Audiobook review – “The Bread the Devil Knead” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

The Bread the Devil Knead is Lisa Allen-Agostini’s third novel (she has previously published YA fiction as well as a collection of poetry) and it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022. It is both powerful and a page-turner with a gripping plot as well as an engaging, authentic and complex central character who is also the main narrator.

Alethea Lopez is 40 years old, the manager of a clothing shop in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She is stylish and sexy. Her partner Leo is a musician who was once in a popular band. Alethea is also having an affair with her boss, the owner of the shop. But beneath her confident exterior Alethea conceals some dark secrets. The superficial aura of calm she has created around herself begins to crumble when a woman is gunned down outside the shop by a jealous lover. Alethea is shaken. A curious police officer drives her home and notices the bruises on her face. We learn from the outset that Alethea’s relationship with Leo is an abusive and violent one, perhaps that is why she looks for love with her boss, although that relationship is also abusive in its own way. 

The police officer’s curiosity is dangerous for Alethea; Leo reacts in a way that is designed to ensure that she will always be afraid of the consequences of revealing to anyone what goes on inside their home. And yet Leo has a powerful hold over Alethea that is more than just the constant threat of violence – she seems drawn to him, needs his desire for her, and his love, no matter how twisted and unhealthy it seems to the reader.

Alethea also has a brother, Colin, who is a preacher. They are recently reunited after years apart. Alethea narrates her story but there are also flashbacks to her childhood: she grew up in a single parent family. Her mother (also violently abusive to her) told her that she was the product of a brief affair she had with a Venezuelan, a man it is clear she will never meet. (Alethea has the additional social disadvantage of being lighter-skinned than most and of having a Hispanic surname). Colin joined their family when he was a toddler, having been brought by Alethea’s uncle to be cared for by her mother. Alethea was a few years older than Colin and clearly adored him. He was better treated by her mother than she was, but Alethea was never jealous and merely saw it as part of her role to protect him. 

As the violence in adult Alethea’s life gets worse, alternative pathways for her gradually come into view. A childhood friend who went to live in America returns, having married a rich man, and wants to open a boutique with Alethea. The renewal of her relationship with Colin causes her to examine the events of her childhood anew, especially when she finds that she has inherited property from her maternal grandmother. Gradually, the complex layers of Alethea’s emotional landscape are revealed and the reader begins to understand how she came to be here.

This is a profoundly moving novel; Alethea’s narrative is candid but she never becomes sorry for herself. She is vulnerable and damaged but she also has tremendous strengths and as her self-awareness grows so does her stature. 

Set in Trinidad, the novel is written primarily in the local creole. I listened to the book on audio and although the language was hard for me as an English-speaker to get into initially, my ear gradually became attuned to it and by the end I was so glad I had chosen this format because the musicality of the language added to the experience. It is also the author doing the reading and so she brings to it all her own knowledge of her character and Alethea truly comes to life.

Highly recommended, though readers should be aware that there is a significant amount of violence and the themes of domestic abuse, parental abuse and incest are explored unsparingly.

Re-reading the classics – “The Great Gatsby” by F Scott Fitzgerald

My book club is great. We like to dabble in a few different genres and periods and we all make suggestions about the next title. Our last read of 2022 was Graham Norton’s Forever Home and our first choice for 2023 was The Great Gatsby – couldn’t be more different! We also mainly read via audiobook, about which there seems to be a perennial debate (and for the avoidance of doubt I am totally pro audiobooks), which throws up some interesting debates about individual titles in itself. 

The Great Gatsby is one of the very few novels that I have read multiple times. I am not a big re-reader (although I have become a bit more of one since getting into audiobooks). I do love it and it never ceases to amaze or surprise me. For a relatively compact book it is thematically dense and exposes a side to the American way of life, the American dream that few wrote about in the early 1900s. The book is almost 100 years old and yet still the concept of the United States of America exercises a powerful draw, although arguably in the last few years, the scales have fallen from more of our collective eyes. But Fitzgerald was writing about this dark underbelly long before most. 

