Book review – “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

This was my book club’s choice for last month. When I first read the blurb it was not what I expected from the title – I thought it would be about teenagers, which tells you a bit about where my head is at right now! But no, the blurb tells us that a young black woman in Philadelphia, twenty-five year old Emira Tucker, is out at a grocery store late one evening with the small girl she looks after when a fellow shopper raises her concerns with the in-store security guard. What is a young black woman, dressed as if she has just come from a party (which in fact she has), doing out at that hour with a fair-skinned white-haired toddler? She must be up to no good, the fellow shopper concludes, and the security guard concurs. The guard challenges her, rudely, and when she resists his challenge, he over-reacts and threatens to call the police. The whole incident is caught on mobile camera by another fellow shopper, thirty-something white male Kelley.

What none of the spectators or the other participants know is the background: Emira is the child’s babysitter (not ‘nanny’ because that would make her employment more formal than the child’s parents have so far allowed) and they have called her for help at this late hour because someone has thrown a brick through their window. The police have been called and Peter and Alix Chamberlain do not want their little girl, three year old Briar, to see the police officers in the house. So they have asked Emira to take Briar out. And the reason that a brick has been thrown through the Chamberlain’s window is that Peter, a television presenter, made a racist comment during a live broadcast. So, you can see where the story is going – layer upon layer of casual racism, the kind where people say “I’m not racist, but…”

The incident I have outlined above is what opens the novel. It ends fairly anti-climactically, actually, whereas from the blurb I half expected our heroine to be thrown into jail for a made-up crime she did not commit (a plot along the lines of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage). Instead, Emira calls Briar’s father, Peter, he of the on-screen racist remark, who arrives at the store promptly, claims Emira and the child, and the security guard calms down and everyone goes home. The woman who originally alerted the guard apologises, expecting, of course, absolution for her own racist preconceptions. How could she have known? Wasn’t she just being a conscientious good citizen? Kelley, the young man who filmed the whole scene, encourages Emira to alert the networks and sell her story. She doesn’t want to, however, she seems resigned to this level of everyday racism, and prefers a quieter life, claiming that she is quite cool with it all. Kelley emails her the video, just in case she changes her mind, deletes it from his own phone and they part company.

That is the incident over, on one level at least, except that it sets off a chain of events which will lead Emira through a series of dark and challenging times. She bumps into Kelley again, a few weeks later, on a train and the two start dating. Encouraged by Kelley, Emira begins to take a long hard look at her life, comparing herself to her friends, who all seem to be developing their careers, while she barely makes ends meet as an informal babysitter and part-time typist. A major preoccupation is that when she turns twenty-six, she will no longer be eligible for healthcare under her parents’ insurance policy, so she needs to find a way of earning enough money to afford her own cover.

Meanwhile, Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, has decided that Emira is essential to her; Briar adores her and Emira seems to fill in some of the gaps in her own parenting. Plus, having Emira on hand means that she can pursue her own career as a lifestyle blogger and consultant. Alix determines to befriend Emira, to make her a part of their family, using the incentive of a more formal employment contract as the carrot. There is the unmistakeable suggestion that Alix wishes to ‘own’ Emira, and that her own success is on the back of her babysitter. Alix grows increasingly paranoid about losing Emira and takes ever more desperate steps to retain her.

One key aspect of the story is slightly far-fetched (I won’t reveal it) but the whole plot turns on it really, so you have to just suspend disbelief. Doing so is worth it because the author explores deftly and cleverly, a whole series of issues and themes, not just around race, but also the nature of privilege more generally, and autonomy. Who has the power to make the decisions? Which of us really has choice? This could have been a really straightforward novel about racism, but the author makes it about much more than that.

I and my fellow readers in my book club thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

The end is nigh!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I was all set last week to post a couple of blogs, including a book review of Kiley Reid’s international bestseller Such A Fun Age, a super book which I devoured in a few days. There was no devouring of anything last week, however, as ‘life got in the way’ somewhat. I expect life will get a bit more ‘in the way’ in the coming weeks as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. It doesn’t look as if we’ll be packing for holidays any time soon but I can already feel a return to my pre-pandemic busy-ness.

Yesterday, the first anniversary of the start of lockdown in the UK, felt like a sombre and reflective moment for the whole country and there was much radio and television time devoted to thinking about what we have lost in these last twelve months. Interestingly, there was also a lot of space given to people talking about what we have gained – a new sense of perspective and appreciation of others, a re-calibration of wants and needs, a desire to live our lives in a different way. My daughter said at the dinner table the other day that she “misses” the lockdown from last spring, when, for her, the pressure of school was taken away, when we started doing more together as a family, and there was time to walk and appreciate nature more. Plus the weather was lovely, which helped! I know what she means. For me, the days have not been ‘lazy’ by any means, but I will miss all that white space in my diary.

