The baby eyed him with a frozen watchfulness

ghost childrenGhost Children
by Sue Townsend

Despite its author, this book is not a comedy. It is not remotely funny. It is a book fuelled by anger, which in retrospect was there in Townsend’s comedy too.

In some ways this is the book that My Name is Leon managed not to be; both look at unwanted or unplanned children, class, social services, neglect and adoption. Where Kit de Waal was all humanism and understanding, Sue Townsend is bleak and unforgiving. It’s a powerful, upsetting book railing against…life? Inequality?

The story follows Christopher Moore, a lonely middle-aged man who is still in love with his ex, Angela, who is now married to another man. 17 years earlier she had an abortion without telling him and it destroyed their relationship, but now he wants to hear the full story.

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In Africa, you feel primordial

leaving timeLeaving Time
by Jodi Picoult

I was eager to read this after sampling the prequel novella Larger Than Life. That told the story of Alice, an animal psychologist studying elephants in Africa. This novel picks up the story with Alice’s daughter Jenna.

Jenna is 13 and wants to find her mother, who went missing when she was 3. Her father is in an asylum and she now lives with her grandmother, who won’t talk about Alice. Jenna has secretly been investigating for a while, but now her summer vacation has arrived and she’s saved some money. She approaches two people for help: Serenity, a psychic, and Virgil, a private detective. Between them, they try to figure out what happened that night 10 years ago.

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Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

usUs
by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

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The air is like a solid entity

Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O’Farrell

This is a lovely book, a sort of family saga that only covers a month or so of time but manages to encompass whole lives lived and deftly investigates family relationships of all varieties.

In the summer of 1976, Britain was in the grip of a now-legendary heatwave and drought, and O’Farrell uses excerpts from the hastily introduced Drought Act 1976 to intersperse the action. The effects of the heat and water shortage are filtered through one family: the Riordans. Gretta knows her husband Robert is struggling a little to adapt to retirement but she doesn’t expect him to just go missing one day. Their three adult children hurry home to help with the search, but they bring with them their own baggage and conflicts.

“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor.”

The children are quite different but what they share is that the distinct effects of their childhood can be discerned in their adult selves. Middle child Michael Francis struggles to balance his desire to keep his wife and children happy with his unfulfilled ambition to move to America and be a rock star of the academic world, a desire that is driving his wife away from him. Youngest child Aoife is dyslexic but at a time before such things were known about, she has spent her life hiding her shame at her inability to read, which led to her being labelled fractious and difficult. Oldest child Monica spent the latter half of her childhood effectively raising Aoife, as their mother was often too tired or ill, and her adult life is defined by her wish not to be a mother.

“She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemise them into meaning…She can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm, through her fingers and out on to a page. She doesn’t know why this is. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and…decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed for ever.”

There are many secrets hiding in cupboards for the Riordan family, some of which are revealed early on in the novel (and therefore included in the previous paragraph), some of which are hinted at and then gradually revealed, while others come completely out of left field, or so it seems. This is partly the effect of the family’s (or at least the parents’) Catholicism, which puts pressure on them all in ways that perhaps wouldn’t have been true for a less religious family. But then again it is 1976, and some of the events recounted are years before that, so at least some of the social pressure is simply of its time. Being Catholic doesn’t just give them all a higher level of guilt, it also makes them different from the people around them so that there are times when they close ranks as a family. Gretta and Robert are both Irish but living in London, and it’s worth remembering that the IRA was at the height of its terrorist activities in the 1970s, so having an Irish connection was another way to be shunned by your English neighbours.

All of which makes this sound like quite a serious book, and certainly it deals with some serious issues, but it does so with warmth and love, not to mention humour. It was a joy to be in the Riordans’ company, even while they were all being incredibly frustrating in their various and different ways. It’s also a very atmospheric book, with a real sense of the heat of that summer and evocative descriptions of its various settings.

“Conversations with his mother can be confusing meanders through a forest of meaning in which nobody has a name and characters drop in and out without warning. You needed to get a toehold, just a slight grasp on your orientation, ascertain the identity of one dramatis persona and then, with any luck, the rest would fall into place.”

One thing that struck me was the realisation that the three adult children are all younger than me. They seem so sure that the paths of their lives are decided, that they are where they will stay, but they’re all in their 20s – so much could still change for them if they can only find their way. Again, this is partly a product of the times. People married and had children much younger then, and such commitments do have a tendency to make big life changes harder to make! But it’s also a bit clever on O’Farrell’s part, combining the uncertainties and the sureness of youth – the children know they are flawed, they fret about it and even try to change, but they are so certain they know themselves inside out when we, as readers, can see that they have plenty left to learn on that score.

As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be adding O’Farrell to my list of authors to buy in future.

Published 2013 by Tinder Press.

Source: Foyles Bookshop, Bristol.

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.

The silence that anaesthetises shame

The Light Between Oceans
by M L Stedman

This is a beautifully written account of people facing terrible circumstances and decisions. It didn’t move me the way I thought it would (or should) but it got me thinking about love, in all its forms. I can see why this debut novel has already attracted a lot of interest.

The story is set in Western Australia in the 1920s, primarily on a tiny island far off the coast occupied only by the lighthouse keeper and his family. After serving in World War I, Tom is looking for a quiet, useful life when he signs up to “the lights”. He expects to live out his days alone and has accepted that when, on shore leave in the small town of Partageuse, he meets Isabel. She is young, sparkling, headstrong and quick to fall in love.

