Book Review: The Life of Almost

“how do you tell, when you come from a storied landscape, what is alive and what is dead? What is really there and what was only intended, presumed spoken into being? Can you tell?”

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaught, is the story of a storyteller. It is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the landscape presented as a living, breathing influence on residents whose hearts and histories are intricately bound to the place where they were made.

The storyteller is a young man named Almost Llewhellin. He begins by introducing his cast, the bulk of whom are wider family members, many of them dead. His story is populated by unhappy families, infidelities, cruel mothers and damaged children. It opens with Almost briefly escaping the confines of the home he shares with his brutal sister to find comfort by the sea.

Almost has mermaid friends who can shed their sea garb to explore the land and spy on its inhabitants. He is besotted with Seren, the adopted daughter of his wealthy benefactor, who treats him with disdain. Almost takes an apprenticeship with the local undertaker – there are detailed descriptions of how to prepare a body for burial. Attitudes towards and treatment of the dead are recurring themes.

“Death in life and life in death”

The story is of those who went before and who continue to shape the living. Almost comes to understand why each family member behaved as they did. There are the missing, the murdered, the mute who still exert influence. There are unexplained forces that could be used for good or evil.

Almost travels to London, tries to settle in Wiltshire, but is drawn back to Pembrokeshire and his tangled heritage. The puzzle of his links to each cast member is revealed, the reader invited to consider what truth may mean.

“To be sure closes doors”

The garb of the mermaids could be the vitality of young women, a lure that must then be shed to pacify their controlling men. The direction Almost chooses for himself could be a demonstration that even the most difficult start in life need not lead to perpetual anger – with the damage this can wreak.

Set in contemporary times, the narrative brought to mind Shakespearean soliloquies albeit peppered with Welsh vernacular. It took me some time to engage with the language and form which has a dream like quality and poetic repetition. There are numerous literary quotations and references, most of which I could not place.

I read about a third of the book – my copy is 160 pages – before becoming engrossed and wanting to know what happened next. The world conjured has a mythic quality, the story a dark beauty. Having finished, its impact lingers.

“Who am I? Did you make me, or am I really just so?”

Although dealing largely with death there is a playfulness in the telling, an invitation to accept possibilities and rise above expectations. For readers open to a story that may not be quite what it first seems, this is a beguiling, ultimately satisfying read.

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

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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.

Book Review: Amulet

amulet

Amulet, by Alison Thomas, is a fantasy adventure story aimed at pre-teen independent readers. Its protagonists are a brother and sister who climb down a well in their garden and discover an alternative land where men have been banished underground and the Land of Light is ruled by a family of unusually tall, pale skinned women. There are fierce flying wolves, a vegetarian dragon and a sunken city. Everyone speaks with a Welsh accent.

I didn’t fully tune into the book until I realised that the author was writing it as if written by the children themselves. Alternative chapters are penned by the girl, Megan, and her brother, Dion. The latter is autistic and his ‘corrections’ to the story that his sister is creating offer insight into the world from the perspective of a child on the spectrum.

Their story is of two journeys. Dion is taken through the air to the Land of Light where he explores a magical palace and is introduced to the ruling family who promise to explain why he too is pale skinned. His desire for information helps him to cope with the discomfort he feels at the change to his routine.

Megan enters the well separately and travels underground with her best friend Harriet, her grandfather and a band of small men. They are trying to reach Dion before his imminent birthday in order to rescue him from an unspecified danger.

Both journeys take the children through experiences which reflect the sorts of places parents take their offspring for holidays or days out. These are augmented with elements from stories they may have read or watched on TV. Transport involves vehicles of the sort found in theme parks; Megan’s group travel through a mine; refreshments are taken in a cafe that offers food the girls are unfamiliar with and therefore suspicious of; creatures emerge from wardrobes in strange bedrooms.

Within the palace doors lead to whichever room the person entering wishes to go, meaning they may only go somewhere they have already been and can therefore picture. This book seemed to be written in a similar way. The children wove their adventure around that which they knew.

Naturally both children wish to be the hero of the tale. There is bickering but also the admittance of care. I could picture them constructing the story together.

An unusual tale that gently explores family dynamics and the relationship between siblings when one has special needs. As an adult it is hard for me to know what a child would think of a story written as if by a child, whether this would help them to relate to the protagonists. The contributions by Dion could lead to useful discussions around how best to interact with an autistic peer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.