I had my Covid vaccination last week, for which I feel enormous gratitude to scientific endeavour. The ease and smoothness of the process from booking to queuing, to the actual procedure was very humbling and the one bright spot in what has been an otherwise very bleak Covid picture in the UK. I was also deeply aware of my white, western privilege in getting the vaccination and only wish it was being rolled out in other parts of the world that need it just as much as we do. The vaccination left me feeling completely wiped out for a couple of days and my arm is still very sore but it was a small price to pay.

So, that’s my excuse for not posting for over a week. The good thing about being a blogger is that you don’t HAVE to do it (unless it’s also your main income source, of course). I don’t need another thing is my life that I HAVE to do frankly! But I do miss it when I don’t post. The last year has been patchy for me in terms of frequency of posting and I set out at the beginning of this year to be much more disciplined, particularly around my social media (which is a Disaster!), so I am disappointed to have let a week slip by.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

I love writing, and I particularly love writing my book reviews; the very act of it, especially when I’m sharing my passion about something I’ve read, is a cathartic and joyful exercise and a little corner of creativity in the midst of life’s more prosaic activity.

So, hello again fellow bloggers and readers, I missed you last week! Let me ask, how do you keep up with the demands of regular blogging? Some of you write fantastically in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces and I am in awe!

Book review – “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier

Last week I posted my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the February book in my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was something that had been adapted for screen and I had been torn between that book and Rebecca. This was famously adapted by Hitchcock, of course, in 1940 (starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) and now there is a new production on Netflix, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I watched the film (the 2011 version, not the television series) first. With Rebecca, however, I did it the other way around and I am so glad to have done so. It is such an extraordinary novel and the impact of the plot and the narrative are thrilling – I would have so missed out on so much if I had known the ending.

Rebecca opens with the well-known words “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” A short chapter, where our main female protagonist (whom we only ever know as Mrs De Winter) is recounting a dream she had of her first time visiting her husband’s family estate. She recalls, in particular, the long drive through the park, the plants and trees, which seem hostile, almost monstrous, and the setting of the house itself, in an imposing position high above the rocky Cornwall coast. It is described less in terms of realism and more in terms of how it made her feel. But our protagonist’s dream is very much past tense. We know that she is no longer there.

The second chapter goes back a number of years to the Hotel Cote D’Azur in Monte Carlo where Mrs De Winter (at this point a young spinster, though we never know her name, she is without her own identity) is serving as a ‘ladies companion’ to wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper, a vulgar, bully who shows complete contempt for her young employee.

Mrs Van Hopper hears that English aristocrat Maxim De Winter is in residence and is eager to renew her acquaintance with him. De Winter is recently widowed and Mrs Van Hopper explains that he has never got over his wife’s death. Mrs Van Hopper is suddenly taken ill which means that her companion finds herself with some spare time alone. Mr De Winter notices her one day and invites her to lunch. They embark on a whirlwind affair while Mrs Van Hopper convalesces, which ends with Maxim proposing marriage when it appears that his lover will be whisked off to New York with her employer. They marry, quickly and quietly while Mrs Van Hopper is nothing short of appalled at the match and promises her young friend that she will live to regret the decision.

The new Mrs De Winter returns to Cornwall with her husband, to his ancestral home, Manderley.  She is introduced into a household where the influence, of her predecessor, Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter is everywhere. Her memory is kept alive by the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, a cool and sinister figure, whom we come to learn was devoted to her mistress, having served her since she was a child. The new Mrs De Winter finds Rebecca’s presence everywhere, from her clothing in the boot room, to her notepaper in the morning room, and the expectations of the staff at Manderley who expect the new Mrs De Winter to simply pick up things as they were left, whether that be menus, social events or flowers in the house.

Although it is painful to her, Mrs De Winter becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out more about Rebecca, whilst also loathing how she continues to dominate the domestic sphere, the society, even her marriage. It is as if she is picking at a scab. We learn that Rebecca, an experienced sailor, drowned in her small boat. Mrs De Winter comes upon Rebecca’s small cottage on the beach, still filled with all her things and her discoveries and questions cause tension in her relationship with her husband. She comes to the conclusion that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca, that Mrs Danvers is scheming somehow to get rid of her and that she can never match her predecessor for beauty, accomplishment, charm or status. The myth of Rebecca takes over her completely.

I cannot say any more without giving away too much. Each new revelation and plot twist in the novel is delivered with jaw-dropping skill. This book had me reading far too much, far too late at night because I couldn’t put it down. It is also an emotional roller-coaster as the reader is forced to confront and re-confront assumptions, prejudices, expectations and moral values. It is a book that will leave you questioning what is right and wrong, who you are rooting for and who is the baddie. It’s an extremely complex and challenging novel that is far more than just its story, but what a story! British author Clare Mackintosh is quoted on the book jacket saying “It’s the book every writer wishes they’d written” and I could not agree more.

Highly recommended. And now for the film!

Book review – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré

Oh my goodness, Rebecca is taking some very strange and unexpected turns – I wish I could write about them here but that would be unkind to anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film. I’m not sure how I feel about the plot twists, at this point, but I’m like a junkie in my reading of it, just dying to get the next ‘fix’! But back to something much more sober – Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, a book that has been described as Le Carré’s “masterpiece”, and which you will recall was my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for February. A Cold War novel for a cold month!

