Book Review: Every Seventh Wave

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“To live on the edge of things, he thought. To meeting of two worlds, a liminal frontier, from known to unknown”

Every Seventh Wave, by Tom Vowler, tells the story of Hallam, a middle-aged man recently released from prison. He is living in the crumbling remains of his old family home on a sea-facing cliff in the far south-west of England. The tale opens with him watching a woman enter the water at dusk and disappear below the surface. He rushes to her aid, thereby setting off a series of events that will change the trajectory of his reclusive existence.

The woman, Anca, is a teenager from Romania. She claims to have no family or friends for Hallam to contact and appears in no hurry to leave the shelter he reluctantly offers her. Hallam’s life has been shadowed by loss, everyone he ever cared for leaving him. As the days pass he finds it hard not to daydream of a future that includes Anca as his willing companion.

Hallam’s backstory is revealed slowly, in snippets and then detail. His family moved to the house on the cliff when he was an adolescent, running it as a guest house. Hallam and his older brother, Blue, struggled to fit in with the local teenagers. Blue was always seeking adventure, unafraid to take risks and encouraging Hallam to follow him. Their parents’ marriage was not a happy one and the boys sought escape from the atmosphere this generated.

Another thread in the story is the horror of human trafficking. The reader will learn of the trade in people and how victims are coerced and kept compliant. The gangs running such operations understand how to remain beyond the powers of law enforcement. Amongst themselves disputes are resolved with pitiless violence.

The starkness and venerable power of the setting are evoked with skill and depth. Complexities of character are recognised, with the reader trusted to see beyond what is narrated. The writing is spare yet lyrical despite the harrowing subjects dealt with. The tension built into the denouement had me gasping for air.

It was this that made me appreciate more deeply the scenes where Anca faces the prospect of drowning. Each of the characters is, in a way, caught in the riptide of the life they have ended up with. The author is uncompromising in his portrayal of the consequences of choices made; the waves keep coming whatever breakers are built.

A disturbing yet satisfying tale that both appals with its harsh truths and engages the reader. An impressive and affecting story that I recommend.

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

Book Review: Dazzling the Gods

Dazzling the Gods, by Tom Vowler, is a collection of sixteen short stories. These are followed by Acknowledgements that offer a tantalising glimpse of plotlines that cry out to be expanded, which the author suggests is exactly where some of his tales have come from. He writes in rich, evocative prose and is not averse to commenting on his fellow writers and their craft. His observations on this, and the other themes he explores, are incisive.

In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, where the protagonist, who is an editor, contemplates the book he has been tasked with completing following the death of its author, he writes:

“What struck him most when he first read Pollex was that he could write, really write; so many books he edited were conceptually and structurally and tonally strong, would sell in significant number, but which neglected the music of a sentence, its ability to be affective rather than merely expository. Abstract instead of just literal. Pollex, he felt, troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession, or one’s child. He was a stylist who, until Lucca at any rate, knew when to get out of a sentence, knew when lyricism became onanism.”

Many of the stories are searing, their subjects’ suffering a backdrop that requires no further exposition. The reader is trusted to understand, perhaps to empathise. The plots play out how life goes on.

An Arrangement portrays a marriage where a husband’s illness has rendered him largely bedridden. They have agreed that the wife may occasionally seek solace elsewhere, the husband understanding her sacrifice and trying to be generous. Their pain is palpable as each tries to tamp down selfish needs. The suffering caused by chronic, debilitating illness has many aspects affecting all involved.

 Fly, Icarus, Fly opens with two young brothers who are with friends planning to steal birds’ eggs from nests, the casual cruelty to living creatures and boyish jostling for acceptance within a group all too real. When an accident puts paid to the afternoon’s wicked entertainment there remains the question of the cruelties inflicted on people, why the life of one creature is held sacrosanct when others are so thoughtlessly, or sometimes compassionately, terminated.

Certain of the stories are shocking, again without need for explication. Scene Forty-Seven is timely in out #metoo era – a director attempting to garner attention whatever the cost to his actors.

At the Musée dOrsay also explores the direction certain artists take, their need to shock to gain notice, and the complicity of those who support them. The privileged polish their vanities, their wish to be regarded as cultured, included in a rarefied world and at the cutting edge. This leads them to wax lyrical about grotesques, imagining them somehow worthy. It is their own standing they care about. In this story they take old friends along in an attempt to impress. Their hollowness is recognised yet set aside rather than being called out, the shocking truth denied in an attempt to avoid admitting connivance.

The Offspring Badge is a mix of mordant honesty and self-recriminatory poignancy. A recently divorced woman visits her first love in what appears to be his perfect, family home. Their history is significant given how their subsequent lives have played. Within the careful charade of politeness are the woman’s unspoken, caustic observations. Her lover has thrived while she has not. Her reason for visiting appears more flagellation than friendly curiosity.

Undertow is a story of survival. From an almost derelict house a man watches as a woman enters the sea and is dragged under. He rushes to her aid. There remains the unspoken question of why he did so when life remains harsh and challenging. Unlike many of the tales in the collection, this is one of hope rather than stoicism.

Short stories offer snapshots of lives and each of these are largely recognisable. There are elements of the surreal in places, such as the conclusion of Upgrade. Mostly though these tales are representative of man in his many inglorious attempts to shine. The redolent prose, imaginative portrayals and sympathetic rendering make them well worth reading.

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

Book Review: That Dark Remembered Day

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That Dark Remembered Day, by Tom Vowler, explores the impact on individual lives of trauma, family and blame.

A soldier returns from the Falklands War damaged by his experiences. Neither he nor his family know how to cope with the change in him, which culminates in an act of violence so brutal as to affect the entire town in which they live. The book presents the build up to this event from each of the characters points of view. The lasting effects on the son, now a father himself, are described with raw honesty. It is a study of ordinary people and the difficulties of facing up to tragedy when, with hindsight, there is a fear that at least a part could have been prevented had different actions been taken at the time.

The tale unfolds in time frames, allowing the reader to understand the mindsets of each of the characters before, during and after the pivotal day that changed their lives forever. This jumping around does not interrupt the flow, although I felt a little impatience as it took some time to get to the act itself. I was concerned that, with such a build up, I would be disappointed when all was revealed. I was not, and soon came to realise that this was not so important anyway. The story was always about what happened next, how those who were left struggled to cope with the memories, the guilt, and the blame.

At the heart of the tale is family, how each member sees the same, shared events differently. The relationships between partners, parents and children are presented unadorned. The family may be a unit but it is made up of individuals, each living their own lives and thinking their own thoughts. Expectations and disappointments that have rumbled unspoken beneath the surface explode into recriminations when the unit is fractured. Each looks at the other and finds fault.

The language of the book is intense but lyrical, understated yet candid. It is an unsettling read, not least because it is believable and the characters, so previously unremarkable, shattered by an extraordinary event, with repercussions living on to the next generation. Family may always be there for its members, but will not always offer what is needed.

The novel has depth and drama, suspense and psychological honesty. It is a page turner that I read in a day but will be considering for some time to come. The accomplished writing and captivating tale make it a book that I would recommend to all.

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