Book Review: The Sandstone City

Sandstone City

When The Sandstone City, by Elaine Canning, was offered to me for review I expected it to be just the sort of story I enjoy. The author lived and was educated in Belfast, as I was, before moving away to pursue a life and career elsewhere. This background led me to believe she would understand her subject matter, that she would appreciate and be capable of articulating the guilt instilled by an Irish family on those who dare to flee the nest. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how disturbing I would find the supernatural elements of her debut. The family featured are capable of physically following their offspring from beyond the grave.

The story opens in an inner city estate house in contemporary Belfast. Eighty-eight year old Michael Doherty has recently died and his family are preparing to bury him. In the scenario imagined, the dead man can hear what is being said about him as his body lies in the open coffin, family and neighbours passing through to pay their respects. He is particularly concerned about his youngest grandchild, Sarah, who is using the religious period of Lent as an excuse to starve herself in an attempt to ward of guilt. She has not shared with anyone the source of her pain, although the reader is made aware it is to do with a young man in Spain who may or may not be dead, something for which she blames herself.

Sarah had moved to Spain for study and work. She was based in Salamanca, a city that held memories for her grandfather, ones he has never shared with his family. His wife, Annie, was aware that before they met he had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Michael had struggled to settle during their early years of marriage, eventually leaving her with their young children to work away from home. When he eventually returned she accepted his past with few questions, although did banish him to a separate bedroom.

Despite this, the family are portrayed as close – to each other and to their neighbours in the estate. When Sarah moves away she is expected to ring home regularly as well as returning for visits. She seems to accept this, telling small lies in her updates when she wishes to keep aspects of her new life private. Despite being dead, Michael sees that she is now hurting and wants to help. He is granted permission to call up ghosts from his past and haunt her into investigating the secrets he kept, something he believes will encourage her to confront whatever it is she is avoiding.

The unfolding story sees Sarah first frightened and confused by the messengers but then curious about what is being revealed about her grandfather. Despite this curiosity, she appears reluctant to learn anything about his past that could change her perception of an old man she was close to. This reluctance slows the pace. Michael, observing her reactions, worries about what he is sharing. Still, he remains sure it is necessary if he is to help her.

Other than getting Sarah to travel back to Spain, and therefore deal with what she ran away from, I wasn’t convinced by her grandfather’s machinations. Of course, from a storytelling perspective they provided an interesting strand, but the structure chosen was strange and at times irritating. The way in which the dead were brought back was troubling as was the influence they were capable of exerting. Irish family ties may be powerful but patronising from beyond the grave takes this to a whole new level.

I mentioned that I found the pacing slow. This wasn’t helped by the need to work out without initial explanation the relevance of the various ghosts in Michael’s past life, and the reluctance of his family to acknowledge any history or behaviours that may not fit their carefully maintained narrative. The family may be loving and supportive, but members were required to behave in certain ways and not ask potentially awkward questions. Conformity mattered.

I was also confused by the character, Tommy – initially a McBride, then someone closer. Perhaps I missed something but, if so, using the same name didn’t help. Michael’s occasional interjections – his determination yet reluctance to open a past he had kept hidden – didn’t convince in terms of helping Sarah.

Michael’s experiences in Spain as well as Sarah’s are eventually revealed. I was left wondering why the big secrets could not be shared. For all the family is presented as an important anchor in their lives, if they cannot talk to each other about personal matters then such value is questionable. Certain threads remained unanswered, particularly why Michael left his young family and what he did during those years. Annie remained loyal, as a religious woman would, but at what cost?

Sadly this was a story that simply didn’t work for me. It happens, and I hope the book finds many more appreciative readers. Perhaps what I expected to appeal – the author’s background making me anticipate more shared attitudes towards family and upbringing – shadowed a story I struggled to engage with. That the dead could remain in the land of the living as anything other than memory, continuing to judge and exert influence, I find seriously unsettling.

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

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Book Review: Spanish Crossings

Spanish Crossings, by John Simmons, is set mainly in London in the years around the Second World War. Its protagonist is an unassuming young woman, Lorna Starling, who has left behind her quiet upbringing in Kent to live independently in the city. She is well respected by her colleagues at the lawyers office where she works. In her free time she is an active supporter of socialist causes.

After a short prologue the story opens in the spring of 1937 when Lorna attends a meeting at the home of Diana Seymour. Diana’s wealth and connections intimidate the young secretary but she soon finds herself trying to emulate the older woman’s confidence and style. At the meeting Lorna encounters Harry James who is recently returned from Spain where he had fought Franco’s forces with the International Brigade. After a night of passion he returns to this battlefield leaving Lorna bereft at the loss of her first, brief love.

Wishing to do her bit for the cause, Lorna has signed up to ‘adopt’ a child refugee, one of four thousand shipped from Spain by the Basque Children’s Committee. At Diana’s behest, the firm Lorna works for are to provide the committee with legal services pro bono and Lorna will be their representative at meetings. Diana and Lorna visit the camp where the children are being processed before being dispersed to colonies around the country. Lorna is introduced to the child she will ‘adopt’, a fifteen year old boy named Pepe whose age and grasp of the English language has made him something of a leader amongst the children.

Pepe is moved to a house in London where Lorna visits him regularly. With Franco gaining control in Spain, and the prospect of war with Germany increasing, the boy grows restless. Lorna understands Pepe’s discontent but cautions him to remain within the law that he may avoid being sent back to a Spain that is now killing its dissidents with impunity.

The timeline moves to 1943. Lorna has taken an active role during the war years, volunteering as a watcher for the ARP. She lives behind boarded up windows but appears largely content with her solitary existence. Her chief regret is that the life she had dreamed she could have had with Harry was taken from her. All this changes when Pepe reappears, declaring his love. Despite recognising their significant differences in core values, Lorna is tempted by the prospects this offers. She encourages Pepe to sign up to fight, thereby gaining his British citizenship.

By 1947 Lorna is settled in a comfortable council flat, raising a child but feeling frustrated at the limitations this has placed on her developing career. Although pleased by the social progress being made by the Labour Party she no longer feels that she is contributing as she once did. Her fear is that she will become like her parents who she has long regarded as insipid in their desire for quiet compliance with societal expectations. She contacts an old lover, risking the life she has built for reasons hard to justify. The guilt this elicits drives her to comply with a plan that she appears blind to.

Much of the book is written in measured yet evocative prose. It offers a picture of the difficulties faced by a young woman raised to be reticent yet determined to break away from such restrictions and stand up for herself. As she ages she changes, and she resents that this is happening. Her desire to be more like the self she aspires to plays out in the final section of the book where the pace changes to one of increasing tension.

I wondered at the continued obsession with Harry James who Lorna was with for just one night. Perhaps it is another case of curated memory, a comfort blanket she carried. Later in the book Lorna makes a return visit to Highgate where “She had enjoyed living […] ten years earlier”. She nurtures this thought, apparently forgetting that she had left because the flat she now views with nostalgia had become tarnished. It was earlier described as “not home, it was simply where she lived”.

There are a great many subjects explored within the pages of this book, many only briefly touched upon but nevertheless impacting Lorna’s life and those who influenced her. The Spanish Civil War is not a conflict I know much about so this added interest. The reactions within government to the child refugees is depressingly familiar.

I enjoyed the understated strength of the author’s writing which I first came across in his previous novel, Leaves. His characters are rounded, relatable yet never sepia tinted. Their imperfections enable a greater understanding of the scars created when life is lived.

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