Dec 18

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

What’s It About?

Maud Horsham, now in her eighties, is sliding inexorably into the foggy pit of dementia.  Her daughter, her carer and a stationery store worth of sticky notes are all that’s keeping her from completely forgetting who she is.  Unfortunately none of these things can shed light on where her best friend Elizabeth has gone.  What she does remember, with near perfect clarity, is that time after the second World War when her older sister, Sukey, vanished without a trace.  The novel alternates between Maud’s muddled search for Elizabeth and the truth behind what happened to Sukey.

Should I read it?

Probably not.  Emma Healey does a brilliant job in realising a woman suffering from dementia.  However, the story involving young Maud and the disappearance of her older sister isn’t particularly engaging and not much of a mystery.  These scenes set in the past in the end weigh down the book’s stronger elements.

Having said that, a reviewer I respect, David Hebblethwaite, unreservedly loved the novel and ranked it as his top book of the year.  So, it might be worth reading a sample to see if the novel gets under your skin just like it did with David.

Representative Paragraph

Helen is Maud’s daughter.

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things—I know that—but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wineglass starts to topple. Helen catches it.


There’s no doubt that Emma Healey has done a remarkable job in realising the thought process of a woman suffering from dementia.  And not just because this is her first novel.  The deftness of her prose, the way Healey is able to keep the reader engaged as Maud’s mind stumbles and drifts from sentence to sentence, is indicative of an author in control of her craft.

Not everyone agrees though.  A couple of reviewers have found issue with the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s disappearance, while others have noted that there’s something a little bit too literary, novelistic and unconvincing about Maud’s internal thoughts.

I don’t agree with these critiques.  Healey’s writing is more than just a series of well polished sentences and I never saw the whereabouts of Elizabeth as a mystery to be solved.  Rather the constant reminder that “Elizabeth Is Missing”, written on so many post it notes, plays into the novel’s key theme.  That memory is a strange and fragile thing; that we can remember the past with perfect clarity and yet completely forget the name of our daughter or best friend unless there’s someone or something to remind us.  As a portrayal of dementia it’s powerful, but as an exploration of memory it’s insightful and smart.  

My problem with the novel stems for those sections set in 1946 and the disappearance of Maud’s older sister.  Unlike the Elizabeth storyline, the question of where Sukey has gone, whether she’s run away with another man or has met a terrible fate, is most definitely framed as a mystery.  Unfortunately it’s not a very compelling one as there’s really only two suspects, Sukey’s husband Frank, who was the last person to see his wife alive, and Douglas, a lodger staying with Maud’s family who is besotted with her older sister.  It makes for dreary repetitive reading as guilt and suspicion, at least in the eyes of Young Maud, moves back and forth between the two men.  It’s also not helped by the fact that Young Maud doesn’t hold a candle to her older counterpart.  As a proto-Nancy Drew, she comes off as a little bland, a little beige.

If the novel was entirely about ageing Maud and her search for Elizabeth, if Healey had been able to sustain that voice for the length of the narrative, I would have fallen in love with Elizabeth Is Missing.  But as it stands, Healey sensitive portrayal of the tragedy that is dementia is undermined by a mystery plot that’s sadly dull and lacklustre.

Dec 13

Book Review: A Song For Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

What’s It About?

Tragedy hits the Bradley family when Issy, the youngest child of four, dies from a bout of meningitis. The Bradley’s are Mormons and the strict religious principles of their faith rub against the need to grieve. The novel alternates its point of view between the father and mother, Ian and Claire Bradley and their three surviving children, Zippy, Alma and Jacob.

Should I read it?

Yes.  Absolutely.  The death of Issy happens on-screen – she wakes up one morning with flu-like symptoms and gradually gets worse – and some will find these scenes difficult to read.  I found them upsetting, but the quality of the writing and emotional intensity won me over.

