Like a cactus you grow without bothering anyone

Me and You
by Niccolò Ammaniti
translated from Italian by Kylee Doust

Back in 2003 I reviewed Ammaniti’s bestselling novel I’m Not Scared for my student newspaper. I loved it, but I read a lot of great books that year and quickly forgot that particular one. When this novel came out and got positive reviews I recognised Ammaniti’s name but couldn’t place it. So it sat on my TBR for years before I finally picked it up – primarily because I wanted a short book to read.

This does what all good novellas do: keeps the story simple but emotionally powerful. It made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me catch my breath in shock. A misfit teenage boy narrator might be an old trope but Ammaniti does something original with it. And Lorenzo is not just any teenage misfit.

One February morning, 14-year-old Lorenzo packs for a skiing holiday with friends. He says goodbye to his family and then proceeds to hide in a rarely used cellar in the basement of his family’s apartment building. For a week.

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You see nothing but what you’re looking for

summer bookThe Summer Book
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal

This Scandinavian modern classic isn’t well known over here. I forget which book blogger alerted me to its existence but whoever you are, thank you! It is a thoroughly lovely book.

It’s the story of young Sophia (her age is never given exactly) and her grandmother over the course of a few summers spent at their family home on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The events are mostly small, such as Sophia’s first camping experience or going “gathering”. (Note: I’m not sure if the quotes I’ve chosen convey this, but I did find the writing style took some getting used to. It feels a little simplistic, as if a child is being addressed. But once used to it I enjoyed this style.)

“Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones…Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk.”

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This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

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We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.

The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.

To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”

Continue reading “We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us”

A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts

The Reason I JumpThe Reason I Jump: One boy’s voice from the silence of autism
by Naoki Higashida
translated from Japanese by K A Yoshida and David Mitchell

This was one of those random finds that make a great bookshop great. Not that it’s the best book ever, but it’s genuinely interesting and different and, despite being fairly new and translated by one of my favourite authors (plus his wife), I hadn’t heard of it. But it was on display in the non-fiction shelves and Mitchell’s name jumped out at me.

This is somewhere between a memoir and a factual study of autism. Higashida is autistic and at the time of writing was just 13 years old. He struggled with vocal communication, behaviour problems and even written communication, but had worked with his mother and a teacher to create an alphabet-grid system whereby he pointed at words or letters to be understood. (He did also learn to type on a computer and started a blog, so this book isn’t entirely miraculous.) With this book he found a way to explain his experience of autism that was fresh and new to parents and other adults who have regular contact with autistic children. It’s written in the form of questions and answers, with a few very short stories dropped in. There’s some lovely sections about how important nature is to Higashida, partly because it places no demands on him.

“Why do people with autism often cup their ears? Is it when there’s a lot of noise?

…The problem here is that you don’t understand how these noises affect us. It’s not quite that the noises grate on our nerves. It’s more to do with a fear that if we keep listening, we’ll lose all sense of where we are. At times like these, it feels as if the ground is shaking and the landscape around us starts coming to get us, and it’s absolutely terrifying. So cupping our ears is a measure we take to protect ourselves, and get back our grip on where we are.”

For many readers, Higashida’s words were a true breakthrough in their understanding of their own autistic child, and the book was a minor hit in his native Japan. One of those readers was Yoshida, and she immediately started to translate the book so that she could share it, initially with her husband and friends in Ireland, and then, once Mitchell had done some polishing and written an introduction, they published it to reach a much wider audience. There has apparently been some controversy about how much Mitchell polished, with some readers saying this doesn’t sound like a child’s writing. I must say I wholly disagree. Higashida sounds if anything surprisingly typical for his age – presumptive, repetitive and a little self-obsessed, thinking he’s learned to see the wider world but not really anywhere close to that yet.

I don’t mean to sound unkind. This is a very interesting and readable book about a condition that is incredibly difficult to understand. While nothing Higashida has to say was totally revelatory for me and he presumes to speak for all children with autism as if his own experience is universal, I’m really glad I have read it and can definitely see how valuable it could be to anyone who deals with autism. But let’s face it, Mitchell’s introduction is the best bit.

“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away. Explaining you’re hungry or tired is now as beyond your powers as a chat with a friend… Now imagine that after you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out without notice. The chances are that you never knew this mind-editor existed but, now that he or she has gone, you realize too late how they allowed your mind to function for all these years. A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably.”

First published in Japanese in 2007.
This translation published 2013 by Sceptre.

Source: The Melton Bookshop.

