Book review – “The Lido” by Libby Page

The theme for August for my Facebook Reading Challenge was a ‘beach novel’. It seemed an obvious theme to choose, with it being peak holiday season, and we’ve had some serious and challenging books over the last few months so I thought something light and easy was in order. I was on holiday myself, in Jersey, which I posted about last week and whilst there wasn’t much time spent on a beach (it was quite an active holiday, so actually there wasn’t even that much reading done!) it was a great book to dip in and out of on the flight, in the evening after dinner or in the occasional quieter moments.

The Lido imgThe book concerns two women, Rosemary, an 86 year-old widow, and Kate, a 26 year-old journalist, and how they are brought together by chance when the Brixton lido is threatened with closure. Their relationship evolves as together they mount a campaign to keep the pool open, drawing in other local people and reviving a community spirit that everyone involved thought had been lost. In some ways the two women could not be more different: Rosemary is nearing the end of her life, now alone having lost her beloved husband, and has lived in this area of South London all her life. Kate, on the other hand, is young and bright, and has moved to the city from Bristol to begin her journalistic career on the local paper. Kate too, though, is lonely; unlike Rosemary she has not lost anyone, but she has not found anyone either, and she grapples with panic attacks, anxiety and low self-esteem. She shares a house with a number of similarly isolated flatmates, none of whom she knows, and stays alive thanks to ready meals.

When Kate is asked by her editor to cover the planned sale of the Lido by the local council to a property developer who wants to build a tennis court over it for the private use of residents of its luxury flats, she meets Rosemary who begins to recount to her the special significance of the Lido in her life. Not only that, Rosemary, a former children’s librarian, places it in the context of the decline of the sense of community in the area and how local people are being denied opportunities to come together, to play a part and to be involved. Rosemary’s story captures Kate’s imagination and she enters into full-on campaigning mode, setting up a petition, social media groups, and the story becomes a regular feature in the local newspaper.

Kate and Rosemary also begin to develop a close friendship; Kate starts to swim regularly and take care of herself more and this gives her a new energy and new coping strategies to help her deal with her feelings of anxiety. It also initiates Kate into the community and she finds a new circle of friends. For Rosemary the campaign and the friendship help her come to terms with the loss of her husband and when both women at different points have particularly bleak moments, the other is there to pick them up.

This book does exactly what it promises: it’s a heart-warming story, with strong themes around community values, friendship and companionship. It also deals with the taboo issue of depression as it affects a young woman, who has her whole life ahead of her and “should” be living a great life, and an elderly woman, a group whose mental health is so often neglected.

This wasn’t the ‘finest’ novel I’ve read all year, but it was one of the most charming and fitted the bill perfectly for a straightforward and honest summertime read.

Recommended.

What sort of books do you like to read on holidays?

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Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Book review – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

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Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

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YA book review – “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and regularly review both kids and YA books. I haven’t done a kids book review post for a while, for reasons that have been rehearsed in recent blogs, so it was a joy to pick up a YA book again and to be able to start another ‘Kids Books Week’.

The Hate U Give imgThis book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel and it caused a sensation when it was first published in the United States in February 2017. It enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim, remaining at the top of the New York Times YA best seller list for almost a year. It was made into a film which was released last Autumn. The novel came out of a short story Thomas wrote in college following the police shooting of a young black man in 2009.

The narrator is Starr Carter, a 16 year-old who lives in a poor neighbourhood of an unnamed American city, but who attends an elite private school. Her parents are not wealthy (her mother works in the health sector, her father owns a shop and has spent time in jail) but they are ambitious for their three children and determined that they should have a good education and defy the expectations of their birth. Throughout the novel Starr tells us how this presents her with some complex challenges and how she effectively has to be two different people – school Starr and ‘Garden Starr’ (the family’s neighbourhood is called Garden Heights). She is constantly torn between these two identities at an age when she is still trying to work out who she really is, and doesn’t feel she truly belongs in either place. This puts her in conflict at times with her wealthy, white boyfriend, who cannot fully empathise with her and from whom Starr keeps many of her true feelings, and indeed her father, who is angered when he discovers Starr is going out with a white boy.

Starr’s life is turned upside down when one of her friends, Kahlil, a boy she has known since kindergarten, is shot and killed by a police officer while he is giving her a lift home in his car after a party. Starr and her older brother have been drilled by their father about how to behave with the police, but non-threatening, compliant behaviour does not save Kahlil when confronted by the police officer who carries assumptions about young black males. This is the second time in her short life that Starr has seen a friend killed. As the only witness to the killing, Starr is in an impossible situation – it is her word against that of the police officer. The police officer is also a colleague of her uncle’s, so the whole family is affected and divided by the events that follow the shooting. Furthermore, the shooting raises tensions in the neighbourhood between the police and the residents, in particular the two main gangs that effectively control the area, and whose actions are presented very much as part of the problem.