Representative Paragraph

This from Ian’s perspective:

It had been a special moment.  He’d felt the reassuring warmth of the Spirit in his heart as they sang the simple words in honour of the sacrifices of their pioneer forebears.  The bunting on the tall ships flapped applause at them, and although they’d sung quietly, Ian’s heart filled with gratitude as he looked at the children and Claire.  They probably looked like an ordinary family standing on the dockside.  But they weren’t, they aren’t.  They’re an Eternal family, sealed to each other by the power and authority of the priesthood forever and ever.  Like the pioneers, they’ll be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of their beliefs and, like the pioneers, they won’t falter.


My knowledge of Mormonism stems from two sources – Arthur Conan Doyles’ A Study in Scarlet (AKA the first Sherlock Holmes story) and the HBO Series’ Big Love.  While Conan Doyle taught me that Mormons are liars, kidnappers and murderers, the Big Love gave me an insight into polygamy and the Fundamentalist Mormons that still practice it.  Not exactly the most sympathetic of portrayals.

It’s likely that someone of the faith – assuming they read the book – is unlikely to be keen with Brays take on the religion. No longer a member of the Church she’s definitely critical with the way Mormon scripture and the community generally deals with death and grieving.  While some sadness is acceptable a good Mormon should feel joy that the person’s soul has been accepted into the Celestial Kingdom.  This is highlighted by Ian’s parents who, after hearing of the death of their granddaughter, decide not to come to the funeral as they feel their missionary work is more important.  Faith comes before family and there’s no room for true, debilitating grief.

And yet I never felt that Brays was sticking the boot in. The structural move of telling the story through the eyes of the Bradley family means we get a variety of perspectives on the faith. Claire, who converted so she could marry Ian, clearly and understandably is struggling to cope with the death of her daughter and what’s required of her as a good Mormon. Ian, on the other hand, while devastated by the loss, falls back on his faith. What unsettles him isn’t that God took his daughter at such a young age, but that his wife is incapable of seeing this is all part of God’s plan. And as a Bishop he’s bothered that his inability to help Claire will be viewed by the community as a failure.

The children’s perspective vary from the wide-eyed innocence of Jacob – heartbreakingly he believes he can resurrect his little sister – to Alma who is pissed that his faith and his father has put an end to a budding soccer career. In the middle their sister, Zippy, is trying to be a good Mormon though is struggling with her feelings toward a boy who is inching away from the faith.

All these perspectives draw a picture that while not particularly flattering never feels didactic. There’s not a single strawman to be seen, but rather beautifully rendered characters each dealing differently with the death of a loved one.  While the novel’s grief and intensity is raw and powerful, the true message here is that ultimately it’s the love of family that gives us the strength and the hope to continue on.

Dec 03

Book Review: House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

A militant religious group attempts to overthrow the Government of a small Caribbean Island.  The events of the novel are based on the attempted coup that took place in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990.

Should I read it?

Maybe.  I have mixed feelings.  Roffey has chosen to set the story on a fictional Caribbean Island, rather than provide a fictional account of the historical 1990 coup.  She did this due to fear of reprisal from the militant group that’s still active. Unfortunately this means that while the book is tense and gripping and provides an interesting post colonial critique on the Caribbean, there’s a big hole where a discussion of religion – in particular Islam – should be.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

If you’ve ever listened to the Shooting the Poo podcast or spoken to my mate Dave, you’ll know that I have a thing about Hollywood films based on true events.  No matter how well acted or directed the movie, I always experience a crushing sense of betrayal when I discover that the majority of the film, including a number of the pivotal scenes, were completely made-up.  You’d think I’d get over it and yet I keep asking myself the same question – why don’t these movies just tell the truth?*

The same question accompanied me as I read Monique Roffey’s Costa Book Award nominated novel, House of Ashes.  In this case, though, it’s not the lack of truth that’s the issue, if anything it’s Roffey’s fidelity to history that weighs the book down.