I count all the stuff that might crash

Room

Room
by Emma Donoghue

This is one of those books that was everywhere when it came out and I got put off by all the coverage. Fast forward a couple of years and I finally succumbed! As expected, it was an easy-to-read, gripping story, but it was more psychologically interesting than I had expected.

The story is that of Jack, beginning on his 5th birthday, and is narrated by him. I found his voice irritating at first but it grew on me and it was certainly believable. Jack lives with his Ma in their Room and seems to live a simple, happy life with her. But fairly quickly you see that all is not simple or happy. They never leave Room, they are locked in and a mysterious man comes at night to visit Ma, while Jack hides in Wardrobe.

“Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?'”

This is clearly disturbing stuff, chilling even, and having the largely innocent narrator both adds to that and removes enough direct knowledge to make it readable. Had this been Ma’s account rather than Jack’s there would be more horrific details and negative emotions, whereas Jack just accepts the world his mother has built for him in their tiny space because he knows no different.

“How can TV be pictures of real things? I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls…all the shes and hes…there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right.”

The idea has been well thought through. It is, psychologically speaking, completely believable. Reading it I couldn’t help but think of those shocking news reports about people like Josef Fritzl and that certainly added a chill factor, knowing that this wasn’t a completely unthinkable product of Donoghue’s imagination.

There were certain details that stood out for me, even though they’re not the disturbing bits. The mother’s attitude to nudity is super relaxed, but then they live in one room, after all. Her efforts to provide education and exercise for her son with only TV, a handful of books and grocery packaging are impressive. Jack and his mother do, to some extent, turn to religion to help them cope. She believes in God but I got the impression her faith wasn’t all that strong before Room as the details she has told Jack are a bit vague. It could be his age that has magic confused with miracles but the fact he thought Jesus was only ever a baby like in the picture they have on their wall (from a cereal packet) suggests a lack of fleshing out the faith beyond prayers.

It is quite hard to discuss this book fully without spoilers. I can see how this would make for an interesting book group read. There is a…turning point just over halfway through. When I saw it approaching I didn’t think it would work, narratively speaking, but it actually made the novel much richer, for me at least. Those of you who have read the book will hopefully understand what I am getting at! What did you think?

Published 2010 by Picador.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best

Saplings
by Noel Streatfeild

This is one of those books that I wished didn’t have to end, though in a way I was glad that it did because it’s the tale of a downward spiral. It’s also a beautiful book physically, being my first (finally!) read from Persephone Books.

End paper gorgeousness

Streatfeild is famous for her children’s books, especially Ballet Shoes, but she also wrote books for adults, though they never sold as well. This may possibly be the pick of the bunch but Saplings is so wonderfully good that I am saddened it’s the only one of Streatfeild’s novels for adults currently in print.

It’s a clever, sharply observed book about children, family and war. The Wiltshires are a happy, comfortable middle-class family, with two parents, four children, a nanny and a governess, a home in London and holidays to the seaside. But from the first pages the potential cracks are there. The adults are worrying about the inevitability of war and whether London is a safe place for children. The father Alex worries that war will take him away from his family. The mother Lena worries that she will have to go with the children when all she wants is to be at Alex’s side. The baby of the family, four-year-old Tuesday, frets because the adults are clearly worried, while 11-year-old Laurel mixes together war-time fears with more mundane worries about school:

“She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best. As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions…It didn’t matter being the plain one at home, people were used to it. If only she had managed to be super at something, then she could have gone to the Abbey School carrying her ability like a screen.”

The story follows the family from summer 1939 until summer 1944, such a short time but of course one of huge change for Britain as a whole. Streatfeild never tries to extrapolate the wider changes going on, she simply illustrates them through the Wiltshires and their extended family and friends. Things do not just suddenly fall apart, the descent from happiness is gradual. Some of it is unavoidable – evacuating the children to their grandparents’ house and then to boarding school, for their own safety. But a lot of what happens is far more subtle. Things aren’t said that should be, expressions are misunderstood, situations are mishandled. It is a heartbreaking study of avoidable unhappiness. And I thought this passage a very good description of a panic attack:

“He saw the attacks as if they had shape. Huge, black and soft, ready to fall on him…First he felt a tenseness in his diaphragm, which got steadily worse til he was hard in front, as if he were made of wood. Then he had a sinking sensation. The people around him were still there but on a different level, beyond reach…he had to get away alone and let the attack reach its climax. Then everything swam before his eyes, his heart beat quicker and quicker, there was thumping in his ears…”

The prose in insightful rather than poetic but once I realised that the slightly irritating idyll of family life at the start of the story was both part-facade and about to break apart anyway, I was carried along by the momentum of the story. Streatfeild does not keep surprises or mysteries up her sleeve, the narration is open in a way the Wiltshire family never can be. If anything this lesson may be repeated a little too often, but it is such a realistic one, touching on both the stoicism of wartime and the very English habit of keeping one’s emotions to oneself. She does allow herself a few characters who know the children well enough, or are just observant enough, to see what other adults don’t, but the wartime setting keeps these saviours away for long periods.