Izzy has to persuade Tom that she can deal with the life on the island. Shore leave is every three years, with the only other contact with people being a quarterly supply boat. In emergencies a signal can be sent out but otherwise they are quite alone with the lighthouse, cottage, vegetable patch, chickens and goats, at the forefront of every weather front and surrounded by the tempestuous meeting point of two oceans. It is a tough life but Izzy seems up to the task.

The novel begins with the pivotal event before going back to fill in all these details. One day a boat washes up on the island containing a dead body and a crying baby. Izzy has just lost her third child in stillbirth and is out of her mind with grief. The baby appears like a gift from God. But they can’t possibly keep it and not report it, can they?

The story explores grief, truth, lies and choices, sometimes slightly too obviously but at other times very effectively: “History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on – protected by the silence that anaesthetises shame.”

It’s a hugely emotional story quietly told. I actually thought it was written by a man until I read Stedman’s bio because it is largely viewed from Tom’s perspective. He is stoic, dependable and brave – essentially a good man – where Izzy is impetuous, subject to mood swings and bears grudges. Perhaps this perspective prevented the story from becoming melodramatic or schmaltzy, which is some achievement considering the subject matter, but it also distanced me enough from events that I was not moved by things that I think should have moved me. I should have cried reading this story, or at least come close, but I did not. In fact at times I found it too slow, though it picked up a lot in the third act.

The characters are very well created and I was eager to know what would happen to them. I liked how Tom turned to his duty, becoming more efficient, more clean and tidy, when life got hard. But the best part was the setting. The descriptions of the sea and the weather are stunning: “There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger”. Beautiful.

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

Published 26 April 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Books.

Have you seen Harold Fry?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce

This is a very sweet novel about old age and regret and Englishness. It takes a simple but interesting idea and keeps it engaging throughout. The author’s inclusion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in the storyline was of course a gift to the publisher’s marketing department (as you may have started to notice) but do not be put off – it’s worth a chance.

Have you seen Harold Fry?

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and spends his days with his wife Maureen keeping boredom at bay, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie, telling him that she is dying of cancer. He goes out to post a reply and keeps on walking. He resolves to walk all the way from his home in Kingsbridge, South Devon, to Berwick Upon Tweed (so almost the whole length of England), having some idea that this is an act of faith that will save her life.

There are a few secrets at the heart of this story that are revealed slowly, with clues and partial memories dropped in between the story of Harold’s trek. Some I guessed and some I didn’t, but I don’t think it matters hugely either way; there is plenty enough story to keep you engaged even if you think you have figured the secrets out.

There are quite a few “issues” dealt with, including how it can be difficult to adapt to retirement, and how parents affect their child’s life, but the one that got to me the most was Harold and Maureen’s marriage. For 20 years they have lived at a polite distance, never really talking about what they want to say, to the point that when Harold starts his walk neither can understand the other. Maureen is bemused by the walk and the rules Harold has set himself (which change a few times anyway) and thinks that maybe Harold is doing it because he was once in love with Queenie. Harold thinks his wife will not miss him, that she will not be affected at all by his absence. During his walk, they both have time to think about the past, their marriage, what they once meant to each other and how things have changed. They both come to life, in their own ways, waking up from the monotony they had got stuck in.

The chapters alternate between Harold and Maureen, and they are both lovely characters, though both are also a little difficult and frosty at times. They are old-fashioned, in both good and bad ways. For instance, when a stranger confesses to Harold that he is cheating on his wife with a young man, Harold is appalled and repulsed but continues to listen politely.

There is a lot of detail about the landscape and route of Harold’s walk, sometimes lovingly admiring of England, sometimes less than complimentary, but this tends to reflect Harold’s mood mostly. He has realistic problems, mostly to do with his feet, and his perseverance in the face of pain is inspiring, though I couldn’t help but wonder at times if it was going to be worth it.

This book deals with some big issues in a quiet, understated way. It never gets gritty or deep into a subject, but it also doesn’t gloss over problems. A very sweet read.

This advance proof was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a review.

Published March 2012 by Transworld Publishers.

More chills than Hitchcock

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I can only imagine that everyone who has read this novel came away with the same dumbstruck combination of awe and horror. It is an absolutely terrifying book. The twists in the story rarely manage to surprise but they do keep it interesting and the narrative remains believable and human at all times.

For the three people in the world who don’t know, the story is told in the form of letters from a woman, Eva, to her husband, all talking about their son Kevin; a son who took a gun to school and killed several of his classmates, a son who was always chillingly distant, detached and unreachable, a son who manipulated his parents from a very young age. Eva always felt that he was evil, or at least capable of evil things, but was desperate for that not to be true and tries hard to rationalise Kevin’s actions as a consequence of her parenting.

The details of the horrific homicidal rampage are gradually eked out inbetween tales of Kevin as a baby, about Eva’s life before him; but most of all about her feelings as a mother who cannot connect with her child.

I am not always a fan of books that are quite this introspective and self-examining, but this book is utterly brilliant. I am torn between thinking that everyone should read this to understand a little more about how hard parenting can be and how huge an effect the tiniest decisions can have, and wanting to protect everyone I love from the awfulness of the book’s events and conclusions.

Published 2006 by Serpent’s Tail.
Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

UPDATE: I can highly recommend listening to the episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Lionel Shriver discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to July 2009.