Book Review: The Warlow Experiment

“They err as men do that argue right from wrong principles”

The Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan, is set during the closing decade of the eighteenth century. This was the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, when European intellectuals were debating ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity. The movement instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics, which grew alongside great strides in scientific discovery. It was also a time of social revolution in France leading to numerous wars that took men from their families.

The protagonist of the story is Herbert Powyss, a wealthy bachelor gentleman with an interest in horticulture. He experiments with the cultivation of non-native plants and trees on his small estate in the Welsh Marshes – Moreham House. An avid reader with an interest in scientific reasoning, he dreams of recognition by the Royal Society in London. Realising that his current interests and occupations may not be regarded as consequential, Powyss decides to set up an experiment centring on a willing human subject. He advertises for a man prepared to live alone, underground, for seven years, permitted no contact with the outside world. The subject will be provided with food and comforts, paid a stipend for life, in return for keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities while in solitary confinement.

“his actions would produce something good, a significant contribution to science”

Only one man replies to the advertisement. John Warlow lives locally with his wife and six children. He is a farm labourer surviving in a hand to mouth existence. From childhood he has taken whatever work local landowners will offer. His home is a small, badly maintained cottage, typical of those available to families in his position. He regards Powyss’s scheme as offering the only chance he will ever have to escape poverty. His involvement in the experiment certainly changes the way the Warlows live, but not in ways they could have envisaged.

Powyss’s first mistake is in kitting out the rooms in which his subject will live to entertain someone like him. There are books, a small pipe organ and writing materials. Warlow is semi-literate and used to days filled by hard manual labour. He is determined to earn his stipend but struggles with how to get through each day. The requirement to write in the journal is one he cannot comprehend.

Warlow’s wife, Hannah, visits Powyss each week to collect her husband’s wage. She is wary of wealthy gentlemen, and with good reason. Women at the time had few rights and little recourse to justice should they be violated. Even the social warriors of the time, advocating for wider suffrage, did not consider women in their campaigns.

Wider social changes are explored through Powyss’s servants. He keeps only a small staff as his needs are few compared to his peers. Some of the servants are more loyal than others. They vary in skills and education. Powyss favours his gardener, even when the man starts spreading sedition.

Moreham House becomes a microcosm of issues being fought for across Europe. Despite Warlow being willingly incarcerated, others regard him as a prisoner of the landed gentry. Powyss is assumed to be taking advantage of Hannah. The gardener, who claims to be fighting for freedom for the oppressed, cannot recognise his own controlling relationship with the maid he becomes involved with. He is angered when she proves herself more capable than him of parsing texts the rebels revere.

Powyss, meanwhile, is struggling with the way his experiment is progressing. The settled and solitary existence he had previously enjoyed has been thrown off kilter by Warlow’s habitation of his cellars. The servants complain that the man rarely changes his clothes – the state of them when he does means they must be burned. With no communication allowed, there can only be conjecture on how he is coping. Powyss had envisaged his experiment as ‘the application of cool reason, of impartial, scientific calculation.’ Unlike his plants, a human subject cannot be disposed of if it fails to thrive or infects those in its vicinity.

The structure of the story allows the reader to follow what is happening from multiple viewpoints. Taken within the context of growing social unrest – including complaints over hunger and conscription – there is pleasing depth in the depiction of all social classes and their expectations of each other’s behaviour. Powyss is educated, has travelled the world, but his naivity is the catalyst for a tsunami of destruction. Throughout, Warlow is being used by all he comes into contact with to further their pet causes, whatever the cost to him and his family.     

This is the first novel in a long time that I have picked up and read cover to cover in a day. The writing is engaging and well paced, going in directions that maintain momentum. There is much to consider around the actions of the varied and well developed characters. Secondary characters are only introduced with good reason.

The author is not afraid to include the consequences of actions, to follow through on threads that cannot end well. Although a multi-layered narrative it flows with ease. A story that can be taken at face value or as an allegory for the price of progress. This is a recommended read.

