Booker book review #1 = “No One is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

And thus begins my annual attempt to read my way through the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced. Customarily, the shortlist is announced in mid-September and the winner announced at the beginning of November, giving about six weeks to read six novels. I have never yet managed all six. I think the closest I have come is about four. I am optimistic this year as I have a strategy – a mixture of audiobook, e-reader and actual book – and a plan. So far I have completed one (the shortest), am part-way through another (the longest) and I am the proud owner of a signed copy of a third. With just over four weeks to go I am, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful. I expect kitchen renovations at the end of the month to disrupt all my plans!

The first book I am ticking off the list is Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which has become one of the most talked about books of the year since it was first published in February. This is Lockwood’s first novel; she is better known as a poet and published a memoir in 2017 entitled Priestdaddy which was highly acclaimed. No One Is Talking About This has been compared variously to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I count all three of those among my all-time favourite reads so I should have loved this book.

It is a really difficult book to describe (for me, that’s where the comparison with Ulysses ends). I should also add, by way of a caveat, that I listened to this on audio and may well have been affected by the slightly manic reading of it. It is narrated in the first person by an unnamed character who has an unnamed family but who lives, we can assume, in New York City. The first half of the book is pure stream of consciousness, a portrayal of the wildness of modern life, particularly those parts conducted through ‘the portal’, which is pretty much everything. We see the ridiculousness of life lived out online, where only appearances matter, where substance and empathy and humanity appear to have vanished. Where photographing and documenting your food is more important than eating it. Where how your relationships look is more important than the relationships themselves. I think most of us can recognise this as the way we might all actually be heading if we are not careful. If indeed, we are not already there.

The second half of the book, described by the author herself as ‘autofictional’ centres around a devastating family event. The narrator’s sister becomes pregnant and the journey is duly recorded on the portal, until a scan reveals an irregularity in the baby’s head measurement. The pregnancy and the baby are no longer as photogenic or fit for the portal, but the event will have a seismic impact on the family and on our narrator in particular. She is completely unprepared for the immense love she feels for the severely disabled baby girl her sister delivers, a child whose life expectancy is limited and whose quality of life would usually be described as poor. And yet, the baby, with her rudimentary abilities, her dependency on her loved ones and her complete helplessness, draws out the humanity in those around her, that, because of the evils of the portal, they had forgotten they had.

This second half of the book is based on an event in Lockwood’s own family – her sister gave birth to a child with Proteus syndrome – and knowing there is truth in it, makes it a powerful read indeed. For me, it is not Ulysses, and Lockwood is not yet Woolf or Faulkner. I wasn’t awed or stunned by the book, but it is innovative. Her instincts as a poet serve her well. It reminded me a little of the 2018-shortlisted book Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which I have recently finished. I have to say I found that book better, but Lockwood has a good chance of winning with this novel.

So, recommended. I’m looking forward to what the rest of the shortlist has to offer.

Book review – “Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a work trip to London. I’d bought a copy of the very newly minted Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You which had been published earlier that week amid great excitement (there were queues and bookshops were opened at midnight to enable the keenest readers to get their hands on a copy). Whilst in London I also happened to stumble on a ‘pop-up’ in Shoreditch selling not only the novel, but other books to which there are references in the novel, and some merchandise echoing the design of the book’s cover. This book has surely been the most anticipated of the year, and who can blame the publishers, but it has definitely become a ‘product’. As has the author I suspect. I hope she is okay.

I sort of hoped I might devour the novel on the return train trip to London, but I didn’t and in fact it took me a further week or so to finish it. Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, was a sensation, not least because of the success of the television series, one suspects, which was brilliantly put together with brilliant performances from the two wonderful new young Irish actors playing the lead parts. It was all a moment of pure serendipity and it was a joy that something so good got the attention it deserved.

Rooney’s follow-up novel therefore was always going to be a challenge and I admire her for just getting the thing out under what must have been intense pressure. It is unmistakeably Rooney – the beautiful prose, the masterful dialogue, the introspective characters, Dublin, the palpable tensions between the characters and the things unsaid. There are four characters: Alice, a successful, famous and thus fairly wealthy author (hmm) who has recently had a nervous breakdown and whom we meet when she is renting a seaside house in the country. Felix, her lover, whom she meets on Tinder, a warehouse worker and cash-strapped under-achiever. Eileen, who lives in Dublin and is Alice’s best friend from childhood. Eileen works for a publishing company in a junior role which pays poorly. She is intellectually and emotionally unfulfilled, and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Simon is Alice and Eileen’s friend, also from their youth, but a little older, a political researcher he lives in Dublin too. He is single, but seems to have a series of much younger girlfriends, handsome, gentle and compassionate, with a strong Catholic faith.