In the Author’s Note she tells us that her story, about a coup d’état on the fictional Caribbean Island of Sans Amen, may “bear some relation to an attempted coup which took place in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990.”  This is an understatement.  While the place names might have changed, and while characters like Ashes and Breeze and Aspasia Garland never existed, the historical beats – the year of the coup (1990), the takeover of the Government house and the island’s one television station, the number of militants that were involved (114), the length of the coup (6 days), the looting that happened in Port-au-Prince during the crisis and the beating and shooting of the Prime Minister for ordering the army to attack with full force – are all accurately portrayed in the novel.

This then raises the obvious question – why bother with an invented Caribbean island, why not just provide a historical, but fictional, account of the 1990 coup?

Danuta Kean provides the answer in her July 2014 interview with Monique Roffey for The Independent.  She observes that,

[Roffey’s] nerves are not those of a media newbie. Instead they reflect a writer playing with fire… She glances around as if we are being watched. I look around too. Nervousness is infectious. Her paranoia is reasonable. The religious group behind the 1990 uprising remains active. She has no desire to be a female Salman Rushdie.

Roffey then explains what prompted her to write the novel:

“I thought I was crazy to even contemplate writing about it,” she admits. A year was spent talking it over with her psychoanalyst. What pushed the idea off the couch and on to the page was a Commission of Inquiry held in 2011. Its report was delivered in March 2012 and after that the words flew out of her. “Writing wasn’t the hard part,” she says.

Faced with the conflicting need to bring attention to the 1990 coup, while also protecting herself and her family, I can understand why Roffey made the artistic decision to set her story in Sans Amen. It’s easy to argue that art should transcend issues of life and death.  History is littered with creative-types who’ve endangered their lives for their work.  But when faced with potential death threats, I can absolutely appreciate why common sense might prevail.

In anycase I doubt Roffey believes that she’s comprised her work by changing place names and inventing characters.  The focus of House of Ashes is the message rather than the historical truth.  As she states in her Author’s Note, “the events [detailed in the novel] may have much in common with coups d’état in other parts of the world, for example Latin America, Europe or Africa.  While on the decline, the coup remains a common form of power change in the world.”  And in line with that sentiment, the novel provides an interesting post-colonial critique, exploring the bad habits left over by colonial powers and the abuse of innocence, especially young, uneducated men living in poverty and looking for meaning and sense in their lives.

Beyond the themes of the novel, the narrative is tense, gripping and confronting.  Roffey does an excellent job in detailing the adrenalin charged horror of the first moments of the coup and the mix of boredom, fear and loss of dignity that settles in once the food runs out and a corner of the room becomes a latrine.

Throughout it all, though, the ghost of the 1990 coup lingers.  While it’s clear that the militants overthrowing the Robinson Government are religious, Roffey never uses the words Islam or Muslim to describe their faith.  The fact that Roffey mutes this element means that there’s this gaping hole in the novel that’s never adequately explored.  It’s sad because I would have loved to have seen Roffey apply her keen insight on the faith that motivated the militants.

Unlike a Hollywood film, Roffey wants to give us a true accounting of what happened in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990 and why.  However, genuine fear of reprisal means that what could have been a powerful and relevant novel never fully comes together.  It’s not an entirely hollow reading experience, but I do wish I lived in a time where art wasn’t sometimes required to distance itself from the truth.

* Yes, I know reality and history are messy and don’t lend themselves to the neat narrative beats of a movie.  But that’s what documentaries are for.

Nov 30

Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Last year, Kirstyn and I spoke very highly of Claire Messud’s sixth novel, The Woman Upstairs, on the Writer and The Critic podcast.  It’s a book that refuses to shy away from the raw, passionate emotions of the lead female character, Nora, after she’s betrayed by a close friend.  Her anger and despair is confronting and difficult.  For some, this emotional honesty cast Nora in a less than attractive light.  But in providing us with this unflinching portrayal of the “spurned” woman, Messud rejects the idea that women in fiction must always be dignified.