And without wishing to give anything away, everything is not alright in the end. Bad things have happened and those who are in a good or safe place know that it may not last. This was, after all, published while the war was still going on, and after several years of “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” optimism had faded, even when things were finally going well for the Allies. But also, the two oldest children, Laurel and Tony, have grown up over the course of the story and are 16 and almost 15 at the novel’s close, so they are seeing the world differently in more ways than one.

This is a story full of heart, and completely on the children’s side. Even the best of the adult characters gets thing wrong from the children’s perspective, and Streatfeild shows how a thoughtless word or imagined slight can lead to months of real misery. I wanted so badly for things to suddenly be all good, but of course life isn’t like that.

I chose this book after reading Liz’s review and it was bought for me by my very loveliest friend H who took me on a special trip to Persephone Books a few months ago. Thanks to both of them!

First published 1945 by Collins.
Published by Persephone Books in 2000.

I am merely bored, not a defiant brat

The Chocolate Money
by Ashley Prentice Norton

Does a compelling story outweigh all the other elements of a book being less than compelling? For me, no, but for a lot of other people I suspect it would. So I recommend you keep that in mind while reading my not-so-glowing opinions below.

I was sent this book unsolicited but the premise was vague enough and the straplines on the cover intriguing enough that I gave it a chance. After this I am definitely going back to books I have bought for myself for a while.

The story is that of Bettina, raised by her single-parent chocolate heiress mother Babs. Babs is a slightly brattish partier who loves her daughter but isn’t going to change her life for her. We follow Bettina from the age of 10 to 16 (plus a brief flash forward at the end), dipping into her life at times that I think were supposed to have been picked out for their significance (there is a slightly heavy handed mention of Bettina’s class assignments for an English teacher including her writing about many of the events from the start of the book). The problem is that, while they might be significant (but not out of the ordinary) for the average kid, from a story about a millionaire I sort-of expect more. Or at least different.

Let’s take those cover straplines that I find completely misleading. First, “When you have everything, trust no-one”. That implies a thriller, or at least lots of betrayal and distrust. As far as I can tell the one doing most of the betraying in this book is Bettina. She doesn’t make friends. Though she wants to, she picks the wrong role models and then blames it all on her mother when it goes wrong. And that is the sort of book this is, it’s about a tween/teen’s privileged but oh-so-traumatic life. Not my cup of tea.

And the other strapline? “An adorable child. A phenomenal fortune. A mother like no other.” I did not find Bettina adorable. As far as I can tell none of the other characters did so why should I? The fortune bit is true but Bettina seems strangely clueless about spending it. For instance, when she arrives at boarding school with one small duffel of clothes and sees that all the other girls brought bedding and other home comforts why doesn’t she call some expensive shop in Boston or New York and get a bunch of stuff delivered? It makes no sense.

As for her mother, I felt a lot of the time that I was supposed to be disapproving of Babs and yes, she’s not the ideal mother figure but she’s not that bad either. She isn’t absent, she includes Bettina in her life despite her having a full-time nanny. There is one occasion when she slaps Bettina across the cheek that Bettina is still obsessing about years later, suggesting it was a one-off. And there is one scene when Bettina gets drunk when she’s only 12, which I think was supposed to be shocking, but she does it at a big party at her house so help is immediately at hand and we later learn that afterward her mother teaches her about drinking alcohol. How many millionaire kids have far far worse stories to tell?

Babs does talk coarsely, that is true. I am all in favour of talking to children about sex and relationships but minus the personal element that Babs favours. Also, her refusal to tell Bettina who her father is doesn’t strike me as unreasonable and felt a lot like a contrivance to generate a guessing game for the reader.

Plot holes aside (and there’s a few – she hero worships her mother so why does she want to “escape” her? who does she stay with in Paris every summer?), I did find the story drew me in. Certainly, the middle section, where Bettina is at boarding school, kept me reading late at night and first thing in the morning. It’s an easy writing style and I have always liked school-based/coming-of-age plots. Plus this section had a decent range of characters with different agendas.