Much of the novel is an exchange of long and detailed communications between Alice and Eileen. They are more like letters, the kind that middle class people of previous centuries might have exchanged, full of lengthy discourse on the meaning of life, love, sex, career, fame and mental health, cleverly punctuated with much more prosaic gossipy tidbits on their love lives. These of course are emails, though, not letters. In between the letters chapters we follow the various events of the characters’ lives, primarily Eileen’s gradual descent into personal crisis and her relationship with Simon, and Alice’s recovery and unlikely relationship with Felix.

It is some way into the book before the characters collide, when Simon travels with Eileen to visit Alice at her rural retreat. The weekend is a kind of catharsis for them all. Everything must break before it can be reassembled in a meaningful way.

If you are expecting a re-run of Normal People you will get some of the same things – a good deal of sex, middle-class angst and working-class insecurity, and a grown-up exploration of Irish identity in the 21st century. But it is a very different book. There are surely some autobiographical elements. It has a lot less pace and it seems a long time before anything significant happens. This novel is a much slower burn. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I did not care as much about any of the characters as I did about Marianne and Connell. I think it is the book Sally Rooney needed to write though, good enough to follow Normal People but perhaps not quite as good, so that, one hopes, some of the hype around her dissipates and she can get on with being a brilliant author and not have to worry about being a celebrity.

I think it will always be worth reading what Sally Rooney writes, so I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

Audiobook review – “Songbirds” by Christy Lefteri

I loved The Beekeeper of Aleppo and so I was keen to get hold of this book when it was published in July of this year. It is Christy Lefteri’s third novel (her first A Watermelon, A Fish and A Bible, was published in 2010, nine years before The Beekeeper of Aleppo became an international best seller and shot her to fame) and covers similar territory – the plight of immigrants from war-torn or developing countries seeking to make a better life in what we like to term ‘the West’.

Nisha is a young Sri Lankan woman whose husband was killed in a mining accident when their daughter was a baby. Widowed and penniless she decided to leave her home country, leaving her young daughter in the care of her mother, to seek employment in Europe where she hopes the higher wages will enable her to support both herself and her family and put money aside for her daughter’s education. She takes a position as a maid to a woman in Cyprus. Petra, Nisha’s employer, is also widowed with a young child, but there the similarity ends. Petra is a professional woman, European, an optometrist with her own business, and her husband died of cancer. She has a large and comfortable home and rents out the apartment above her own to Yiannis. When Petra first employs Nisha she is a broken woman, unable to find a way out of her grief. Nisha becomes a second mother to the child Aliki, taking care of most of her practical needs as well as providing that particularly maternal form of nurturing that her own mother simply cannot give her.

None of the above forms part of the plot of the book, we learn this through reflective passages because Nisha appears only briefly at the start of the novel; she accompanies Petra and Aliki on a day trip to the Troodos mountains one Sunday (what should be Nisha’s one day off in the week), but late that evening she vanishes. Petra reports her disappearance to the police, but they have no interest – such practices are common among these kinds of women, Petra is told, they leave for a better offer in the north of the island. Petra does not believe this not least because Nisha has left behind her most treasured possessions including her passport and a necklace containing a lock of her daughter’s hair. Petra also cannot believe that Nisha would leave Aliki, the child she has loved as if she were her own, without even a goodbye.

As she continues to search ever more desperately for Nisha, Petra makes unexpected connections with her neighbours, their maids, and also Yiannis, her tenant upstairs who she realises she has barely spoken to and knows nothing about. We learn before Petra does that Yiannis was Nisha’s lover, a relationship they were forced to keep secret well knowing that it could jeopardise Nisha’s job. Such women of servitude have almost every aspect of their lives controlled by the employers on whom they depend so wholly. The book drops heavy hints about how close this is to enslavement. Yiannis also has his secrets; he is a poacher, capturing songbirds from the countryside, which he then plucks and pickles for sale to unscrupulous restaurants. The songbirds are a forbidden delicacy and the practice is highly illegal. But Yiannis is himself also enslaved; like a drugs mule he is merely a cog in a bigger machine and his more senior accomplice skims off most of the proceeds while Yiannis barely survives, knowing also that he cannot leave the work or else his own life would be in danger because he knows too much.