Now, contrast The Woman Upstairs with Nora Webster, Colm Toibin’s Costa Book Award nominated novel. Aside from the neat coincidence that both books feature a female protagonist named Nora, they also deal with strong emotions. In the case of Nora Webster that emotion is grief. However, Messud and Toibin’s approach couldn’t be further apart. As Ron Charles points out in his review of Nora Webster for the Washington Post, the book is restrained and never “succumb[s] to a single melodramatic or sentimental phrase”. He also delights in pointing out that “readers in search of flaming buildings and libidos should turn the page now.”  Charles concludes his laudatory review with the following observation:

 [The novel’s] barely undulating plot and exactingly modulated tone serve as a kind of guide to living without excess drama. Nora never breaks down; her children never lash out; none of them spray their grief on Twitter (they don’t even have a phone in the house). It’s a poignant reminder of a time when people responded to hardship with dignity instead of indignation.

Putting aside the silly quip about Twitter, it’s clear from Charles’ reading of Nora Webster that he sees her strength as a character in her dignified approach to grief.  Whether this is a gendered issue, whether Charles’ would change his view if the protagonist was a man, I can’t say with any certainty. It’s interesting, though, that his review of The Woman Upstairs acknowledges the books “rage” but qualifies it by saying,

It’s fantastically smart rage — anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers. When Nora complains about women like herself who dutifully tuck themselves away, she ricochets from Charlotte Bronte to Jean Rhys to Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Ellison. Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation.

In other words, it’s OK for a woman’s anger to be the engine of the novel as long as there’s an “intellectual fuel” driving it.  Charles subsequent comment that the novel transcends gender because Nora’s “pained howl” is relatable to both sexes is just another way of diluting Messud’s message by excusing and justifying raw emotion when it comes from a woman.

Going back to the actual subject of this review, I believe that Toibin – in line with Charles reading of the novel – goes out of his way to dampen and mitigate Nora Webster’s grief.  The novel begins with Nora coming to terms with the recent death of her husband Maurice.  In her mid-40s she now has to consider selling the holiday house and restarting her career to support herself and her four children, especially the two young boys, Donal and Conor, that live at home.

Toibin does the very clever thing of not telling the reader when the novel is set.  Those who live in Ireland or the UK and are aware of the politics of the period will quickly figure it out.  But ignorant Australian’s like myself may only recognise the year as 1969 when the moon landing is mentioned. Neil Armstrong’s lunar shenanigans aside, this is also the year “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland, an understated umbrella term for 29 years of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.

The moon landing and The Troubles are an ongoing presence in the novel, however they feel muted when compared to Nora’s practical need to support her children and her household. It’s only when her daughter, Aine, goes missing after a protest in Dublin that Nora focuses on The Troubles. And it’s only when her son Donal fears he’s going to miss the moon landing – they’re on holiday and Donal doesn’t have reliable access to a TV – that Nora acknowledge the significance of the event.

Like these major historical moments, Nora’s reaction to her husband’s death sometimes feels like an event that’s occurred to someone else.  It’s not to say that she didn’t love Maurice, the novel features a number of beautifully rendered passages that make clear that she misses him deeply.  But even these reminisces have a faded quality to them, an echo of mourning.  For example:

She could barely see ahead of her as she walked. It might have been easy to imagine that this was a place that belonged more to Maurice than to her. It was the world filled with absences. There was merely the hushed sound of the water and stray cries of seabirds flying close to the surface of the calm sea. She could make out the sun as it glowed through the curtain of haze. It was unlikely that Maurice was anywhere except buried in the graveyard where she had left him. But nonetheless the idea lingered that if he, or his spirit, was anywhere in the world, then he would be here.

Nora Webster is a woman who, without fuss or drama, carries her family on her shoulders. And we’re meant to admire her strength – the way she stands up to those who either get in her way or disrupt the lives of her children – and feel sympathy when she falters – her struggle with Donal’s introverted nature and stutter and her own inability to accept help from others.