The contrast between the lavish first half of the book, with its portrayal of seemingly endless wealth, lives full of Dionysian pleasure, and purpose directed only at extravagance, is thrown into sharper relief by the darkness of the second half of the book. Once the book moves out of the bubble of the Long Island social scene, when the narrator Nick Carraway accompanies a drunk and brooding Tom Buchanan to New York City, along with Tom’s lover Myrtle Wilson, wife of a local garage owner, events take a decidedly more sinister turn. In place of music and dancing there is violence and the dark side of alcohol. In place of the luxury West Egg mansions there is the sordid city apartment where Tom takes Myrtle. And in place of easy and superficial socialising there is violence, secrecy and betrayal. Fitzgerald is systematically picking apart the edifices of wealth, class and the American dream that he has set up for us in the opening chapters of the book, with only a hint of what is to come in the dark moods of Tom Buchanan. Jay Gatsby is, for me, less of a defined and rounded character, and more of a device for Fitzgerald to undertake this dismantling process, more of a representation of fakery and of the damage caused by the aspiration towards something so ultimately meaningless. The book is truly a masterpiece. 

Which brings me on to the subject of the medium through which one accesses such works. There have been a few film adaptations of The Great Gatsby; the most recent one, starring Leonardo di Caprio was critically panned. A version starring Robert Redford was made in 1974, which I think I have seen, but a long while ago (note to self: must watch again). My book club friends and I all ‘read’ Gatsby this time via the audiobook, which was a freebie on Audible. What appealed to us in particular was that the reader was Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m afraid to say that we were all deeply disappointed. There was something very mechanical about his reading, almost no distinction in voice or tone between the characters, which is surprising given his talents as an actor. Truly, it was as if this was his first reading of the novel. Which perhaps it was. I know many people will point to this as one of the underlying problems of audiobooks, that the reader can affect your view of the book. In this case, if it was my first encounter with Gatsby, I might have come away wondering what all the fuss was about, although I also hope I might have decided I actually needed to go to the source and read the book myself too. A film is clearly more of an interpretation than a straight unabridged reading, but you would not judge a book by the film or the mini-series. The excellent readings have far outweighed the poor ones I have come across in my audiobook experience; besides Gatsby, the other terrible one was a reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which was so bad I actually stopped listening! That was a freebie too. Which is perhaps the moral of the story here; you get what you pay for. It requires a certain skills set, commitment and a good understanding of the book to pull off a reading well. 

A recent debate regarding audiobooks was around the use of AI, surely an alarming development for jobbing actors. I think this will be a retrograde step by production companies and readers will turn away. During the various lockdowns I dabbled quite a bit in Youtube recorded meditations. There were some I came across which just felt to me that I was not listening to a human, and they were terrible. We know the difference and we won’t be fobbed off.


So, The Great Gatsby, do read it if you haven’t done so already, it really is one of the landmarks of literature in English, but the audiobook? Best avoided.

Audiobook review – “Forever Home” by Graham Norton

Happy New Year! I am rather late to this I realise. We have had a somewhat sickly household over the last few weeks, with Covid plus some other assorted ailments, and still not out of the woods yet, but hopefully it’s the beginning of the end and we can start getting back to normal soon. I did just about manage to get a decent Christmas dinner on the table, and we also managed a short trip to Dublin for new year to visit family, but apart from that it has all been very low-key. 

I haven’t done much in the way of reading in the last few weeks – partly too busy and partly because my head hurt too much! I managed half a book of Christmas short stories (pictured left), which was nice. In this selection I particularly liked Trollope’s Christmas at Thompson Hall and Alice Munro’s The Turkey Season, both of which managed to pull off that particular skill of being both amusing and poignant. It’s a while since I’ve sat down and read a series of short stories; it’s curiously liberating, like a brief fling, enjoyable and without commitment! That’s not my usual approach to life, I hasten to add, but it was nice, especially in the context of so many other distractions when it was hard to maintain long periods of concentration.

An audiobook I listened to over the Christmas period also gave me great pleasure – Graham Norton’s Forever Home, his fourth novel and another set mainly in his home county of Cork, Ireland. I am a huge fan of Graham Norton’s and have previously reviewed his earlier novels Holding and Home Stretch on here. In Forever Home he explores similar themes of complex family dynamics, love relationships, modern culture and life in Ireland and, in this novel, as in his first, Holding, a slightly macabre twist! There are secrets, there is a sense of shame and a desire to appear normal, even when things clearly aren’t, and in this way the author makes a nod, though not a heavy one, to elements of Ireland’s past that it is still coming to terms with.