Petra and Yiannis are searching separately for Nisha and each is on their own journey, not only to find her, but in doing so they also reflect on their own part in her disappearance. Each is taken to dark places, both literally, as they encounter underworlds that were previously not fully known to them, but also figuratively as they are forced to question whether they gave Nisha the respect and attention she had a right to expect and may therefore have some culpability.

I found the book gripping, and the story interesting. Its subject-matter is at times uncomfortable; most of us probably think that we have nothing to do with this kind of discrimination and injustice, but the reader, like Petra and Yiannis, is forced to confront the fact that we are all part of the bigger system that perpetuates it. It is less subtle than The Beekeeper of Aleppo in making its ‘campaign’ points. Some of the characters are merely caricatures of the system (such as the indifferent police detective) or mouthpieces for the points the author wants to make, like Tony the agency owner who finds jobs for many of the south-east Asian migrants, but who is also very protective of them.

I listened to the book on audio and found the narration excellent with very good performances all round. Petra and Yiannis are voiced by two different actors, which I liked, and Art Malik makes another appearance for this author reading the third-person chapters.

Highly recommended.

Source: The International Labour Organization

Book review – “The Thursday Murder Club” by Richard Osman

I am not a huge fan of celebrities writing books; memoirs I can just about get (if they have had interesting lives and have fans then I can see people might want to read about them), but I bristle slightly when I see celebrities capitalising on their success in other fields by publishing a book. David Walliams has carved out a second career as a children’s author and seems to be more of a writer than a comedian these days. Miranda Hart has also dabbled in children’s fiction, with a bit less success, I think. For adult readers, Dawn French and Ruth Jones have also been very successful. I have resisted all of these. There’s nothing wrong with it, of course, it’s my total prejudice! I suppose I just think that it is so hard for unknown authors to get published, that it’s kind of annoying when someone uses their fame to jump the queue, especially if their book is inferior. Why don’t they seek publication under a pseudonym and try their luck with the rest of us? Jealous, me? You bet!

You can understand why publishers would want a famous person to publish under their own name, of course. And you could argue that if it gets someone buying a book which they might not have done if it was written by A N Other, then that’s a good thing. And perhaps that purchase subsidises less well-known authors? It’s never as simple as it seems at first. For the celebrity, of course, there is also a risk – what if people read the book and think it’s not very good? Then their reputation for eg comedy, acting or singing, which may have been cultivated through years of hard work, could easily be put at risk.

45,000 copies sold in the first three days on sale!

I had no interest in Richard Osman’s book published in September last year, The Thursday Murder Club, which has been a rip-roaring success. It quickly became a best-seller and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. A sequel is due to be published next month and the film rights have been bought by Steven Spielberg. Then a neighbour passed it on to me – she did not rate it very highly (neither did another neighbour), but my book club decided to give it a go. So, fate threw the book my way.

There are four main characters making up the eponymous Thursday Murder Club – Elizabeth, who has a shady past, possibly in the secret service, Ron, a former trade union leader, Ibrahim, a retired psychiatrist, and Joyce, a widow of no particular distinction. They all live in a high-end retirement village in Kent, which is on the site of a former convent. The village is owned by spivvy, property developer Ian Ventham. The quartet meets every week to discuss unsolved murder cases, and they amuse themselves by trying to work out whodunnit and how. They get their case files from Penny, a former detective and fellow resident, now with severe dementia, cared for by her husband. Penny should not have kept the files, but she did.

While studying one particular case, Tony Curran, a local man with a criminal past, former associate of both Ventham and Ron’s son Jason (who happens to be a famous former boxer, now retired), is murdered. The group now has a real life case to look at! Using wily and underhand means, Elizabeth and Joyce manage to get in with the local murder squad investigating the case – Joyce is something of an innocent and is led into deceit by Elizabeth, although she does not seem to mind. They target a young local officer, Donna, who has transferred from London following a relationship breakdown, to get them access to privileged information and they persuade her on the basis that they can ensure she is attached to the murder squad; Donna is ambitious and agrees. The other police officer who becomes central is Chris, a middle-aged, lonely, overweight, long in the tooth type, who fancies that he knows it all, but seems to be easily manipulated by the retirees. Whilst the Thursday Murder Club is considering the case another murder takes place under their noses, this time it’s Ian Ventham, the owner of the retirement village.