But I kept waiting for the penny to drop, for that moment when Nora takes a moment to confront her grief.  I’m not talking about an extreme outburst where she rents her clothes and castigates God for taking her husband.  I accept that Nora isn’t that type of person.  But the fact that she seems to sidestep her emotions completely means that rather than admire her strength I felt sympathy for her damaged emotional state.   There’s this telling exchange between Nora and Josie about the death of Nora’s father.

[Josie said,] “I remember you and Catherine and Una after your father died, and it took you all much longer. It was a very sad house then, but children bounce back, that’s the great thing.”
“I don’t think they do. I never did,” Nora said. “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself…”

Toibin never really unpacks this glimpse into Nora’s psyche, never looks deeper at what she means when says that children never bounce back, but that they learn to hide their sadness.  Are we meant to take away from this that Nora is emotionally damaged, that her reaction to her husband and her inability to grieve isn’t a case of dignity over indignation, but instead a character study of a woman unable to her face her own grief?  Is her hallucination of Maurice toward the end of the novel an attempt by her psyche to deal with this?

If I was being charitable I’d argue that these are the very questions that Toibin wants us to consider.  But too much of the novel is skewed to Ron Charles’ reading, i.e. that the lack of sentimentality on Nora’s part is a study of dignity and not damage.  And if that’s the case then frankly I’d rather read books like The Woman Upstairs where woman are given an opportunity to express themselves and be unlikable as a result.  I can understand that some might be inspired by Nora Webster’s strength, her ability to compartmentalise for the sake of her family.  But I can’t help but feel that this novel would be far more powerful if Nora was allowed to truly feel.

Nov 26

So Who Should Have Won The Goldsmith Prize

As I announced in this post the winner of the Goldsmith Prize was Ali Smith for How To Be Both.  But did it deserve the 10,000 pounds?

Before I answer this momentous question, here’s a refresher of the books that were nominated:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape) – read but not reviewed
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin) – read but not reviewed

With all six novels under the reading belt, I can confidently say that the judges chose correctly.  How To Be Both, with its interlinked-you-can-read-them-in-any-order novellas, is not only innovative (though not necessarily original) it’s also an engaging and very human book.  It has a fantastical element which means it deserves genre attention… but probably won’t get it.  Not that it matters.  The book has now won two awards (including the Saltire Society Literary Award) and was nominated for the Man Booker and the Costa.  We won’t find out if it won the Costa until 2015, but frankly it’s easily the best book on that shortlist (I say this having now read the four nominees).

But as my reviews indicate, this is a damn good shortlist.  I think the Goldsmith Prize judges have done an excellent job in finding books that – as the website says – celebrate the qualities of creative daring while also being accessible and engaging.  Will Eaves’ book – most definitely not a novel – is the most experimental of the bunch, but it’s also amazingly readable.

Awards like the Goldsmith really excite me because they both challenge my own prejudices (thank you very much Mr Kingsnorth) while also showing that the novel, as an art form, is very much alive.

So well done to Ali Smith and the other nominees.  If you’re interested in smart, playful, slippery fiction you should give this shortlist a go.

Nov 25

Book Review: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman invasion of England.  It’s told through the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon farmer and freeman named Buccmaster.  Following the death of his wife and sons he hides in the forest looking to plot revenge against the French.  People who have read post-colonial fiction will find a number of the themes in this book very familiar.

Should I read it?

Yes, but as with Outline, I recommend you read a Kindle sample first.  The book is written in “shadow tongue” a language that Paul Kingsnorth developed over three years that mimics Old English.  This mean there’s bugger all punctuation, commons letters are missing and there’s more than a smattering of actual Old English.  As intimidating as that sounds, Kingsnorth has done a remarkable job in making the book accessible.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

A month ago I decided that I wasn’t going to bother with The Wake.

After skimming the opening pages, and coming across words like “blaec” and “micel” and “fugol”, I’d concluded that I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to deal with 100,000 words of pseudo Old English.  As a compromise, I decided I would spend one day reading the book so I could write the sort of review that says less about the novel and more about the reviewer’s failings.