The central character is Carol Crottie, a teacher living in a small town in County Cork. She is divorced and has one adult son who lives in London and while they are not exactly estranged, it is clear that his distant and separate life is a source of pain to her. Carol found love again later in life when she developed a relationship with Declan, owner of the local pharmacy. Their love blossomed after she began giving home tutoring to his daughter Sally, who was struggling at school. Sally is a fragile girl, deeply affected by her mother having left the family home, mysteriously, when she was young. Sally’s older brother Killian carries anger and resentment towards both his father and Carol.

Despite this Carol and Declan live happily (though unmarried, because he has never actually divorced his first wife) in the family home for a number of years until Declan begins to develop dementia. In a cruel twist, Killian and Sally secure power of attorney over their father’s affairs, admit him to a nursing home and put the house up for sale and Carol has no rights to object. She is forced to move back home with her parents, into her childhood bedroom. 

Carol’s parents are a hoot! Moira and Dave have become wealthy from the chain of coffee shops they set up, capitalising on the modernization in Irish society that happened so suddenly in the early 2000s. Despite this they are old-fashioned and set in their ways and provide hilarious comic relief to the tragic events occurring in their daughter’s life. When they propose to her that they secretly buy Declan’s home, with a view to renovating it and selling it on for a profit, no-one realises what dark secrets will be uncovered and how this will turn everyone’s lives upside down.

This is a fun novel though it is not without its dark moments. All the characters experience a transformation as a result of the events, and it is not all neat happiness. I listened to this on audiobook and, as always, the author’s narration is brilliant, a perfect showcase of his comic and artistic abilities. 

Highly recommended.

Audiobook review – “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

I wrote last week about having finished two long books that I have been working through for a while. The first, Booker Prize-winner The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, was hard work and not a hit for me. The second I have been listening to on audio for a few weeks, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. By contrast, this complex and curious novel was one of the best things I have read in a long time. It is a huge book, three volumes totalling around a thousand pages, forty-five hours of listening time, recounting the events of a single year. Despite the huge anticipation of the novel when it was announced, it was not received with universal critical acclaim. Its initial print run, in the original Japanese, was sold out on the first day of release, largely due to advance orders, Murakami having already achieved a high literary profile by that stage. 

SPOILER ALERT!

The novel is essentially a love story, an unlikely one given the journey the two main characters have to take. The book opens with central character Aomame in a taxi on the city expressway. The traffic reaches an unexpected standstill and it appears that Aomame has some important business she is anxious to complete. She persuades the driver to let her leave the car when they reach an emergency exit, despite this being illegal. The driver advises her that there is a subway station below the expressway that she can reach via the emergency metal stairway. Aomame’s ‘business’ is murder. Her task is to kill a man who is a known philanderer and wife-beater and she poses as a hotel employee attending to the air conditioning in his room before killing him swiftly and bloodlessly with a specially crafted metal tool. The event is shocking, but Aomame has already become so likeable to us as the reader because she has so far seemed benign, polite, and charming. 

We later learn that Aomame’s actions are carried out with the assistance of an older woman we know as ‘The Dowager’, a wealthy widow who is a member of the exclusive health club where Aomame is a fitness instructor. It seems that both women have powerful reasons for dispatching of men like Aomame’s victim at the hotel and the combination of the Dowager’s money and Aomame’s skills, plus the support of the Dowager’s loyal bodyguard Tamaru, they conduct a quiet and effective campaign of retribution on violent and cruel men. 

Told in parallel with Aomame’s story is that of Tengo, a maths teacher at a cram school and aspiring writer. He is asked by his friend Komatsu, an editor at a publishing house, to rewrite a novella ‘Air Chrysalis’ by a young female writer, Fuka-Eri. Komatsu feels it has great potential and wishes to enter it for a prestigious debut writer’s prize, but feels it needs work. He arranges for Tengo to meet with the young woman and to rewrite the story at rapid pace. This will obviously be a clandestine exercise as it would be a scandal if it got out. The book does win the prize and is also a great commercial success, but it is then that all the problems start. 

Tengo deepens his relationship with Fuka-Eri and learns of her troubled background, the fact that she was brought up in a commune run by a secretive religious cult called Sakigake, and that after a violent and deadly confrontation with police, Fuka-Eri managed to escape and landed at the doorstep of a Professor Ebisuno, former friend and colleague of her father, and he took her in and became her guardian. She later confides to Tengo that she escaped under the instruction of ‘the little people’, who happen to be the subject of ‘Air Chrysalis’. Tengo finds himself increasingly drawn into the young woman’s strange world and a series of consequential events. 