I think that’s enough plot information to give you an idea of where it’s all going. It is quite a clever complex plot, and it does not turn out how you think it’s going to. The activities of the Thursday Murder Club, their methods, their characters, bring an element of comedy, which you would expect from Osman, whom, I have to say, I have always liked on television. But, there is also an inescapable poignancy, not just from the fact that several people get killed (!), but also because all the residents know they are in the latter stages of their lives and death may not be far away for any of them; in fact they have to deal with it all around them on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps this is what makes them fearless, even reckless sometimes. There are some plot easements which lack a bit of credibility, which are mostly explained away by Elizabeth’s ‘access’ to people and information by virtue of her past life, and which need to remain confidential. But this book is not meant to be completely rigorous. It’s a bit of escapism with a message, that life is short and we should grasp opportunities when they come along.

The pace of the book dipped a bit in the middle for me, but overall, I have to admit I enjoyed it. Recommended if you like your murder on the lighter side.

Book reviews – “A Thousand Moons” & “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry – poet, novelist, playwright, multi-award winner and Irish Laureate for Fiction 2019-21

One of the best books I read in 2017 was Sebastian Barry’s Booker shortlisted novel Days Without End. This extraordinary novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty and his companion and later lover John Cole who meet in the US Army and fight in the wars against native Americans and then the Civil War. Thomas crossed the ocean from Ireland to escape the famine. The couple rescue a young Indian girl, Winona, who has been orphaned at the hands of their own fellow soldiers, and go on to risk their lives, leaving the army and setting up home together with her as their adopted daughter. It is a breathtaking book. Barry began his literary career as a poet and he is also a playwright and it shows in this book; he uses the most beautiful lyrical language and has a keen sense of dramatic tension. The battle scenes are among the most vivid and visceral that I have ever read.

A Thousand Moons is the follow-up to Days Without End and was published at the start of the pandemic in March last year. Its central character and narrator is Winona, now a young woman, and her guardians, Thomas McNulty and John Cole, are living a relatively settled life in middle age. Winona is bright and determined and the men are keen that she should develop her talents, so she gets a job working as a clerk for a lawyer in the town. They family lives together on a small farm in Tennessee in a seemingly arcadian, slightly bohemian set-up with two former African-American slaves to boot. But prejudice is never very far away and in the small town, where post civil-war resentments still run deep, the household is regarded with suspicion, and particularly Winona, whose darker skin makes her origins obvious.

Local boy Jas Jonski is in love with Winona and wants to marry her, but she keeps him at arms-length. When one night Winona is raped, it sets off a sequence of events which lead to the murder of Jas. Winona is the prime suspect and events threaten to break up the family idyll; it seems inevitable that the discrimination in the law (Indians have no defence) will make it impossible for Winona to escape the death penalty.  

A Thousand Moons lacks the epic sweep of Days Without End, and is therefore a book which does not quite enable Barry to display his mastery. But it also feels like a book that had to be written; we had to hear Winona’s story, but it was always going to be a more intimate one than the grand tumultuous scale of the earlier novel. It is no less powerful, however, and the same themes, prejudice, small-mindedness, injustice, and the power of love, are picked up and explored further in the sequel. Almost all of Sebastian Barry’s novels are part of a wider schema, with different generations of the same families’ stories (the Dunnes and the McNultys) being explored. But despite their links, each novel seems to stand on its own, like The Whereabout of Eneas McNulty for example; Eneas would have been two or three generations after the migrant Thomas, but they are linked, part of the great spread, the Irish diaspora. A Thousand Moons is a true sequel and it helps to have read Days Without End.

I love Barry’s writing and I have decided I need to read his entire works! I started with The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty because it was his third novel (published in 1998) and the first of the McNulty sagas. I am also interested in how his writing has developed. He was clearly already operating at a very high level when he wrote it. It’s brilliant! Eneas was born in Sligo at the end of the nineteenth century and we learn much about his childhood, particularly his friendship with Jonno Lynch. He joins the Royal Irish Constabulary after the end of the first world war, a decision that will define his future life. It will set him apart, mark him as a loyalist when the Irish conflict intensifies and his former friends side with the republicans. He is handed a death sentence by these former friends and is forced to flee Sligo. But Sligo will never leave him and is a constant presence in the novel.