The reader is carried along with Starr’s pain at the loss of the her friend, fear for the position in which she has been placed as the only witness and what this means for her family, especially in the context of the gang elements in Garden Heights, and ongoing confusion at her place in the two worlds in which she moves.

This is a profoundly moving and fascinating novel; as a reader I really felt drawn into Starr’s dilemmas – she is such a powerful narrator. On one level, the novel left me feeling despair at how easy it clearly is for young black people to become the victims of violence for which they are not responsible and how, for young black men in particular, this presents a constant threat. The author’s note at the end of the book expands on this. On another level it is a novel full of hope as the strength of the community, family bonds and Starr’s maturity and dignity shine brighter than the injustices.

The novel pulls no punches and parts of it are a tough read, but the themes are important ones for all of us to be aware of, and it is an important contribution to the Black Lives Matter  movement. Young people will I think empathise with Starr’s agonies; even though most will never have to face the terrible ordeal that she has, they will understand her teenage outlook, her anxieties and her emotions, because these are universal.

There are drug and sexual references as well as some strong language, so I would recommend this for mature 14 year olds and over. I also recommend to all adults  – it’s a cracking read.

Have you seen the film of this novel? I’m keen to know if it does justice to the book.

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Book review – “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

When I announced that this book was May’s choice for my Facebook reading challenge (theme, a 20th century classic), there were mixed feelings – it seems a few of our participants had studied it at school for their ‘O’ level English Literature (predecessor to the GCSE for anyone young enough not to know!). Some were delighted…others less so! I did not study this at school, but I read it at University (I did an English degree). My childhood home was not one filled with books, though I spent a great deal of time at my local library, so when I went to University I had a lot of catching up to do on many of the classics. Golding’s book is one of those and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great novels.

2019-06-12 15.24.56
My lovely 1965 edition of Lord of the Flies is older than me and has a cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. I doubt many people could name any of his other works (I couldn’t!), although he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for his novel Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He died in 1993 at the age of 81. Lord of the Flies has been adapted three times for the big screen, and several times for stage and radio.

The basic plot is that a group of boys (thought to number about thirty, but it’s not entirely clear) are marooned on a Pacific island following a wartime evacuation attempt that ends in a plane crash. There are no adult survivors and the boys, ranging in age from perhaps nine to thirteen years, must learn quickly to survive. Three main characters emerge: Ralph and Jack are the two alpha-males of the group, but have very different instincts about the priorities, and Piggy, an overweight, severely near-sighted boy, probably of lower class than Ralph and Jack, who proves to be the most thoughtful, sensible and self-aware but who lacks the leadership skills to wield any power.

Initially, the boys attempt to organise, with Ralph at the helm. His primary concern is that they should get rescued and stay alive and safe until then. He meets resistance in the form of Jack, who is less keen on the rules and disciplines that Ralph wants to impose. His priorities are “fun” and hunting animals so that they can eat meat. As the days and weeks pass morale drops, particularly among the younger boys, many of whom are clearly terrified. They fear the darkness and the heavy forest on the island and what may be lurking within it – they imagine a terrible beast. Order begins to break down and powerful instincts surface. There is a terrible power struggle between Jack and Ralph which intensifies as the novel progresses. Factions form around the two leaders and the behaviours become increasingly reckless. Simon, one of the other older boys, and a sensitive soul, is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the now savage and adrenalin-fuelled group around Jack believing in his night-time approach to the camp, that he is in fact the much-feared “beast” they imagine stalks them.

Simon’s death at the hands of those who were once his schoolmates, unleashes further savagery, like the genie is out of the bottle. There is also, however, a kind of denial; it seems only Piggy recognises and is able to articulate the danger they are in – from themselves! It seems inevitable that Piggy should also die, brutally; Roger crashes a boulder onto him during a fight between Ralph and Jack in which Piggy is trying to intervene. Jack’s group would have killed Ralph too had it not been for the timely arrival of a rescue ship.

Although it was written in the early 1950s, this is very much a post-war book for me in which the author is reflecting on the base levels human beings can reach. If you simply scratch the surface of society you will find some instincts most of us would rather not admit to. A modern reading of the novel might also see the hazards of excessive masculinity and how lust for power can easily corrupt. You can also look at how easy it is for followers to forget their own moral codes and normal standards of behaviour when seduced by charismatic or persuasive leadership. The younger boys are unable to face the reality of their situation, stranded on a remote island, with an unknown chance of rescue, and the picture of excitement that Jack offers, playing at hunting, escapism from their problems, leads them to follow him down a dangerous path.

Whilst re-reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the current political turmoil we are in, both in the UK and globally. Some social norms seem to me to be breaking down. And when it came to the Jack/Ralph power struggle the Conservative party leadership contest came to mind! The only thing I couldn’t decide – who in our current crop of politicians is Piggy?!

A must-read for anyone wanting to gain a serious understanding of English literature.

Did you read Lord of the Flies as a teenager – can you remember what you thought of it?

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