But when the day came and I started reading the novel I discovered that, while the odd word tripped me up, there was a rhythm and tone to the book that was both accessible and engaging.  In spending three years developing his “shadow tongue” Paul Kingsnorth had achieved what he’d set out to do.  Mimic Old English but make it understandable for the modern reader.

Understandable is one thing, making a novel enjoyable is a completely different challenge.  The Wake could have been a dry account of what happened as a result of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  With the introduction of the belligerent and cantankerous Buccmaster, a “socman with three oxgangs” (a phrase repeated so often it’s a wonder I didn’t start muttering it in my sleep), we gain a personal insight into what the invasion meant for those being conquered.

The Battle of Hastings means very little to me as an Australian whose ancestry is Jewish.  We were never taught it at school and what little I do know about the Battle comes from the Doctor Who story The Time Meddler.  (A lovely 4-parter featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor.  Set in 1066, it involves Vikings and the introduction of the Meddling Monk, a rogue Time Lord who plans to change history by helping Harold defeat the Normans at Hastings).  It’s only in reading The Wake that I realised that the Battle was more than the sort of petty power struggle you’d expect from 11th Century Europe.  It was an act of colonialism.

Having read Hild earlier this year I was aware that Christianity already had a strong foothold in England.  From a spiritual perspective then, the Norman invasion reinforced a religious way of life that was already being practised.  However, Buccmaster remains a believer in the old Gods (the one’s now made famous by Marvel Studios).  It’s an interesting narrative choice by Kingsnorth because Buccmaster’s beliefs immediately separate him from the other towns-people, even before the invasion.  His vision symbolised by a bird, that something terrible is coming, is mostly ignored.  It’s not until a “hairy” comet appears in the sky, a genuine omen of change, that Buccmaster’s warnings gain some credibility.

Buccmaster’s beliefs are representative of the broader change that is coming.  While the Old Gods might have already been shown the door, it’s unlikely that the towns-people expected the sudden power shift that resulted in the Norman invasion.  Men who were once free, like Buccmaster, were now no better than the average peasant.  What’s worse, those in power not only looked different (they shaved their heads) but they didn’t speak the same language.  I was surprised to discover that it would be another three centuries before English – or at least a version of it – was again spoken at Court.

The loss of religion, the loss of language, the loss of culture.  Buccmaster’s story is familiar because of how aware we’ve become of the post-colonial narrative.  Symptomatic of this narrative is a focus on those being colonised and their struggle to keep their culture alive.  Buccmaster’s decision to hide in the forest, following the death of his wife and the burning down of his property, is as much a move to avoid the French as it is an attempt to maintain a connection with the old Gods who dwell in the fen.  Buccmaster’s wielding of his grandfather sword, apparently, forged by Wayland Smith, a legendary master blacksmith of Norse and Germanic mythology, is also symbolic of a culture under threat.

Given the post-colonial narrative it would have been easy for Kingsnorth to characterise Buccmaster as the one true hero of Anglo-Saxon culture.  But what becomes clear is that he’s a petty little man, not willing to accept any challenges to his authority.  As the novel progresses and he finds himself at odds with the men in his posse, his paranoia and jealousy flourish into outright madness.  In his delusions the old Gods turn their back on him, more inclined to support Hereward, a historical figure who fought to push back the Norman invaders.  As it happens both men failed to stop the inevitable.  In the case of Buccmaster, though, his own flaws as a person, as distinct from an Anglo-Saxon, were what eventually led to his demise.

It’s easy to see why this novel caught the eyes of both the judges for the Man Booker and Goldsmith Prize.  The novel provides a unique perspective, a post colonial narrative, on a moment in Western history that’s more remembered for when the pivotal battle occurred then the subsequent outcome of that battle.  Kingsnorth clever use of language, his shadow tongue, not only gives us a taste of Old English but reminds us that the way we speak, the way we dress, the Gods we believe in and the laws we follow are often a product of military invasion and cultural domination.