Most of the book concerns his travels, his odyssey, as he moves around the world, making comrades and enemies. He travels first to America (a brief reference is made to a distant uncle, Thomas McNulty), to Africa, returns briefly to Sligo, only to discover that his past “crimes” have not been forgotten; even in the context of Irish independence there is no amnesty for those perceived as traitors. Eneas ends up in London running a hostel with his old Nigerian friend Harcourt, a man also exiled from his country by civil strife (and ruination caused by British colonialism) but his past will always catch up with him.

This feels like a foundational novel. The first in a series, the start of a complex family saga that the author will weave. It also has the lyrical language that characterises his later work, and explores the many different kinds of love and companionship that humans can experience, and the horrors of prejudice and intra-community conflict. I listened to both on audio (also Days Without End) and the readings have been faultless – Aidan Kelly is fabulous and I could listen to him reading anything.

I recommend both these books highly and will be adding many more by Sebastian Barry to my reading list.

Book review: “Wild: A journey from lost to found” by Cheryl Strayed

When we first meet Cheryl, the author and narrator, she is lost. At the tender age of 26 she finds herself in a dark place, at the bottom of a downward spiral that began when she lost her 46 year-old mother to cancer four years earlier. Cheryl is one of three siblings, brought up mostly in a single parent family, the mother having left the children’s violent alcoholic father when they were still very young. The mother later married Eddie, a calm and steady influence, and they lived a humble, fairly rural and, most importantly, stable existence. With her mother’s death, however, Cheryl’s life begins to collapse in on her. She and her siblings seem unable to bond in their grief, Eddie drifts away and soon finds another partner and step-children who quickly take over the family home, and Cheryl sets off on a path of toxic behaviour (infidelity, drug-taking and serial unemployment) that will drive a wedge between her and her husband.

Thus the scene is set. When she has reached rock-bottom, Cheryl decides that they only thing she can possibly do is set out on a 1,100 mile solo hike on one of the toughest trails in north America. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican border in the south, to the Canadian border in the north, through California, Oregon and Washington. The trail is, over 2,600 miles in total so the author covers only part of it, in a trip that will take her around three months. That’s enough! The terrain is inhospitable, the landscapes change from desert to snowy mountain top, which means that, since she carries almost all of what she needs with her, she requires clothing and equipment for a wide range of climatic conditions. The year that she chooses to travel happens to be one of the worst for snowfall in the mountains. The journey is treacherous enough so Cheryl decides, like all but the most intrepid of hikers, to bypass the worst affected part of the trail and rejoin lower down.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl’s constant companion on her hike is ‘Monster’, the name she gives her enormous backpack. It is monstrously heavy and carrying it gives her constant pain, from the agonies of bearing the weight, to the blisters and open wounds it wears on her hips. Her other source of pain is her boots, bought in good faith, but which turn out to be too small for a hike of this type and which lead to various foot problems, including blackened and lost toenails. But these burdens, the pains, the wounds, are a metaphor for the emotional pain that she is enduring, and as she grows fitter and stronger, and as she learns to beat her immense discomfort, so she learns to live with her grief and to make peace with her suffering. This journey is a meditation on pain. It is therapy.

The book would not be as interesting if it were a trail diary alone. Rather, it is part memoir, as the author gives us the background to her life, to the decline and fall that brought her to the momentous decision to undertake such an enormous mental and physical challenge. It is also a lesson in how sometimes the toughest things can be the most important. The author meets people on the trail with whom she develops lasting bonds and learns that she has depths of resourcefulness that she did not know she had. There are also moments of peril – when her pre-packed supply box does not arrive at the ranger station on time, when she loses a boot over the side of a mountain and has to hike for several days in her camp sandals, attached to her feet by duck tape, when she meets two suspicious characters, ostensibly out to hike and fish, but who seem to take an unnatural interest in the fact she is alone, and then ruin her water purifier to boot.

This is a fascinating story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was on holiday when I read it and began fantasising about long-distance walking trails! Perhaps just the Trans-Pennine for me though – I don’t think I need anything on this scale!

Highly recommended.

