted.”

This story has sections of extended dialogue, as do others in the collection. These felt stilted.

The next tale, Island, is clever, mind-bending even, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The men, with their sexual preoccupations, are stereotypes. The women’s bodies are described in detail. I grew bored at the party attended due to the characters’ shallow behaviour.

“I have a rather pessimistic view of the world at the moment. People eat shit, they watch and listen to shit and, above all, they talk shit. The average person is so stupid they probably wouldn’t be able to define what stupidity means.”

There is a futuristic element that is well done but then fell flat, perhaps deliberately. I was disappointed that a section I enjoyed was included for a valid reason but not pursued.

The variation in writing style affected flow and engagement – a disjointed narrative that even the rich language couldn’t compensate.

The Mosque of Córdoba offers beauty, calm and peace juxtaposed with hatred, murder and horror.

“What things had to happen to a man, what disfigurement had to take place for him to be willing to have his limbs scattered, for him to be willing to massacre and maim others? What false and grotesque heaven had been promised to him, had been sold to him […] for him to be willing to swear everlasting allegiance to a god synonymous with evil, hatred and murder?”

The author is presenting interesting and timely points but plot development stutters. Characters are shoe-horned in for effect.

The Chimera is another example of an interesting idea – again futuristic – spoiled for me by a sexual thread that felt unnecessary.

The Rich and the Slaughtered is an example of a real world problem being explored but in a structure I couldn’t engage with. Set in London’s RAC Club, a dinner is being recounted. It presents the self-entitlement of the privileged.

“The moment seemed to be indicating that all was as it should be once again and that the skeleton of social injustice had been shoved back once more where it belonged – in the cupboard marked Irrelevant.”

The themes are worthy but the fractured telling doesn’t quite come together.

The Meltdown takes a playful stab at modern architecture, and offers up an extreme case of a clash of musical tastes. The protagonist is a village schoolmaster with an interest in world cultures and history. He cannot understand those who are content.

“Would Marjorie Bowles, the local pharmacist, one day realise that life was not merely waking and working and supper and television, that another music played somewhere”

By now I realised that each of the stories in the collection offered not just one plot or one theme – that the frequent changes in direction were deliberate. This didn’t work for me as a reader.

I didn’t enjoy The Balls which felt predictable and, again, presented man driven by sex, and woman as an object to be attained and then owned. The characters lacked nuance and depth.

The Visitation has fishermen pondering on what could be living beneath their vessels after a grotesque creature is swept ashore. These men have accepted the horrors they live alongside, gossiping inanely of such things as a twelve year old relative who is pregnant. They fear the consequences of the natural more than the man made.

Alba introduces yet another beautiful young woman, as if love can only be offered to the aesthetically pleasing. She muses

“Sometimes I think you are in love with a sense of me as someone else, sometimes I think you don’t know me at all”

According to the metaphors employed, men only value what they can have sex with and looks are key. A ‘bovine woman’ is described as reading an ‘airport novel’ – terms employed as derogatory.

Again, in The Fever

“She was on the wrong side of forty, with depleted features and a beaten-up body, but not unattractive, not without a certain 3am allure”

I wondered if this tale, an American road trip, was intended as a pastiche.

The final story in the collection also jumped between plot threads, stilted dialogue and vivid imagery. Two sisters are travelling together in Sri Lanka. The horror of an evening changes their life view.

Aware that I am sensitive to what I regard as unnecessary sexual description, that I prefer my fiction to be character driven, this collection may simply not have been targeted at me. I won’t be retaining it for rereading.

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

Book Review: The South Westerlies

“the land was in her blood”

The South Westerlies, by Jane Fraser, is a collection of eighteen short stories mostly set in and around the Gower area of South Wales. The land is depicted as windswept and often damp. Family roots run deep although some branches long for an escape.

Each tale stands alone yet there are suggestions that the cast of characters interweaves. Many in the community have familiar names. Places feature in numerous tales.

The farming families have tended the land for generations. Young men who take on their father’s farms look for wives who, like their mothers, will have dinner on the table at a set time whilst raising sons to ensure a continuum.

“Gower born and Gower bred
Strong of arm and good in bed”

The farmers’ teenage daughters accept as husbands the sons of neighbouring farmers – those suggested by their parents. They feel complimented when described as “good breeding stock”. They consider with satisfaction the agricultural acres joined by such marriages. Later in life these women ponder their lot. Stories included tell of widows who do not mourn the loss of husbands who demanded that they “put up and shut up”.