Nov 20

And The Winner of National Book Award For Best Novel Is….

… Phil Klay for Redeployment.

Very happy to be wrong about who would win the award.  My money was on Anthony Doerr.

As I stated in my review, the hype for Redeployment, which began in February 2014, is absolutely justified.  The collection features a number of powerful, confronting and at least one laugh out loud funny story that provide a unique perspective on the War in Iraq.  So congratulations to Phil Klay.  It’s also his first novel… so not a bad effort at all.

If you don’t trust my adoration of the book have a gander at Larry Nolen’s fine review.  It was his favourite on the shortlist.

Nov 20

Book Review: The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves

Because not every review can be 1,000 words long, I’m going to keep my remarks about The Absent Therapist nice and short.  Just like the novel.

Except it’s not really a novel, but a collection of disparate voices, a series of vignettes that jump from person to person.  It’s a bit like walking through a crowd of people, picking up fragments of what’s being discussed.  Sometimes you’ll circle back and pick up another snippet of the same conversation, but for the most part, all you’ll ever get is that one moment.

What’s remarkable about The Absent Therapist is how accessible it is.  While it’s obviously very experimental, and while there’s no story to take hold of, there’s a human and emotional quality to most of the vignettes that makes them immediately engaging, even if we only stay with them for a few minutes.  Take this as an example:

I don’t see the point of boxer shorts.  No support.  And the gap for your sticky wicket, why bother?  Too fiddly.  You end up groping about for the opening while your fellow man casts suspicious sideways glances.  And as my beloved put it, why poke your head out of the window when you can jump over the wall?

or this

Samuel and I heard this morning that the refugee camp in Tanzania containing our two sons, Amos and Zizwe, is to be closed.  The government is closing it and sending everyone in it back to Burundi, where we know that Amos and Zizwe will face great danger.  We think of them at this time, and we would ask that you say a silent prayer for them, too.

or this

If the vacuum were not so complete, the sound of every culture speeding by, from bacteria to late macro-sentient galactic entities, would be that of a cistern filling in the ears of the creator, the soft flare of emptiness nixed and life’s brief quelling of the silent storm, which rages on and on.

While these tonal shifts can, at times, be sudden and jarring, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his review, after awhile the prose just washes over you.  This doesn’t mean that The Absent Therapist is either disposable or just a blur of words.  Instead, as a glimpse into the human condition it’s a book best enjoyed as a meditative experience rather than picked apart.

Nov 19

And the Costa Book Award Finalists for 2014 have been announced

Apparently Costa makes fine coffee.  Also, apparently, they’re interested in promoting fine literature.  I can’t say much about their coffee because I don’t live in the UK, but I’m sure I’ll have a few things to say about the finalists of the First Novel and Novel awards.  Here are the shortlists for those two categories:

2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist

  • Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • Monique Roffey for House of Ashes (Simon and Schuster)
  • Ali Smith for How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colm Toibin for Nora Webster (Viking)

2014 Costa First Novel Award shortlist

  • Carys Bray for A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Mary Costello for Academy Street (Canongate)
  • Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing (Viking)
  • Simon Wroe for Chop Chop (Viking)

I’ve read the Mukherjee (which I liked) and the Smith (which I adored).  The novels by Toibin and Roffey are going to have to be extra special to knock the Smith off it’s very high pedestal.

I’m always excited by first novels, and from a quick skim of the four presented it looks like we have a varied bunch of books and voices.

Also, very nice to see the predominance of female writers on both lists.  Across all 20 books that were nominated the gender split was 50/50.  This is something that should be recognised and applauded.

So, roll on the books.  Except reviews to start appearing next week.

You can find the finalists in the other categories here.

Nov 18

Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

Faye flies to Greece to give a two-day writing class.  Each chapter is made up of the conversations she has on her trip.  It’s also a book where the narrator barely makes an impression and what’s discussed mostly centres on broken relationships and the struggle of family life.

Should I read it?