Audiobook review – “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

I reached a reading milestone recently – I finished Ducks, Newburyport. This humungous novel, which clocks in at a whopping 1030 pages (paperback) is easily the longest book I have ever read. I listened to it on audio, brilliantly read by Stephanie Ellyne, and it lasted over 45 hours, easily the length of six or seven “normal” books. I started it around Christmas time I think, so it has taken me months. I would probably have got through it more quickly in ‘normal’ times as I would have listened to it while driving, but I have hardly driven at all this last year. Mostly I listened to it while cleaning the house, which seemed very appropriate.

The un-named central character and narrator is a middle-aged American woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She is a mother of four, cancer survivor, former college lecturer, and self-employed baker, who makes pies for a number of local cafes and restaurants which she delivers each day. The novel is a written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, almost entirely in the present, and many of the sentences begin with the phrase “the fact that…” as she tells us about the various aspects of her life, her family, her husband, her dead parents, their parents, baking, her past career, her cancer and American society. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place over a short period of time, but, let’s be clear, very little happens in this novel.

A big image for a very big book!

It has been criticised for its length; indeed, I read that Lucy Ellmann’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, declined to publish it for this reason, so instead she went with a small independent, Galley Beggar Press, which is based in Norwich.

The themes of the novel are emptiness and loneliness in modern American life, the dilemmas of being a woman, motherhood, loss. Our narrator commentates scathingly on Trump, on guns, and on the violence in society. She bemoans the decline of childhood, how young people have been lost to technology, social media and advertising and the inequalities not just in American society, but across the world. Yet at the same time, she is a woman who wants the best for her children and therefore perpetuates those inequalities. The essential dilemma. She laments climate change and the loss of the natural world while also contributing to it with her own lifestyle. (As do almost all of us). Yet another modern dilemma. She loves her children, but has a somewhat estranged relationship with her eldest daughter, Stacey, who has a different father to her three siblings.

Mostly, the narrator is grieving; there are frequent pained references to “Mommy”. Her mother died some years earlier after a long illness and the narrator cannot let go of her feeling that she should have done more for her mother, and, mostly, that she misses her terribly. The loss continues to blight her life, and she feels deeply the lack of nurturing she has in her own life. She seems to have a good and loving relationship with her husband, bridge engineer Leo, but it cannot make up for the loss of mother.

There is a parallel story going on in the narrative; a female mountain lion roams Ohio, creating fear throughout the state and leading to a frenzy of trackers and gun-owners who try to hunt her down. She is simply looking for food for her cubs and the reduced wild territory available to her means she trespasses on human occupied land. Our narrator is aware of the lion and fears for her children’s safety, while also virtue-signalling and taking positions on habitat destruction for wildlife. The cubs are captured and taken to the zoo, but the mountain lion continues to search, ceaselessly. Her drive to mother is all-encompassing.

This novel is profound and if you can stick with it, it will reward you handsomely. There is so much complexity, it is so multi-layered. The length also means we bond quite closely with the narrator, in a way that I don’t think would have happened if it had been shorter.

I recommend this book highly, while recognising that few will have the time and opportunity to embrace it. Take a year, six months at least. Get the audio – it is read brilliantly and you can at least do the vacuuming/ironing/cooking as you do so!

Book review: “Luster” by Raven Leilani

Luster has been causing a bit of a literary storm since it was published in the US late last year. It has won numerous prizes, was a bookshop favourite and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in the UK this year. It’s subject is similar to a couple of books I have already read this last year (Queenie and Such a Fun Age), but it does take a more unconventional journey through the experience of a woman of colour in a mainly white middle-class world. What lifts it above the other two books mentioned above, is the quality of the writing; this is most definitely in the ‘literary’ category and Leilani is a phenomenally talented writer.

Set in New York, twenty-something Edie is working as a publishing assistant, a job she finds boring. She has a very modest lifestyle, just about surviving on her salary, and her life seems without interest or stimulation. There are frequent references to her past, her family background, and, in particular, her mother who died relatively young in unhappy circumstances. Edie is still somewhat grief-stricken, something she expresses through her interest in art.

Fine praise indeed, from none other than Zadie Smith

Edie meets Eric, a forty-something archivist from New Jersey, and they begin a relationship. Eric tells Edie he and his wife have an “open relationship”, but it is clearly not something he is used to. When we meet his wife later on, it becomes apparent that she has, at best, mixed feelings about the arrangement, and it appears more like a compromise to him than something she is wanting to engage in too. Much to Edie’s frustration it takes some weeks before the relationship with Eric becomes sexual, but when it does, the sex is fairly graphic. This is certainly one of the features of the book that critics have commented upon!