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the first in Le Carré’s so-called Karla trilogy in which he pits our hero, retired senior Secret Service operator and later chief, George Smiley, against his Russian opposite number and great nemesis, codenamed Karla. The novel opens at a minor public boys school to which former spy Jim Prideaux has been retired following a botched operation in Czechoslovakia where he was shot, captured and tortured by the Soviets.

The head of the Secret Service in London, known as Control, long suspected there was a mole in the outfit and shared some of his suspicions with Prideaux – the fateful mission to Czechoslovakia was partly intended to try and flush out the mole; Control has whittled down the candidates to a handful of the key operators in the Service whom he names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and so on.

Control dies of a heart attack, but more senior officials have learned of his suspicions and call in George Smiley from his rather bleak life of retirement to investigate secretly. Smiley has his own troubles; his wife has left him and it turns out she was having an affair with one of Smiley’s former colleagues (the inference is that she was lively and vivacious while George has become plump, tired and dull). Smiley is given support from an insider, a trusted current employee, Peter Guillam, to help him pursue the investigation that Control was never able to finish and they set up an undercover base operating out of a small hotel.

What ensues is a cat and mouse chase where Smiley gradually explores the motives and capacities of each of the suspects – Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhaze, George Haydon and Roy Bland. The investigation has to be conducted covertly to ensure none of the individuals learns of the suspicion surrounding the work of the Service. For Smiley, the investigation involves not only figuring out methods to get the information he needs and to reach the people who may be able to shed light on the murky inner workings of the organisation, but a sometimes painful reliving of past events which have brought him to his present state of lonely and purposeless existence.

The investigation also, of course, has the potential to breathe new life into Smiley and restore him to a position of status and importance. If he succeeds.

The plot of this novel is sometimes complex and difficult to follow – you really have to pay attention! I found it slow to start with, but then I got very sucked in and found it extremely compelling. The theme of last month’s reading challenge was something that has been adapted for screen and I had watched the film before reading the book. This was the wrong way around! As I was reading, the characters in my mind were the actors from the film and when these actors are Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke, to name but a few, it is hard to forget them. The characters in the film did not quite match up with the way they were portrayed in the book, which was frustrating. Also, some elements of the plot were changed for the film (including the ending, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexuality!), presumably to make it a bit easier to squeeze into two hours, so that was confusing for me.

However, all in all, a very good read. In a previous life I worked for the Civil Service in Whitehall (nothing as exciting as diplomacy or intelligence, I’m afraid), and the book caused me to reminisce about those days a little. The atmosphere created in the book was one I recognised even though it was set over twenty years before my time (things don’t change very fast).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first in a trilogy, and there are many other Le Carré novels that feature George Smiley and many more screen adaptations to explore. Having previously not felt too interested in Le Carré I have to say that this book has whetted my appetite!

Recommended.

Facebook reading challenge – March choice

In the last week or so of the month, I usually start to give some thought to the book that I am going to choose next for my Facebook Reading Challenge. I will remind myself of the theme. Sometimes, I already have a title or two in mind. And sometimes I have to do a bit of searching. This invariably throws up two or three choices and I will spend a few days ruminating before making a decision and posting on here.

Last month’s theme was “something that had been adapted for screen” and I had two titles in mind. I chose John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I had just seen the 2011 Gary Oldman adaptation and had enjoyed it. After a few opening doubts (the plot of the book seemed much more complicated than the film), I really got into the book and loved it. I finished it quite quickly, so I decided to try and read my February reserve choice as well, Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 classic Rebecca. I had seen the trailer for the new film version starring Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer, which looks really good, but I wanted to read the book first. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but, oh my, HOW have I not read this before!? I cannot put it down. Look out for my reviews of both books soon.

This month’s theme is “something for spring” in keeping with the fact that meteorological spring started yesterday on the 1st. In the three years or so that I have been doing this challenge, I have never had more difficulty choosing a book. There are a couple of obvious choices – Ali Smith’s Spring or Karl Ove Knaussgard’s Spring – but they were too obvious for my liking. I brainstormed: growth, renewal, uplifting, Mother’s Day, World Book Day, International Women’s Day, Mars, gardening, baby birds… But, alas, this bore very little fruit. There is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, but, hmm, set in Russia in 1913…this does not feel sufficiently optimistic to me, and I feel we need some positivity at this point.

So, my choice has only a very tenuous link to spring – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. My rationale? Well, it’s World Book Day this Thursday (4th March). Books can be found in libraries. It has been described as ‘uplifting’. Tick. Plus I really like Matt Haig. The central character is Nora, whose life is not going well. On the stroke of midnight of her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library where she is given the opportunity to explore all the alternative lives she might have lived. If nothing else, one good thing that has come out of this pandemic is that many of us have reflected on our lives and thought about what we might want to change. And spring is a great time for change.

So, I think that’s a wrap! Looking forward to this one.

Now, back to Rebecca