The Warlow Experiment is published by Serpents Tail.

Book Review: Let Us Be True

“When he was six years old, he had been taught that compassion was the only quality of any consequence, and tonight he had tied a knot along the smooth train of his life, and it would trail behind him, snagging over rough ground, staring back at him when he stopped to look, no matter how far he tried to pay it out.”

Let Us Be True, by Alex Christofi, is a love story – not a romance but rather a story of survival and its toll. The protagonist is Ralf who meets the beautiful Elsa in a run-down Parisian bar and embarks on an affair.

Ralf was born in Hamburg, the son of Emil – an academic who researched eugenics. Ralf and his mother fled to London as Hitler rose to power.

Elsa, a child of loyal Nazi sympathisers living in Berlin, carved out a life for herself in the aftermath of the conflict. She now seeks excitement but is loath to risk all she has achieved, even for love.

“They had all been prepared to suffer and be ruthless in service of a grand vision of the future, without seeing that all one is left with, in the end, is the past.”

The couple’s backstories provide insight into the life of ordinary Germans between the world wars. Given current events this makes for sobering reading. Emil’s story in particular moved me – a man who produced scientific evidence that nobody was willing to hear.

After serving with the British in the war, Ralf stayed in Paris rather than return to his mother in London. She wished for him to find a wife and raise a family, not appreciating how displaced he felt. In Paris he befriended Fouad, an Algerian Muslim suffering discrimination that the war should have proved indefensible. Fouad’s story is just one tragedy of many told here.

“We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”

Ralf falls passionately in love with Elsa but she tells him little of her history or circumstances. When he surreptitiously follows her and discovers the truth it comes at a cost. He descends into a destructive spiral, becoming involved in student agitation, eventually emerging to return to London following the death of his mother.

The writing is poetic in its stark beauty, the phraseology adept and poignant, evoking a past that has been lived, futures lost. The denouement rises from a settling tenebrosity whilst avoiding compromising the preceding character development. Life goes on.

An affecting narrative of studied elegance that seduces the reader despite its dark core. This, his second book, places the author amongst those whose trajectory I will now closely follow. Literature lovers, you want to read this book.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

Book Review: Glass

Glass, by Alex Christofi, is a gentle, intelligent tale that, in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, could have slipped down the cracks of more typical, cheap humour. It is the story of one young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. The protagonist is propositioned by older women, observes what teenage boys get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms, worries about losing his virginity and then his subsequent performance; yet his musings never descend into the bawdy or salacious. They retain a subtlety that enables empathy; canny observations succinctly expressed.

Günter Glass is twenty-three years old when his mother dies, leaving him to cope alone with a brother who he mainly argues with and a father who has turned to drink. Günter has lost his job as a milkman and spends his days studying Wikipedia in an attempt to further his education. It is here that he reads about a businessman who received an OBE for services to the Queen as her appointed window cleaner. He decides that this could be the career for him.

Günter’s grief following his mother’s death takes him to Salisbury Cathedral where he meets Dean Angela Winterbottom, a lady in need of a worker with a head for heights. It is she who is telling Günter’s story, following his death. Alongside the narrative are occasional footnotes which add a further layer of droll quirkiness to the tale.

Günter’s adventures as a window cleaner lead him into a number of regrettable, sometimes dangerous, situations. After being featured in the local newspaper he is offered a job in London where he shares a flat with an eccentric aspiring writer. Their conversations are sometimes bizarre but also piquant. Günter is aware of his lack of social skills and is trying to teach himself to fit in. His interactions make for amusing if somewhat poignant reading.

The story is told with wit and wisdom. Günter is overweight and regarded by many, including his father, as lacking basic intelligence. He may struggle to empathise with those he interacts with but he recognises the contradictions by which they live.