I guess my problem is that the writing had nothing going for it other than ease of absorption. It didn’t feel like an authentic child’s voice at all but it wasn’t a knowledgeable “future me looking back” angle either. It does that thing that annoys me of detailing clothes and make-up minutely, but it doesn’t do this consistently, in fact mostly only for Babs. It’s a first-person narration, so shouldn’t Bettina notice everyone in the same way? At least to compare them with her mother?

I struggled to pick out any stand-out quotes so I will just give you the opening line, which is a reasonable example of the whole flavour of the book:

“The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.”

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

It was only a series of feelings

I'm the King of the Castle

I’m the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill

I think I may have left it a little too long to write this review because I was struggling to think of coherent things to say. Which is not to disparage the book. I really enjoyed it. I had just fried my brain a little with too much stuff.

This is the story of a fight for supremacy between two 10–11 year old boys. Hill perfectly captures how to them it is of utmost importance, while to their parents there is nothing of import going on. Edmund Hooper lives quietly with his father in their big old family home. He is dismayed when his father employs a new live-in housekeeper, Mrs Kingshaw, who brings her son Charles along. He is even more dismayed when it quickly becomes apparent that Mrs Kingshaw is as much a candidate for second wife as she is housekeeper. Her son is equally dismayed by this idea, partly due to jealousy of his mother’s time, but primarily due to the increasing possibility that he will spend his entire life being bullied by Hooper.

The style is slightly odd and stilted, which I suppose you could say reflects the awkwardness and distance between all these characters who ought to be intimately linked. Kingshaw thinks at one point:

“He wanted to say I’ve come here and I don’t like it [but] I’ve got to stay here [so] why can’t we make the best of things? He was willing to put himself out, he would even, just at this moment, have said he would do whatever Hooper wanted, would acknowledge him as a master of his own territory. But he couldn’t put any of it into words, not even to himself, it was only a series of feelings, overlapping one another like small waves. He was confused.”

The relationship between the boys is cleverly created. Physically they are approximate equals but Hooper has confidence and the home territory, giving him the advantage. He terrorises his prey by subtly observing Kingshaw’s many fears and playing on them. Hooper is also the cleverer of the two, knowing just how to behave in front of their parents so that they suspect nothing. Kingshaw is not a sweet innocent, though. When he gets a chance to have the upper hand he takes it, usually.

There are moments of genuine childish play in the middle of it all that give you hope that the parents will be right after all, that two boys of the same age will always become friends if thrown together. But almost as soon as these moments begin, the seeds of doubt are being sown, as the boys size one another up.

On an aside, I bought the really quite beautiful Penguin Decades edition, with cover art by Zandra Rhodes. I am such a sucker for pretty books.

First published 1970 by Hamish Hamilton.

She thought she’d left her past behind

In Her Shadow
by Louise Douglas

I was sent this book on spec by the publisher, I’m guessing partly because it’s set in Bristol, or at least half of it is. But I must admit that I wasn’t entirely won over.

The premise sounded a bit woolly and to be honest, it was. Highly strung museum worker Hannah Brown has never get over the death of her best friend Ellen when they were 18, especially because she feels that she had betrayed her friend in some mysterious way. What appears to be a sighting of Ellen sparks off a long-drawn-out breakdown, or almost-breakdown, told in alternating chapters to the story of her childhood friendship with Ellen.

The characters are interesting and varied. As well as mousey matter-of-fact Hannah and exuberant arty Ellen there’s Ellen’s brooding, troubled father and Hannah’s sort-of-foster-brother Jago who is a gentle salt-of-the-earth type.

And there is quite a lot going on. In her youth Hannah nurtured an obsessive fixation on Ellen’s father, turning a blind eye to his failures as a father to her best friend. She also got pretty jealous over both Jago and Ellen. In the current day Hannah has a fixation on her co-worker John who is married, though not happily. And she’s having a meltdown.

Which all sounds like it could have been gripping. But somehow…it wasn’t. It was easy enough to read but there were no stand-out passages. The Bristol setting if anything annoyed me because it was slightly clunky, name-checking streets and locations constantly, rather than using more subtle descriptions that Bristolians would recognise anyway.

The Cornish setting was better, combining the romantic wild landscape and the mystery of a big rich house (Ellen’s) and the starker reality of working-class Britain in what I think was the 1970s and 1980s. Douglas showed some love for this setting, subtly dropping in local detail the way I would have liked her to in the Bristol sections.

The climactic reveal of the betrayal was actually better than I had expected, and made me dislike Hannah where up to then I had been on her side. I know the moment itself could be written off as a youthful mistake but she has spent years (16 or 17, I think) doing nothing to right the wrong.

There was some gothic, melodramatic potential for this novel but for me it didn’t deliver.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.