Yes, but you might want to read the Kindle Sample first.  It’s a novel with no plot, no character arc and no dramatic tension.  There’s very little direct dialogue so at times there’s a rambling quality to the conversations.  But at it’s best the writing is striking and visceral and strangely intimate.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

We first learn the name of Outline‘s narrator, Faye, about 84% into the novel (at least according to my Kindle).  It’s a blink it or miss it moment.  In fact, I didn’t register her name until I saw it cropping up in reviews of the book.

Cusk’s Goldsmith Prize nominated novel isn’t so much a story as it is a fragment of time in the life of the narrator.  Faye has traveled to Greece to instruct a two-day writing class.  When she arrives in Athens she teaches her students, has dinner with friends and spends time on a boat with a man – referred throughout the book as “my neighbor” – who she met on the plane during the flight over.  For Faye, there’s no character arc, no dramatic tension, no epiphanies or revelations.  She fades out of the story just liked she faded in, with barely a ripple.

And yet Faye is anything but a passive character.  While she might reveal very little of herself, she is able to exert influence on those around her.  Within minutes of meeting Faye, “my neighbor” on the plane is providing intimate details about his failed marriages.  The people she visits and dines with in Greece – both stranger and friend – are quick to unburden themselves of their life story.  The students in her class, asked by Faye to write a story about an animal, provide stories that are personal and confronting.

The most striking of these is Penelope’s story about Mimi the dog.  Penelope initially buys the puppy for her children.  But as often happens, the responsibility for the dog quickly changes hands from the children back to Penelope.  Unfortunately Mimi is a naughty dog, making messes all over the house and shredding the furniture.  Because she now feels obligated to care for the dog, Penelope grows to hate Mimi (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):.

“One day when she has been barking all afternoon and the children had refused to take her out, and I discovered her in the sitting room chewing to shreds a new cushion I had just bought while the children stared, unconcerned, at the television, I found myself seized by an uncontrollable fury that I hit her.  The children were deeply shocked and angry.  They threw themselves on Mimi to protect her from me; they looked at me as though I were a monster.  But if I had become a monster, it was Mimi, I believed, who had made me one.”

The relationship between Penelope and Mimi fractures even further to the point that the dog runs away after an incident with a cake.  (Trigger warning in regard to animal abuse):

“I crossed the kitchen and grabbed her by the collar.  In front of my sister, I yanked her off the counter and sent her scrambling to the floor, and I proceeded to beat her while she yelped and struggled.  The two of us fought, me panting and seeking to punch her as hard as I could, she writhing and yelping, until finally she succeeded in pulling her head free of the collar.  She ran out of the kitchen, her claws scrabbling and sliding on the tiled floor, and into the hall, where the front door still stood open, and then out into the street, where she tore off up the pavement and disappeared.”

Penelope paused and placed her fingers gentle and then probingly to her temples.

This is visceral, gut wrenching stuff and at its best the conversations in Outline are raw and honest with a confessional vibe.  That said, not all of them are these compelling or interesting, and there are times when the ramblings of the people she’s talking to becomes tedious.  Given that Faye is only exposed to people who are either educated or wealthy (or both) they smack of the torturous ennui of the upper middle class (yes, I stole that phrase from the internet).

What’s also odd, though not necessarily a deal-breaker, is that we never really get a sense of Greece or Athens from these conversations.  There are some brief mentions of the protests that occurred after the announcement of the austerity measures in Greece, but generally this book could have taken place anywhere.  Even the descriptions of the boat ride with “my neighbour” have a blandness about them.  It might be that Cusk is making a point about the universality of a certain type of story, one that deals with relationships.  It’s also possible she didn’t want to exoticise the location.

Because it eschews the conventions of the traditional novel, Outline is not going to be for everyone.  But when the writing is firing on all cylinders it is confronting and visceral and strangely intimate.  Rather than be about the erasure of woman in literature, the novel explores the empowerment of silence, of listening and of allowing others to be heard.

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