Other stories introduce young people who left the area to build lives elsewhere. They return to visit embittered parents, still critical of the strengths shown that enabled their offspring’s escape. School friends who stayed – met up with again after many years – conjure memories and thoughts of what might have been. Severing from a root may not eradicate it.

There is much grief in the tales: longed for children who were never born; children lost young whose shadows forever weaken sunbeams of happiness.

Within families there is blame and resentment. Men try to control wifely behaviour. Parents complain of their grown children’s choices and distance. Friends ponder what they have missed by letting time drift.

In Look What the Wind’s Blown In a young couple try to help an increasingly infirm elderly parent. The old man wants his daughter-in-law to look after him as his wife once did. When more practical alternatives are offered there is an impasse.

In Search of the Perfect Wave introduces a surfer’s consuming need to chase the perfect wave. In this and other stories, unhappiness exists when a character cannot find the strength to insist that their needs are considered. Desires are individual and rarely transferable.

This is the Boat that Dad Built is a moving account of a family man who tries his best and, for one summer, succeeds. It offers a reminder that happiness is hard to bestow without willing acceptance from a recipient. Individuals cannot be all things to all people.

The stories are often bleak yet the sense of place evoked is one of dark beauty and an innate affinity. The writing is polished but also affecting with each story harbouring nuance and depth. This is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Haverscroft

Haverscroft, by S.A. Harris, is a deliciously creepy ghost story. It opens with the Keeling family – Kate, Mark and nine year old twins, Sophie and Tom – moving into a big, old house on the edge of a small town in Suffolk. Having renovated their London home the couple are aware of the work ahead of them. Their relocation has mostly been driven by Mark with Kate agreeing for the sake of their faltering marriage. She has been ill for many months but is now determined to stop taking her medication and return to her former, capable self.

The old house creaks and groans but there are other noises that cannot be explained. The children are scared so Kate must try to be rational despite her own fears. During the working week Mark still resides in the city. With no internet and patchy mobile reception the couple struggle to communicate. Kate is concerned that if she tells her husband of the malevolent presence she sometimes feels he will believe she is relapsing and stop listening to anything she says.

The Keelings have kept on the former owner’s cleaner and gardener, with the cleaner soon becoming a friend. Through her Kate learns more about the history of the place and those who have lived there. The Havers family harboured dark secrets yet few in the gossipy town seem willing to share the detail with Kate. She starts to research on her own. Each new discovery increases the tension with Mark.

The story is told from Kate’s perspective, her shaky mental state leaving the reader unsure of the veracity of the narration. The unfolding tale puts many under suspicion. The denouement offers potential explanations without taking from the chilling portrayal.

The writing is taut and fluid. Both the atmosphere of the old house and the wider family dynamics are evoked with skill. Whatever one thinks of a place harbouring the spirit of past deeds this story could throw shade over certainties. Recommended, but exercise caution if reading after dark.

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

Book Review: Good Day?

Good Day? by Vesna Main is written mostly as dialogue. The conversations transcribed are between a long married, middle aged couple. She is an author and ardent feminist. He is an academic, researching women in the Labour Party. He is also his wife’s first reader. Each day they discuss developments in her work in progress. The novel being written is about a long married, middle aged couple, Richard and Anna, whose marriage has hit difficulties following Richard’s revelation that he has been sleeping with prostitutes.

The husband is unhappy that his wife appears to be basing her characters on them. He is concerned that she is revealing too much that is true and that their friends and colleagues who read her work will assume it is autobiographical. Also, that acquaintances will find themselves within the story and feel insulted. The wife denies the extent of these allegations but still takes personally her husband’s critiques of Anna’s controlling and self-centred personality. She insists that Anna is lovely and that it is Richard who should be condemned. Her husband’s sympathy for the man, his assertion that Anna shoulder some responsibility for Richard’s actions, creates tension.

The dialogue tells the story of the work in progress and also of the real life couple. Art mirrors life but does life mirror art? There is a lingering question over how much impact stories have on a reader’s subsequent actions.

It is interesting to view how a writer constructs a novel – the conceits and concerns. Ideas are lifted from other tales already written.

The unusual structure is used to impressive effect. The sensitivities of the writer and her irritation at the male perspective are recounted with candour and wit. By telling a story within a story there are blurred lines between fact and fiction. The loneliness and frustration inherent when couples cannot convey their thoughts and feelings in a way that garners affinity is skillfully portrayed.

Within the tale are many interesting diversions. The author explores themes such as: addiction, obsessive behaviour, rewriting memory when exposed to new information. There are threads on class and the affectations of the intelligentsia. There are challenges to thinking that places itself as the moral high ground.

As someone who dislikes reading detailed descriptions of sex I baulked at one particularly blatant scene, yet even this fitted for the reasons given. The author is exploring derivative work and plagiarism. The overlaps between the two couples are somehow both obvious and opaque.

The writing is tense and compelling. Although nuanced and layered the story has the feel of a thriller. It is admirable that so much has been fitted into such a concise volume. This is a clever and thought-provoking read.

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

Book Review: Flotsam

Flotsam, by Meike Ziervogel, tells the story of a mother and her daughter, both of whose lives have been shaped by loneliness and loss. They live in a remote cottage close to mud flats on the German North Sea coast where dykes enable human habitation. The mother, Anna, is an artist processing grief by collecting debris washed up by each tide. Her daughter, Trine, plays on a shipwreck on the shore but is reaching an age when such games must be left behind.

The story opens in the early 1950s with an accident. Trine is climbing down from the broken and stranded ship to reach the body of her brother, Carl. He has just fallen from the rope ladder and she knows that he is dead but is afraid of the fuss her mother will make when she finds out. Trine remembers the wailing and crockery throwing that followed her father’s death and burial. She wishes to give Carl a pirate’s send-off, burning his body to ensure he cannot wake up in a box underground.

Trine has recently befriended two of the popular girls at her school and does not wish to lose this unexpected chance to fit in socially. Unlike them, Trine’s body has yet to form the curves that the boys who hang around with them admire. When one of the boys appears to notice her, Trine determines to outmanoeuvre the competition, whatever that may take.

The second half of the book focuses on Anna. She rescues a drowning man from the waves, taking him home to nurse him better despite the stones she found in his pockets. Anna rarely sees strangers. She has grown used to a life of solitude, endured since she moved to the coast at the outbreak of the war. Anna’s husband, Otto, owned the cottage and moved her there from Berlin to keep her and their young son safe from aerial bombardment. Otto was supportive of Anna’s art but did not offer the passion and excitement she had expected when they married.

As the war progresses, Anna seeks her own adventures. Meanwhile, her son grows, eager to fight for his country alongside the peers who are now regarded as heroes, for the victory they have been taught is assured.

The writing has a dark and haunting quality yet there is much beauty in its concise construction. The story ebbs and flows with the ghosts of the past and the effects of the isolated location. Both Trine and Anna show a resolve that can be unsettling, beguiling – perhaps because young women are not expected to behave as they do.

An astute and arresting tale that brought to mind the disturbance caused on reading Wyl Menmuir’s The ManyThe denouement is poignant yet fitting, an affecting reaction to untold grief.

“She used to wonder what kind of art she might have been able to make if grief hadn’t cornered her, deprived her of images, of thoughts, of language, of visions. And all that she had left to do was to roam the mudflats, collecting flotsam and jetsam. Waiting.”

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

Book Review: Snegurochka

Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, is a claustrophobic, multi-layered tale that offers a window into life in Kiev shortly after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in the aftermath of its dissolution. The story focuses on a young mother, Rachel, who travels from England with her infant son to join her journalist husband, Lucas, in the city where he works on a freelance basis for the BBC. The little family move into an apartment on the thirteenth floor of a Soviet era tower block. Isolated by language and the demands of a young baby, Rachel develops compulsive coping strategies. She pictures herself dropping the child from the apartment balcony so refuses to go near it, much to the frustration of Lucas who chose the apartment partly for this feature. He struggles to see the woman he married in the withdrawn mother she has become.

Lucas enjoys the company of colleagues in Kiev who welcome Rachel but cannot empathise with her as they do not have children. The local people question why she brought a baby from a country of plenty to what they regard as a blighted place. The Chernobyl disaster has caused ongoing cancers and other birth defects. There are shortages of fresh produce and concern over its provenance given how much land has been polluted. When Rachel does not conform to their customs, they criticise the way she cares for her child.

With shortages of food and material goods comes an underground network of smugglers, gangsters and fixers. Memories of widespread famine, then of Soviet spies and betrayal, are still raw amongst the population. Rachel has asked Lucas to source a washing machine for their apartment but money is tight and such white goods imported. To acquire one requires more than a monetary transaction.

Rachel walks around the neighbourhood pushing her baby buggy and trying to work out where and how items may be bought. She attends a few social events with Lucas and his friends but finds little in common with these photographers and journalists, vying for their next story and milking contacts. Instead she observes local people: the elderly caretaker of their building, a teenager living in the apartment above, her husband’s driver. They each have their secrets and are somewhat contemptuous of Rachel but grow concerned when a ‘businessman’ starts to pay her attention.

The subtle shifts between ordinary actions – reading a book, catching a tram, walking through a crowd – and the threatening undercurrents that are ever present, provide not just suspense but a questioning of the veracity of each character. Rachel is aware that many of her fears have no solid basis, yet cancers are not the only malady infecting Ukraine’s people. The dangers encroaching those she starts to care for are rooted deep, exacerbated by their need to survive after futures have been stymied by changes in government, ongoing corruption and the resentments generated.

This is a fascinating portrayal of Kiev and its people, written with skill, depth and sympathy but never shying away from darker facets. At its heart is the story of a marriage, of motherhood, and of a place contaminated by its terrible history. It is an alluring and gratifying read.

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

Book Review: A Perfect Explanation

“It was the starting that was the joy when no mistakes had been made, when the world was free and open, when nothing was said that needed to be unsaid”

Eleanor Anstruther grew up knowing the family story of how her father, as a boy, was sold by his mother to his aunt for five hundred pounds. These forebears were an aristocratic family whose wealth included large properties in Scotland and London. Children were important as heirs; the family inheritance to be managed and passed on. Although A Perfect Explanation is a work of fiction it was built around facts found in letters, court papers, medical reports and photographs. It offers a fascinating picture of a family bound by gendered tradition, in which truths deemed unpalatable, including parental favouritism, silently festered to the detriment of all.

The tale is told across two timelines – a day in 1964 and the years between the two world wars. The protagonist is Enid Campbell, a society beauty who later eschews company. Although pampered and selfish she regards herself as hard done by. The coldness of parents and their favouring of certain offspring repeat across the three generations featured. Mothers love their sons more than their daughters who are expected to do their duty without unseemly fuss.

Enid is one of three siblings. They were born and raised in the fairy-tale castle of Inveraray in Argyllshire. When her uncle, the ninth Duke of Argyll and husband of Princess Louise, died, Enid’s family had to move to a smaller property on the estate, thereby freeing the castle for her cousin’s occupancy. Enid regarded this as her first lesson in how anything she loved could be taken away. The next lessons were when her beloved brother, her parents’ heir, was killed in the war, and her father, who had always favoured her, died of illness. Enid was left with her domineering mother who she believed preferred her sister, Joan. Enid had married Douglas to spite her mother, an act she was told contributed to her father’s demise. She regretted that Douglas rather than her brother returned from the war.

Enid and Douglas have a son, Fagus, and a daughter, Finetta. Enid struggles with the demands of motherhood and grows to despise her husband while still expecting his support. Their son was born with hydrocephalus but the obvious signs are neither discussed nor treated. The condition makes him clumsy and he suffers a life changing fall while under Enid’s care. As well as the guilt she feels there is resentment as she believes she is being unfairly blamed.

With the young heir now damaged and therefore the inheritance Enid had expected to come her way in jeopardy she decides she must produce another son to prevent Joan being bequeathed their mother’s sizeable estate. The responsibility of providing care for a disabled child and a newborn baby – her daughter is largely ignored – tips Enid over the edge.

The book opens on a day in 1964 with Finetta preparing to make one of her regular visits to Enid who now lives in a nursing home in Hampstead run by Christian Scientists, a belief she turned to in an attempt to cure Fagus. We learn that Finetta has a son and a daughter but the same skewed parenting preferences as her mother and grandmother.

“She’d fed and bathed them both, divorced their father and sent them away to school as soon as possible. They had grown up.”

“Her daughter was a stranger who moved with a stranger’s mood; a thing that passed and left little trace, unlike her son, for whom she felt a love so crushing she could only watch him, constantly, whether he was there or not.”

Finetta is doing her duty towards her mother but takes pleasure in observing the limitations of the life of the ‘almost dead but not dead enough’. She regards any suffering Enid must endure as her just deserts. This visit though will be different as her younger brother, Ian, is to join her – the first time he will have seen their mother in twenty-five years.

Enid feels no gratitude at her daughter’s willingness to visit each Tuesday.

“Enid had done nothing to deserve such loyalty and she resented it. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want to have it pointed out that she was still a mother. It was as if Finetta did it on purpose, shoving the reminder of her existence as a punishment from which Enid could not escape, a revenge dripped week by week”

Now an old woman waiting to die, cut off from the wider family she scorned yet craved attention and sympathy from, Enid cannot still the memories of her past actions which caused the breach and led to suffering for all.

The interwar timeline takes the reader through these actions, when Enid had her babies and failed to meet her own and her family’s expectations. Despite the appalling way in which she treats everyone her story is told with a degree of sympathy.

There is darkness and tension in Enid’s perceptions and yearnings. She appears childlike in her jealousies, incapable of loving selflessly. Her feelings of entitlement and perceived lack of understanding lead to her wishing to hurt her mother and sister. She cannot cope with the demands made by her children. Always she wants without being able to give.

I have read many stories of minor historical figures and the troubles they encounter despite their privileged existences. This tale offers much more depth and nuance than is typical. The writing pulls the reader under the skin of each character from where they may view the pain of selfish frustrations. There are truly shocking moments yet they are never sensationalised. Rather there is a balance in the telling that allows the reader to form their own opinions. The complexities of family relationships and the pressures these create offer much to consider.

A riveting tale of grown children damaged by the relentless actions of their entitled parents. Well paced and skilfully written, this is a haunting, recommended read.

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

Book Review: A Place of Safety

A Place of Safety, by Martin Nathan, is a story of the darker side of family life. Told from the points of view of four narrators, each recalling events with slight deviations, it opens with the aftermath of a devastating house fire. Three bodies have been recovered, two of whom are presumed to be the owners, David and Esme Guralnick. David had recently left his long time job at a local estate agency that was sold a year ago to Alice, a young woman of Greek descent, who purchased the business with the help of her father. She is now facing financial difficulties.

Alice is one of four sisters but, unlike her siblings, has not married. This is another failing for which her mother berates her. Alice’s father had a string of affairs over many years and eventually left the family home. Only Alice still retains contact, something her mother and sisters view as betrayal.

“My mother had turned into an angry grass widow so many years before, with little pretence that there was any affection left for him. They didn’t split up for years, continuing to live around each other in silent hatred.”

David Guralnick and his wife had been planning on relocating to the coast and Alice had been handling the sale of their South London property. A young couple, Andrew and Carol, had shown an interest and arranged a viewing. The meeting of the potential buyers and sellers to discuss the details of what fixtures and fittings could be included had not gone as Alice expected. Now the house and contents have been burned to a shell.

Alice’s sisters are planning a gathering for their mother’s seventieth birthday. Alice knows she must attend but that it will be a trial during which she will suffer much criticism. She regards David and Esme as a couple to aspire to with their long marriage and plans for the future. She is unaware of the tensions that percolate, that they can barely tolerate each other at times and heap culpability for disappointment with how their lives have turned out.

Carol has been seeking a cause to live for since she was a teenager. When she hears Andrew speak at a meeting she seizes the opportunity to align herself with his cause.

“My family had never been people who embraced life. They lived solitary lives, regarding each other in silence, rarely deviating. Each day like the last, no change forseeable in the future. Each night they mutely congratulated each other that things had not changed. No better, but also no worse. All the potential disasters in the world had passed them by for another day. They expected me to live the same way; any suggestion I might adopt a different pattern of behaviour was perceived as a threat.”

Each of the families depicted expect their children to accept and adhere to prescribed behaviour. Reaction to deviation varies from vocal disappointment to outright rejection. The scars of guilt and resentment fester across both generations. Whilst relationships suffer, the perpetrators and victims mostly continue along their chosen paths shouldering the burden of recrimination. In one case, this weight turns deadly.

The writing has the tension and engagement of a thriller but retains sufficient originality to avoid the clichés and predictability more typical of the genre. The denouement answers the questions posed throughout the narrative but leaves the reader with plenty to consider.

A disturbing depiction of the damage caused by familial demands and expectation. Discomforting yet compelling, this is a piquant and thought-provoking read.

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