One of the boundaries that Eric’s wife Rebecca had set, was that he should not bring his lover to their home. Eric breaks this fairly quickly and this piques Edie’s interest. Eventually, and inevitably, Edie ends up meeting Rebecca, and finds that Eric has a thirteen year-old daughter, who is adopted and black. Rebecca is a pathologist whose job is to carry out autopsies. She too finds she has an interest in Edie, rather like a scab she cannot help but pick. The two women seem drawn together in a mutual kind of hostile fascination. When Edie loses her job (and therefore her income and her home), Rebecca tells Edie that she can move in with them temporarily (while Eric is away at a conference and therefore blissfully unaware!).

The novel changes tack at this point as it becomes about the emotional dance between the two women and the effect this has on Edie. Unemployed and unable to find sustainable employment, she takes up her art in earnest. Edie also latches onto Akila, the daughter, who is at first resentful of Edie, but then grows warmer towards her when she realises what they have in common. Eric is mortified when he returns home and finds Edie has moved in. His sexual interest in her declines rapidly and he nearly becomes irrelevant at this point.

This is not a ‘plot’ novel, though I won’t say any more about what happens. It is a novel about psychological tension and about the growth of a young woman into someone able to express herself through art and not just through her sexual relationship to a white male, and this says something significant about the black female experience.

Recommended.

Book review – “Hot Stew” by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet, was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. Set in Yorkshire, for which ‘Elmet’ is an ancient pseudonym, it is a brilliant, dark portrait of a small somewhat disenfranchised family, threatened both by the authorities and by a shady underworld. I loved it and Mozley was, at the time, the youngest ever shortlisted author, until Daisy Johnson came along the following year and bested her by a couple of years. I wrote recently about the ‘difficult second novel’ when I was reviewing Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy. That novel was a little disappointing, but Fiona Mozley has well and truly cracked it with a stunning follow-up.

Elmet had a close focus on a small family (a father and his two children), but Mozley’s skill for creating a strong supporting cast of characters was being tested out even there, and in Hot Stew she has drawn her view back and created an ensemble of diverse characters among whom she moves with dexterity. The novel is set in Soho and Mozley’s interest in history is brought out once again as she weaves in information about the origins of that part of London, including how its name derived from a hunting cry “So Ho”. The novel opens with a conversation on a rooftop between two sex workers, Precious and Tabitha, the former active and the latter retired. Tabitha, we will learn later, is the assistant, companion and adviser in a relationship that defies convention and definition. The novel is populated by many others residing in the area, sex workers, itinerants, entertainers and those who belong in no other place.

The buildings they occupy and work out of are owned by Agatha, the half Russian, half English sixth daughter of a former property peculator whose last wife (the Russian one) managed to persuade her husband to leave all his wealth to their unborn child, whom she had convinced him was a boy. Agatha was born after her father’s death and so never knew the man to whom she owes all her privileges. She was sent to the finest schools, and has wealth beyond most people’s imaginings, thanks to her father having bought up much of derelict and undesirable Soho after the war. Agatha wants to get the sex workers out so that she can develop her holdings further. This tussle for dominance creates the premise of the novel, but in Fiona Mozley’s hands it is so much more than that.

We explore the many worlds of the full range of characters, while never losing a grip on who is who. Some are more relevant than others, but all have a part to play in the story. The reader is invited to examine their preconceptions about sex workers and sexuality as the different lifestyles are explored and complex moral conundrums are set up. There is a huge amount going on in the 300 or so pages of this book.

As with Elmet, the denouement of the novel is dramatic and just far-fetched enough to make us realise that the world we are in is somehow ‘other’. The catastrophe that brings the novel to its close resolves some of the thorny issues thrown up by the story. This does not make it ‘unbelievable’, however; there is gritty social realism here, contemporary social dilemma (how to deal with capitalism) and the dysfunctionality of attitudes to sex and sexuality.