Meanwhile, in Aomame’s world, strange things are also happening. She has begun to observe that there are two moons in the sky which it seems only she can see; the usual silver one, and a smaller green one. She concludes that she is living in some sort of parallel world, which she names 1Q84, to distinguish it from the actual year 1984. The Dowager runs a hostel for abused women in the grounds of her estate, and after taking in a young girl, rendered mute by the sexual abuse she has experienced, she asks Aomame to carry out one last killing – that of the leader of Sakigake, who she says is responsible for the violence that the young girl has experienced. It will be a very risky, dangerous and complicated task that may not be successful and could lead to Aomame’s death, because Leader is so well-protected. Believing she has nothing to lose, Aomame accepts the challenge.

Aomame’s and Tengo’s stories are told in parallel, yet the links between the strange events in their lives soon become clear. We also learn that Aomame and Tengo knew each other as children. She came from a family of devout Witnesses, setting her apart from the other children at school, and from which she would later escape, while he was the only child of a widowed and distant father who forced him to go to work with him at the weekends, collecting television license fees.The two lonely outsiders formed a bond as 10 year olds, but lost touch. Neither has forgotten the special kindness the other showed them however. 

The plot thickens, events become increasingly unpredictable and dangerous and Tengo and Aomame’s lives are drawing ever closer. Right to the end, I found myself unable to predict how it was going to turn out. I gasped more than once at an unexpected twist. Though the book is long, it draws you into its world skilfully and imperceptibly. Some critics disliked the book and found the writing clunky and cliched. I disagree completely. I found the simplicity and spareness of the language remarkably engaging and powerful. I loved the way the author got into the heads of the characters and into the minutiae of their lives that made you feel you were observing this year in their lives almost in real time. As I said at the beginning, it is essentially a love story, in my opinion. It is a brilliant homage to Orwell’s 1984, focusing not on controlling governments but on the sinister power of cults. I am having great fun thinking about the parallels between the two stories! I also love the questions it leaves unanswered, such as what really happened to Tengo’s ‘older girlfriend’ and what about the little people and Mr Ushikawa? 

Completing this book has truly felt like a milestone in my reading life. I have not come across anything quite like it before and I recommend it highly. It is well worth the investment of time. 

Booker Book Review #6 – “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka

This week I have at last come to the end of two reading marathons, one has been spectacular, the other has been a slog. Almost two months after the winner of the Booker Prize was announced, I have at last finished the sixth book from the shortlist, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, the book which in fact won. I started this book on 26th September, but found it very difficult to get into, so I switched to one or two others. It was the only book I did not manage to complete in time for the announcement of the winner. I have to say that I am somewhat surprised that it won. But then that is not unusual for the Booker, or any literary prize for that matter. Reading pleasure is such a subjective thing that I am sure there are very few works that are unanimously loved. There are also books that you just ‘know’ are good, but which are not that enjoyable to read. For me, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida perhaps falls into that category. I can appreciate the achievement, but it just wasn’t for me.

The book is set in Sri Lanka (the author’s homeland) at the time of the brutal civil war in that country, which started in 1983 and last more than 25 years. I am ashamed to admit that I knew very little about this piece of history. Some of the information had a familiarity; I was aware for example of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, though I had no idea that the regime was so brutal or repressive. Sri Lanka has also been in the news recently after the terrible economic situation there led to nationwide street protests and the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Clearly, it is a country where corrupt members of the ruling classes (many of whom have been related to one another) have at various times pocketed the nation’s wealth for their own enrichment and to the detriment of the wider population. 

Seven Moons has been described by the author as a ghost story and in addition to the history lesson and the expose of the corruption, repression and factionalism which characterised the authorities at that time, it is said to weave in myth and folklore surrounding death and the afterlife in Sri Lanka. It reminded me very much of a previous Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which won in 2017. It concerns that period of transition where the spirit is in a kind of limbo between life and death. 

Maali Almeida is the central character and the book opens with him having just died and in the process of entering the afterlife. The ‘seven moons’ relates to the period of time he has left to tie up unfinished business from his life. Maali was a photojournalist and in the course of his work he gathered together photographic evidence of some of the crimes of military leaders against the rebels and against other journalists reporting on the civil war. As such, the book becomes a bit of a murder-mystery as the nature of Maali’s ‘evidence’ becomes clear. Some people had a powerful interest in the material never seeing the light of day. Maali knew this of course and concealed what he had in an elaborate trail involving playing cards and his two best friends: Jaki, with whom he slightly masqueraded as a couple, and DD, the son of a government minister who was his lover. Homosexuality was not accepted in the culture at that time, hence the concealment, but Maali had many lovers and rebelled against the prevailing homophobia and this is another complication which made him a target. 