“It was so hard to act in the world without indirectly harming someone else, or contributing to the net misery brought about wherever humanity flourished. One couldn’t buy from fast-food shops, because they were cruel to chickens, exploited their workers and deforested the Amazon to farm cows, which in turn contributed to global warming with their imperfect digestion. One couldn’t buy cheap clothes because they would have been made in a sweatshop, but expensive clothes played into the hands of the fashion world, which peddled insecurity as their stock in trade. Besides, cotton was too often grown and wasted on T-shirts that were never bought, and fair trade only served to elevate a few lucky landowners. And if you were rich enough to be buying everything fair trade, you probably had one of those jobs that creates inequality in the first place.”

Günter mulls the workings of the world as he wades through each day. He may appear fat, foolish and difficult yet his thoughts demonstrate an acute if blinkered awareness. The Dean adds her own nuggets of wisdom.

“There is a story in the bible (Judges 12:6) in which two tribes are at war. In one tribe, people pronounce a word ‘shibboleth’; in the other ‘sibbolet’. They use this to identify the enemy, and to kill them, little realising the real tragedy that this is the sum total of their difference.”

Günter knows that he should eat fewer delicious waffles, a food his mother offered him, and partake in more frequent exercise. He decides to cycle to work and to visit his lady friend, pondering why people choose to go out running when they have nowhere to be. The Dean’s comment on this thought is typically pithy.

“Sisyphus was a (non-Biblical) king who tried to cheat death and was punished by being made to exercise constantly; truly, a modern parable.”

Although entertaining and engaging the joy of reading this tale was the understated depth and intelligent humour in the telling. Günter is a man derided, largely ignored and misunderstood, who does his own share of misunderstanding even those close to him.

The denouement is fitting, despite its poignancy. An impressive debut and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

Book Review: Don’t Cry

This post was written for and originally published on Bookmunch

Don’t Cry is a collection of ten short stories that explore the complexity of human interactions and the concerns these cause. It took me some time to connect with the voices of the narrators. The serrated edge of the prose in the first three tales grated as the subject of sex was granted seemingly unnecessary importance within the context of each plot. Although character driven I struggled to empathise with the varied casts being created. Their predicaments evoked desolation and lacked the percipience to draw me in.

By the fourth story, ‘The Agonized Face’, the prose began to resonate. A reread was required to fully appreciate but I could now enjoy the warp and weft of the author’s words. I had found that important reader connection with her style. ‘Mirrorball’ impressed for its experimental approach to the differing impacts of a one night stand on a boy and a girl. The souls taken and discarded neatly encapsulate the nuance of sexual encounters and their lasting significance, however casually approached. ‘Today I’m Yours’ explores the relationship between an author and an editor over many years as they move in and out of each other’s lives. Early in her career the author ‘fantasized about the social identity that might be mine if the book were to succeed’. The story follows the creation and maintenance of this identity, and how it changes the private person underneath.

“Sometimes it seemed to me an empty life, but that wasn’t really true. It wasn’t empty; it was more that the people and events in it were difficult to put together in any way that felt whole.”

‘The Little Boy’ looks at family and their loss of connection over time. It opens with an elderly mother returning from a visit to her grown up daughter. She thinks through her changing relationship with each of her children, feeling sanguine about where they are with each other now despite obvious irritations. In an airport waiting room she observes a young mother’s negative reaction to her child’s lively behaviour and attempts to offer understanding. She has experience of lasting resentments growing from such minutiae.

The stories present the underlying loneliness of never being fully understood alongside both sympathetic and caustic internal reactions to others. War veterans recognise the difficulties faced by fellow survivors yet judge harshly their observed behaviours. Prejudices remain despite understanding the personal cost of conflict of all kinds

The final story, ‘Don’t Cry’, is set in Ethiopia where two middle aged American women wish to adopt a child. Themes of privilege, guilt and grief run alongside the violence of poverty. Moments of hopelessness are transformed into anecdotal entertainment when subsequently recounted. There is an expectation that pain will be internalised, that to cry is to make a fuss when always someone else is worse off.

Any Cop?: Despite my initial antipathy, these stories were enjoyed for their varied and succinct insights. The author offers a jagged understanding of life powerfully presented within contexts that affirm the stoicism of survival.


Jackie Law

Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.