I loved this book and it is a challenge to review because it is so ambitious in scope and so broad in its content. I listened to it on audio and it wasn’t the best narration I have ever heard – the actress was too young, it seemed to me, and there were a number of mispronunciations which should have been edited – that’s not the actor’s fault, more the producer’s laziness. Such things jar. I would recommend the book highly and will be surprised if this does not find itself on some literary prize shortlists this year.

Book review – “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t buy very many hardback books, hardly ever in fact until I started this blog, tending to find them cumbersome and too heavy for a handbag. Most of my reading now, however, is done at home rather than on the fly and I find I enjoy the weight and feel of a hardback and the better quality paper. Perhaps that is also down to my age! There are just some books that are more of an event though – Hamnet, The Mirror and the Light and The Testaments come to mind – and simply deserve the gravitas of the hardback format. Klara and the Sun by literary giant Kazuo Ishiguro is one such book. Plus I just couldn’t wait for the paperback! There was great fanfare about its release on 2 March; a whole episode of Alan Yentob’s BBC arts programme Imagine was devoted to the author, and I was delighted to watch a Manchester International Festival online event where Ishiguro was interviewed by fellow writer and poet Jackie Kay. Kazuo Ishiguro comes across as such a lovely man – confident but humble, respectful and measured, subtly charming. And someone who it would not be too scary to meet, I suspect.

Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s eighth novel (in a forty year career), proving that you don’t have to be prolific to be great; he has won just about every major literary award going, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. I knew that Artificial Intelligence was the subject of the novel and knowing that Ishiguro is never afraid to try out new things, I feared this would be a ‘dystopian future’ book – not the kind of book I tend to enjoy. It is not such a book, however. Rather, it is an exploration of what it means to be human.

Klara is an “AF” – Ishiguro leaves us to work out what this stands for – an AI robot produced for the specific purpose of acting as a companion to young people. The pre-supposition here is that human beings have reached a point of evolution where teenagers need a robot to accompany them at this stage in her life. We first meet Klara when she is in a shop window, waiting to be purchased. Poor Klara always seems to be overlooked in favour of newer models, despite the special qualities that the shop’s manager believes she possesses. From her vantage point in the shop, Klara watches the sun each day, its rising and setting and computes that it has special powers. For Klara the sun is almost god-like; a futuristic AI robot that sees the sun in a similar way to some of our ancient ancestors. Klara is also given energy by the sun – her batteries are solar.

Klara is eventually chosen by a young girl, Josie. Josie and her mother take Klara away to their home outside the city in an isolated rural setting and Klara is at last given her task. It is interesting how the reader gets drawn into having feelings about Klara. Klara is the narrator and we see the world through her rather childlike eyes, except she is not childlike; there are just some bits of data she has not processed and stored yet. But it is hard not to feel for Klara when, for example, the maid at Josie’s house is suspicious and a little hostile towards her, perhaps because she fears for her own job. And when Klara stands silently in the corner with her back to the room because her presence is not required we cannot help but see her like the child who has been left out. Klara is not human and yet she is the closest thing to it.

It soon becomes apparent that Josie has special needs. She has a kind of ‘elevated’ academic status which seems to mean that her parents have given her some sort of treatment which means that she receives a different kind of education to children who have not had this done to them. One such child is Rick, Josie’s nearest neighbour and childhood best friend. It is clear that Rick’s mother would never be able to afford the special status that Josie and her peers have and so his chances of succeeding academically and professionally are slim. The reader can see that there is a very short hop between this world and the selective nature of modern education we have in real life (both as a matter of policy and a matter of social determinism), and indeed between this world and Huxley’s Brave New World. A warning has been fired across our bows here.

In order to attain this special status, however, something had to be done to Josie (we are not told exactly what) and this has put her in some danger – for parents, the decision whether to give their child an academic leg-up is not risk-free. Hmm. Klara is capable of some rudimentary feelings and feels protective and fond of Josie. When she realises that Josie’s life may be in danger, she sets about trying to save her, utilising the sun’s enrgy. What Klara has not worked out, however, is how this AF is being groomed for something very different altogether.

The plot of this novel is pure genius and Ishiguro has conjured some contemporary themes out of a futuristic premise. What he has also done, very cleverly, is create a world that does not seem very different to our own and yet presents some prospects that we should take care we don’t stumble into. AI is a fact of our present life and will be a fact of our future. Stephen Hawking believed we should be careful as it had the potential to be the “worst event” in human civilisation. It is not clear which side Ishiguro comes down on, indeed, