Book Review: Emmet and Me

emmet-and-me

Emmet and Me is Sara Gethin’s second novel for adults (I review her first, Not Thomas, here). Although exploring dark themes, both novels are narrated by children and she captures their views and understanding of the world with skill and care. Adults often forget how insular a child’s perspective can be, that the lens through which they observe their surroundings is coloured by limited experience and childish interpretations of behaviour and overheard conversation. They have not yet developed the language or emotional intelligence to convey their deeply felt desires or concerns.

This latest story opens in Cardiff where ten year old Claire lives with her parents and two brothers – twelve year old Will and toddler Louis. Their volatile mother has long made it clear she regards her children as nuisances. She blames them for driving her to regular outbursts of anger. On the first weekend of the summer holidays, when she starts flinging crockery at the walls, the youngsters lock themselves in the bathroom to keep safe. They are rescued by their uncle, Jack, who takes them to his grubby lodgings to sleep while their dad tries to sort matters at home. When they return the next day their mother has left. Unable to care for his children alone, their dad decides they must go to his mother in rural Ireland, despite not having spoken to her since he was Claire’s age.

Set in 1966, the remote cottage in Connemara has few modern conveniences. Grandma does her best for the children but, with only one elderly neighbour within walking distance, they must make their own entertainment in the surrounding fields. When the holidays end and there is still no prospect of returning to Wales, Claire and Will are sent to local schools. Run by the Catholic church, these are domains of casually cruel nuns and priests.

It is clear from early in the story that there are key elements of family history that Claire is unaware of. These are gradually revealed to her as the plot progresses – mostly foreshadowed so with few surprises for the reader. There is poverty and tragedy leading to lifelong guilt and resentments. All of this is presented with a poignant clarity and pleasing lack of mawkish embellishment.

The titular Emmet is a boy from one of Ireland’s industrial schools. Claire meets him when she finds a place to hide from the girls in her class during lunchbreak. Claire has always struggled to make friends, longing to be noticed by the popular girls and thereby missing out on chances to befriend others – a thread that is handled particularly well in this tale. In Emmet she finds a child who, like her, has a vivid imagination and appreciation of the escapism to be found in stories. Thrilled by their similarities, she is blind to his obvious suffering and deprivation.

Will has his own issues to deal with at school, his name and provenance making him a magnet for bullies. Being older he has a greater awareness of his parents’ behaviour and is attuned to the background that led to them abandoning their offspring. He is caught between protecting Claire from the truth and advising her when she appears insensitive of issues faced by her peers.

Although certain chapters open with thoughts from an older Claire looking back on this summer, the story told is mostly linear. The writing flows but with an underlying tension – a feeling of impending disaster to which Claire remains oblivious, caught up as she is in her own concerns. Each of the characters is developed well, adding depth to the various plot threads. The way poor and orphaned children are treated by church and state is heartbreaking, especially knowing how factually true this aspect is.

Young Claire’s denouement is a bildungsroman of sorts, although the author avoids the pitfall of making everything too tidy. There is then a postscript that offers a window into the life of the older Claire, a bittersweet consequence of pivotal events recounted.

It is notable that the least likable characters are those presenting what many regard as an admirable veneer – be it beauty or vociferous piety. Grandma understands that the church must be pandered to but recognises its dark underbelly. She does not keep a mirror in her cottage, although it and its occupants are kept clean without fussiness. Claire’s life may at times appear challenging, but not when compared to Emmet’s and those in similar circumstances to his.

I read a great many books that experiment with form and development. Although these can be impressive, it was refreshing to read a story told clearly from beginning to end. That said, the author has included so many thought-provoking themes there is plenty to consider. All have their place and add depth to the evocation of time and place.

A page turner that I nevertheless had to walk away from at times, fearful of what was about to be revealed. The pleasure some take from damaging children for their own gratification remains incomprehensible. The author captures the essence of childhood with aplomb and crafts a tale that cannot fail to move every reader. A deftly rendered, recommended read.

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

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

Book Review: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

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

 

Not Thomas has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.