There is a wide cast of characters in the book (not dissimilar to Lincoln in the Bardo actually), and many of the more colourful or fantastical ones exist in the spirit world. There is a real contrast between the passages which take place in the earthly world and those in the heavenly realm where Maali is floating, plotting, and whispering instructions in the ears of those he has left behind. I found some of these characters difficult to keep track of and those at the centre (Maali, Jaki, DD) I just found hard to warm to.

The novel is quite fast-paced with some strong action sequences, but for me the flitting between the earthly and heavenly realms was just too bitty. I found it hard to keep a grip on what was going on. That can be true of a lot of books that I have loved, but I’m afraid this one just did not sustain my interest. Had I not been the sort of person who has to finish a book I have started (I can count on one hand the number of books I have abandoned) I would probably have given up on this after the first or second moon.

Moons feature heavily in the other marathon book I have just finished – 1Q84. This was quite a different undertaking and my feelings about it could not be more different. I’ll save my review of that for next week!

So, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, well it won the Booker, but…I’m struggling to recommend it, sadly, unless you are a student of Sri Lankan recent history.

Booker book review #5 – “Treacle Walker” by Alan Garner

My pick for the Booker Prize (Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo) did not win, sadly, but congratulations to Shehan Karunatilaka whose novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, came out top. It is the one book on the shortlist I have not yet read. I started it, but I have to confess that I found it a bit hard-going so I set it to one side. I will now come back to it with different eyes! That’s the trouble with being a literary blogger or reviewer – when you know that a book is a prize-winner, when everyone else thinks it’s amazing, it becomes a bit embarrassing to disagree! Oh well, I’ll go back to it and try a bit harder.

This is my fifth review of the shortlisted books and another of those that I did not manage to finish before last Monday. At only 160 pages in length, it is a short book and is arranged over eighteen chapters. I think it has the fewest words of any book on the shortlist. Like Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These (the book on the shortlist with the fewest pages) it is not a ‘fast’ read, however, but nor is it a novella, like Keegan’s book. It is something altogether different that defies pigeon-holing. I’m not even sure what genre to put it in – fantasy, myth, science fiction? It also has elements more akin to children’s fiction. 

I read this book in a couple of sittings (the best, perhaps only, way to tackle this kind of short book) and came away thinking, what on earth was that all about. There are three characters, Joe Coppock, Treacle Walker and Thin Amren. Joe is a boy who seems to be poorly. He has an eye problem, a ‘lazy’ eye, and wears a patch. He has periods of impaired vision, but this is presented almost as a superpower – he sees things in ways that other people can’t. Like many people who experience childhood illness, Joe seems quite isolated – there are no parents around – and pyjamas and comics seem to feature quite heavily in his life. He has a profound sense of the passage of time, which he measures by the passing of ‘Noony’ a train, at midday each day.

Treacle Walker appears outside Joe’s home one day. He is a ‘rag and bone man’, a concept which only some of us will be familiar with. Rag and bone men would roam the streets (in the case of my childhood, this was always on a Sunday) on a horse and cart, gathering items people no longer wanted. They would often give a small item in exchange for donations. Joe makes a trade with the old man, swapping some old pyjamas and a piece of lamb’s bone (from his collection of treasures) for a stone and an old jar of some sort of potion (equating the old man also with the notion of the travelling apothecary or healer). From these early chapters, and because of the strong dialect both characters use, I thought this book was set in the 19th century, but later Joe visits an optometrist and by the methods used (the letter chart and the ocular apparatus) it is clear that it is at least post-war. 

The third character is Thin Amren, a semi-human swamp man who wears nothing but a leather hood and who, it seems, must be kept in the swamp or else he might inflict damage on the world (this could be a comment on current geopolitical events!) It seems that Joe has some sort of power to do this, revealed to him by Treacle Walker, with whom he has quite an ambivalent relationship.

An old sign pointing to the famous gritstone ‘edge’ after which Alderley Edge is named

This could be one of the weirdest books I have read for a long time and after reading it, one of my first thoughts was ‘how on earth am I going to review this book?’ I haven’t read any of Alan Garner’s other work, but I know of him because he is closely connected with Alderley Edge, a place I have visited often. The town has become sadly synonymous with footballers and their wives, fast cars and bling, which is a shame because The Edge itself (where I go to walk), now in the care of the National Trust, is a spectacular geological feature on the Chesire landscape, infused with local legend, made famous in part by Garner’s work. Much of his work has used Cheshire myth and legend as its subject matter. 

I read a detailed piece of literary criticism on the book by the late Maureen Kincaid Speller (clearly a fan of Garner) on the Strange Horizons blogsite. In her piece she draws many of the literary allusions and self-referential features of the book. This provided me with an insight, but I doubt there are many people (outside of Garner’s fan base) who would be aware of these, which makes it a difficult ‘sell’ as a book. I picked up some of the references: Macclesfield (not far from Alderley Edge) is known as ‘Treacletown’ owing to the legend that a cart full of treacle turned over and spilled out, smothering the cobbled streets. It is a very ‘Cheshire’ novel in that respect. There is also the white horse, central to the legend of the Alderley Edge wizard – the stone that Joe received from Treacle Walker has a white horse on it and when the stone is rubbed on the doorstep it turns that place into a kind of entry way to a parallel universe. It reminded me a bit of the wonderful Stranger Things series, that recent television sensation – there is a kind of ‘upside down’ here that is the realm that Thin Amren occupies. 

If you are already a fan of Garner, you will no doubt enjoy this book, with its connections to his other works, but if you are not familiar with his literary world this will be a very difficult book to penetrate and enjoy.

Booker book review #4 – “Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is an American author who has published nine novels. The first four took her fourteen years, after which she well and truly found a groove and has published a further five in the last six years. Oh William!, her eighth novel, was published at the end of last year, in time for it to be shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, and in the meantime she has published Lucy By the Sea. Fast work! This latest novel, in common with Oh William!, and her 2016 novel My Name is Lucy Barton, share the same central character. I have been aware of Elizabeth Strout for a while and have wanted to read some of her work but never quite got round to it so it is great to have a reason to come to it now.

Oh William! begins in New York city and our narrator is Lucy Barton, a newly widowed novelist. She has long been divorced from her former husband William Gerhardt, an academic, but has remained on good terms with him. They have two adult married daughters and William has had a further two marriages, first to Joanne, one of his lovers during his marriage to Lucy, and then to Estelle, an actress, with whom he also has a young daughter, Bridget. Lucy is friendly with Estelle too, and attends William’s 70th birthday party at their home. It is at the party that Lucy first senses all is not well in William’s marriage. Lucy and Estelle are very different people and Lucy clearly finds William’s new and much younger wife somewhat shallow. 

We learn from the outset that two things happen to William that will affect Lucy deeply and change the course of events in both her and William’s life, but we are almost a third of the way through the book before we learn what even the first of these events is. Strout makes Lucy a fascinating narrator, who goes all around the houses to tell us a story. Before getting to the first event we learn a great deal about her loveless childhood, brought up in a deprived and emotionally neglectful household. Lucy was only able to go to college thanks to the kindness of one of her teachers who took her in hand. We also learn a great deal about William, his deep flaws, and in particular the behaviour which would eventually lead Lucy to leave him. He was a withdrawn and complicated character who left pretty much all the child-rearing to
Lucy, a particularly difficult task for her given how little parenting she had herself received. 

It was not just the string of extra-marital affairs that made their relationship untenable. William’s mother, although superficially kind, had secrets and her relationship with her only son was a complex one from which Lucy was very much excluded. I’m not sure how much of this detail, particularly concerning the nature of Lucy and William’s marriage, is a repeat of the content of My Name is Lucy Barton, but it has very much made me want to read that novel now. Even if there is duplication, Lucy is such a warm, chatty and candid narrator, I don’t think it would matter.

The second seismic event to occur in William’s life is that he finds out his mother had a daughter before him, something she never told him about while she was alive. He is curious but also fearful about what he will find out. With Estelle gone, William finds himself turning to Lucy more than ever. He asks her to accompany him on a trip to Maine to seek out his half-sister and during this trip they go over a lot of history, both the past they shared and that which they didn’t. It is a portrait of a marriage, of a post-marriage relationship, and of how time can alter our perspectives on events. We get a sense of William’s decreasing potency, and ultimately his lack of making his mark on the world; he is ageing and the shock reduces him. 

