Everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk

GoldGold
by Dan Rhodes

I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but I clearly did as it was on my birthday wishlist at the start of the year. Whoever recommended it, I must thank you, because this was just what I was looking for – an enjoyable, funny, page-turning read that was also emotionally engaging and well phrased.

This is a very British book, and also very much a side of Britain that I know well, so I felt immediately at home in the setting Rhodes had created, but that perhaps says as much about his skill as a writer as about my familiarity with small Welsh villages!

Miyuki has been visiting the same Welsh coastal village every January for years for her annual holiday. She rents the same cottage, eats the same terrible junk food and visits the same roster of local pubs. She knows a handful of locals by name (or nickname) and they in turn know her as the Japanese girl (though she’s not really). This year, a sudden creative urge from Miyuki threatens to make this her most eventful – and not in a good way – holiday yet.

“Over time, she began to sympathise with her interrogators. She came to the conclusion that if people wanted to talk to her about Japan then there was no reason they shouldn’t. She had grown to realise that everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk in one way or another. Veterinary assistants trying to relax in general company are tormented with interminable true stories of decrepit parrots, crippled badgers, and poodles with weeping sores; off-duty plumbers trying to wind down in pubs are pestered by fellow drinkers with extensive inquiries about float valves and stopcocks…”

Rhodes does a good job of being funny about everyday life – the boring bits, the secret bits but also the very serious bits – without ever being nasty. Tall Mr Hughes might tend to go on a bit about his latest topic of interest (on this holiday it’s alligators) but he’s clearly beloved by his drinking pals Short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw. Septic Barry might be a little over-sharing when it comes to his own business in septic tanks – and indeed he gave himself that nickname – but he’s also the local ladies’ man and Rhodes had me rooting for him where another author might have made him a comedy villain.

“Mr Edwards was a man of few words, and most of these were holy and mackerel. He could load the phrase in so many ways. Depending on his tone and his manner it could be a greeting, a valediction, an expression of surprise, of pleasure or dismay, an admonition, a congratulation, a remonstration, or even a comfort in a difficult time.”

Miyuki is a well drawn character. Quiet and reserved, she is nevertheless happy to chat to whoever sits next to her at the pub and even contribute to the Hughes Puw and Hughes pub quiz team. She likes to read a book a day on holiday so that before January is out she knows that she has averaged more than a book a month over the year. She walks the cliff tops, she drinks real ale and she takes pleasure in dropping her contact lenses on the woodburning stove at night to watch them shrivel up.

This book didn’t have me laughing out loud or rolling on the floor, and it didn’t change my life, but it was like a warm hug. Which was nice.

Published 2007 by Canongate.

Source: This was a present from my Mum.

The defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest

NW
by Zadie Smith

A couple of days after finishing this book I am still uncertain of my reaction to it. I don’t mean whether it was good or bad, exactly – I definitely enjoyed the read – but trying to dig deeper than that I am full of uncertainty.

The narrative slips between stream of consciousness, first and third person, and what I suppose you might call soundscape. This sounds like it would be hard to follow and it occasionally is, but for the most part the story is clear. Inasmuch as there is a single story, that is. I am still wrestling with that.

The novel follows three characters in turn, two of whom are much more closely linked than the third. All live in north-west London, in the NW postcode area, hence the title. This is an area I know a little, having friends there, so it was interesting to read a “native” (Smith is herself from NW) description of places such as Kilburn that I know as a frequent visitor.

NW seems preoccupied by wealth, class and the attitudes of people toward each other, both within and outside their social groups. It examines aspiration, ambition and the lack of those things. But it also looks at identity, how we see ourselves and how others see us and how those things rarely match up, even between partners or best friends.

“To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge…Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself…At other times…she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.”

These are some big ideas and it’s to Smith’s credit that it reads like a beautifully written story of modern life, not a philosophical treatise. Smith somehow even gets away with writing in dialect, which I usually hate. It’s sharply observed and occasionally very funny.

“Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already.”

The characters are wonderfully real, complex bundles of contradiction, with interesting flaws and believable back stories, most of which lead back to the same Willesden council estate. Certainly, for a novel preoccupied by ideas of class and self-improvement, there are few scenes of wealth, with the bulk of the story following those who struggle for money (and by that I mean the lower middle class style of money struggles as well as true hand-to-mouth difficulties). In fact, there were a couple of dinner party scenes that seemed so anti-middle-class that I actually cringed.

So the novel is not without fault. The stream of consciousness is perhaps too occasional, the book is divided into very short sections, speech is indicated in different ways in different places (quote marks, no quote marks, dashes, transcript) and there are a couple of complete breaks such as a chapter typeset in the shape of a tree, which between them smacked a little of trying to be literary. It’s also perhaps a little disconnected. I felt there needed to be a more even degree of overlap between the stories.

I haven’t let myself peek yet, but I hear this novel has had some controversial reviews in the press, so I’m now off to check what the Observer had to say… Any of you read this already? Managed to bag yourself an advance copy or rushed out on publication day to buy it? Did it meet your expectations?

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

Published September 2012 by Penguin.

Words on women of the world

Feminine Gospels
by Carol Ann Duffy

A lot of the poems in this collection by our esteemed Poet Laureate read like little short stories, which made them pleasingly accessible for someone like me who doesn’t read a whole lot of poetry.

The subject matter, as you might guess from the title, is women – the women of myth, of urban legend, of old wives tales – and womanhood, what that means. The tone ranges from meditations on love, beauty, identity to everyday rhythms and humour.

There’s “The Map-Woman” about a woman whose skin is a map of the town, from head to toe. There’s “Work” about a woman taking on increasingly tough jobs as she has more children to support, until she has a billion children and can no longer cope. There’s “Beautiful”, about some of history’s most famous women, from Helen of Troy to Princess Diana, drawing the parallels between their lives and the way they were treated.

I usually like love poems best and there are some of those here, but I think my favourite in this collection is “A Dreaming Week”, which uses repetition and clearer rhythm and rhyme than most of Duffy’s poems to create something that sounds really good spoken aloud. Its story, if it can be said to have one, is quite simply a person daydreaming/dreaming a week away. There’s idle playing with words, there’s evocative descriptions of bed and night-time.

I think I prefer Duffy’s most recent book, Rapture, but this is an excellent window into multiple characters/perspectives/ideas about femininity.

Published 2002 by Picador.