Everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk

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.

Holiday snaps

Last week Tim and I went on holiday to Pembrokeshire with some good friends and it was perfect. We had seaside, a pretty cottage to stay in, log fires, lots of board games to play and the random heatwave meant we had sunshine too, despite it being March.

The beaches were almost empty.

I revisited a place that had a profound effect on me when I was younger (17, I think. I read Frankenstein for my A level English while sat on the cliffs outside).

I fell in love with the fossa, an animal I had never even heard of before.

And I milked a goat. It only stood in the bucket once, despite my hideously long nails.
Kate milks a goat

The rest of my photos were on film so they will follow soon. Keep an eye out on my Flickr photostream.

The right kind of quirky

by Joe Dunthorne

I have heard a lot about this book over the past couple of years, including some fascinating interviews with the author about his second book, released last year. So I was very pleased when a friend offered to lend me both book and film.

It’s the story of Oliver, a teenage boy in Swansea with an overactive imagination and slightly detached emotions who somehow managed to draw me in without being an entirely sympathetic character. The book is set in 1997 and 1998, making Oliver’s world not very far removed from my own teenage years. Like a lot of 15 year olds, he has a lot on his plate. There’s mock GCSEs, girls, staying on the right side of the school bullies, his dad’s depression and his mum’s flirtation with her hippy ex-boyfriend. It’s a lot for one year, even without Oliver’s slightly unusual coping methods.

His way of dealing school bullies? Become one himself. Not that he’s ever the leader, but he hangs around with the bullies and views himself as one of them, though others don’t see him as a bully, which is just one of the clues that he is not an altogether reliable narrator. Another clue is his early visit to a physiotherapist, which Oliver arranges so that he can tell his parents he is seeing a therapist, which he hopes will make them open up to him. When he realises he recognises the doctor from his neighbourhood he starts to discuss various neighbours and is perturbed to be told that all his invented theories about them are wrong. So he decides that the doctor must be a compulsive liar.

There are two girls in Oliver’s life – Zoe, also known as Fat, and Jordana, another of the group who hang out with the bullies. Zoe is the prime subject of their bullying but Oliver can’t help noticing her perfect skin and thinks about ways to help her become a stronger person and not a victim. Jordana caught Oliver’s eye with her love for pyromania but since her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour she is getting softer, which Oliver dislikes.

Oliver’s narration is pitch perfect. He is intelligent, with a love of words and meanings, but his skewed view of the world produces a lot of humour. He does not see the ridiculousness of some of the situations he creates for himself. His attempts to save his parents’ marriage are at times extreme, but the fact that he is trying so hard for them is undeniably sweet. And it’s reassuring to see that he is not as cold as he can sometimes appear.

I did not laugh out loud but I did find this funny and very real. I am definitely interested in Dunthorne’s second book.

As an aside, the film of Submarine, directed by the excellent Richard Ayoade, is also very good. Though some details have been changed and for some reason Ayoade has chosen to not give the action a firm setting in time, he captures the mood of the book perfectly. How unusual: a book and film adaptation of it where I rate both highly!

First published by Hamish Hamilton 2008.