It is also during this trip that William and Lucy take together that they go over some of the ground they never covered in the aftermath of the end of their marriage. There is more than just a physical journey under way. Both of them will emerge from it changed, but in different ways. It all adds up to a powerful narrative on how our lives can be rendered unstable by events when the foundations are built on truths untold, not only to others but to ourselves also. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved its gentleness, the deft portrayal of character and the exploration of how people respond differently to the events of life. Highly recommended and this has definitely made me want to read more of Elizabeth Strout’s work.

Booker book review #3 – “The Trees” by Percival Everett

This is my third Booker prize shortlist review and the second book one that I listened to on audio. I wish that I had read it on paper as I have a feeling the narration may have impacted on my enjoyment of the book. It is a powerful novel, made more so by the sparse directness of the writing and the short chapters – there is no florid description here. Everett lets his characters tell the story, and there are a lot of characters, speaking in not very sophisticated language. Whether it’s the police officers speaking in ‘police procedural’ or the simplistic and offensive chatter of the white racist townsfolk of Money, Mississippi, where most of the book is set, the atmosphere of the book – dark, southern, confederate-loving, Trump-loving – is created through their words.

The story begins with a string of bizarre murders in the small town of Money. A number of racist white males are discovered brutally murdered, strangled with barbed wire and with their testicles cut off. In each case, lying beside them is the body of a dead black man, with the white victim’s testicles in his hand. The local sheriff is flummoxed. Matters become stranger still when the dead black man disappears from the morgue and reappears at another crime scene. State investigators and the FBI are sent in on the premise that it appears to be a hate crime, which, predictably, infuriates the sheriff, especially as the outsiders are all black, and one is a woman. 

As they try to find out what is going on they meet a young black woman in a diner, Gertrude, who tells them about her great-grandmother, 105 year-old ‘Mama Zee’. Mama Zee has made it her life’s mission to compile a mass of material on the thousands of racist lynchings of black people since the year of her birth. The very first file in her archive is that of her father who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan when she was a baby. 

There is a parallel story where Gertrude invites a friend of hers, a senior academic from New York, to look at the archive. He is astonished by its breadth and in one of the chapters reads out a long list of names of all the victims in the files. This storyline begins to shed some light on the motives behind the murders currently taking place.

When copycat crimes begin to occur all over the country it seems that the officers sent in to Money, Mississippi may be losing control of the investigation, but in fact it is bringing them closer to the truth.

This is a dark and powerful novel, disturbing because it seems as if there has been no change in the century since Mama Zee’s birth; intense racism still gnaws at society and black people are still dying as a result. It portrays an America almost as two parallel worlds, divided along harsh racial and cultural lines. 

There are some moments of comedy in the book to relieve the darkness: the scene where a State Trooper pulls over the car in which the three out of town (black) investigators are travelling, clearly for no other reason than racism. They quickly embarrass him when they reveal their badges, but he is unabashed. There is also a funny satirical scene in the White House with Trump towards the end, although I have to say this did not work too well on the audio as the narrator did not do the best impression of the former president!

I liked this book a lot, it feels like a thing of importance, although I also came away from it feeling a degree of despair at the scale of the injustice; the book does not paint a picture of a world at peace with itself, where human beings see beyond their differences, or that we are even close to such a thing.

Recommended.

Booker book review #2 – “Glory” by NoViolet Bulawayo

This is my second Booker Prize shortlist review and I hardly know where to begin in writing about this novel. I don’t think anything I write could truly do it justice. It should be sufficient for me to just say “please read” and leave it at that. This book is a remarkable piece of work and I honestly felt in the presence of something great throughout. I listened to it on audio and the reading by Zimbabwean actress Chipo Chung was pure perfection – the range of voices and narrative tones she was able to deploy was outstanding. And you know when you listen to an audiobook and you feel like the narrator is reading it for the first time? Well, that is definitely not the case here; the narrator feels every word.

NoViolet Bulawayo is a new author to me but she is undoubtedly a literary heavyweight, being the first black African woman to have been shortlisted twice (her debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013). She was born in Zimbabwe, but completed her higher education in the United States. 

Glory is political satire at its acerbic best. The novel is set in the fictional African country of Jidada (“with a da and another da”) and all the characters are animals. It opens at a rally where The Old Horse, the country’s elderly ruler who has been in place for decades since the War of Liberation from the colonisers, supported by his wife, Dr Sweet Mother, and other denizens, are celebrating their great achievements before the ‘people’. This is a lengthy section that exposes the ego, hypocrisy, untramelled power, and unlimited (and stolen) wealth that characterises the leadership.  Jidada got rid of its colonial ruler, but got a tyrannical and autocratic leader in its place. The regime is cruel, murderous and corrupt. It is a thinly-disguised critique of Robert Mugabe and his followers in Zimbabwe. It is more than that, however, for it does not let so-called advanced nations off the hook. With its linguistic echoes of Trump and its suggestion that other governments are happy to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Jidada where it suits them, it implicates leaders well beyond the borders of Jidada for the cruel oppression of the population. It also takes to task the “clicktivists” who criticise from afar, largely to satisfy their own needs, but to very little tangible effect.

The nation eventually tires of The Old Horse and particularly his wife, and there is a military coup, led by Tuvius Shasha, the former Vice President. The Old Horse goes into exile. The situation for the country does not improve, however. The economy in fact worsens still further and discontent abounds. Enter Destiny Lozikeyi, a gentle female goat who fled her village many years earlier but who has now returned to search for her family and her history. She shows her fellow citizens how desperate their situation is and, slowly, a citizen-led uprising begins.

It would be easy to describe this novel as an African Animal Farm, as many indeed have already done. True, it does many of the same things, but it is borne of an entirely different tradition, I think, and to draw parallels between the two is to over-simplify. The writing in Glory is breathtaking – it is a linguistic tour de force. The precision of its attack is awesome as it deftly dismantles every pretence of democracy, fairness and good governance that the leaders of Jidada claim. Africa is not the only focus of the author’s laser-like gaze, however; in her observation of referenda that return 90% plus votes in favour of the leaders she wags a finger at every dictator currently on the planet and the hypocritical international order that often enables them.  

I was blown away by this book. It is long, but worth every second. Highly recommended.

Booker book review #1 – “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan

And so, my annual reading marathon is under way and I have the first of this year’s Booker shortlist under my belt. At only 128 pages in length, Claire Keegan’s third novel (she has also written short stories) is the shortest ever to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But make no mistake, it is not one to be read quickly. All the author’s skills as a short story writer are here, every word is necessary, the writing is crisp, almost sparse. And yet the subject matter is grave and heavy, too much perhaps for Keegan’s usual medium of a short story to bear. The sense of time and place is brilliantly executed. It is one of those books which you ‘feel’ but where you have no clue how the writer has achieved this!

It is 1985, just before Christmas, in a provincial town in Ireland. Bill Furlong, the local coal merchant, is making his deliveries. It is cold, there is snow on the ground, and this is pre-Celtic tiger. Bill is well aware that many of his customers are struggling to make ends meet and he reflects on his own good fortune, that he, happily married, a father to five daughters, lives in comfort. Bill’s start was not auspicious, however; he was the only son of a young single mother who became pregnant whilst working in the house of a wealthy local woman. Thanks to her kindness, his mother was allowed to remain in her employment, despite her ‘disgrace’, and both Bill and his mother were treated with sensitivity and respect.

Whilst delivering to the local convent, which sits just outside the town, Bill makes a discovery in the coal shed which affects him deeply. The convent is a bleak and isolated place and the nuns who live there, particularly the Mother Superior, do not have a reputation for warmth and kindness. Bill discovers a disturbed young woman, scantily clothed and barefoot in the coal shed. He returns her inside to the nuns, and is taken aback by their apparent lack of alarm that this woman should have been found in an outhouse on a winter’s day in such a state. The young woman mutters about ‘escape’, but she is shuffled away by the nuns and Bill is given a large tip for his trouble.

Bill’s discovery preys on him in the days that follow. The contrast of the woman’s situation with his own relatively comfortable one troubles him. It seems to be well-known in the town that young girls who fell pregnant out of wedlock were taken in by the nuns and Bill realises that no-one seems to question what happens to them thereafter. Given his own background, he reflects how his own mother might easily have been in that very same situation had she not, by pure good luck, found herself in the employment of a benevolent woman. 

The story pre-dates the revelations of the Magdalen laundry scandal in Ireland, events which the country is still trying to come to terms with today given the instrumental role of the Church. It seems barely credible that this could have taken place so recently, in an age when we all consider ourselves so enlightened, tolerant and open-minded. Keegan’s novella shows us how blind and how complicit we can actually be. How easy it is to judge and how easy it is to remain silent when others are harshly judged.

This is a small but perfectly-formed story and I recommend it highly.

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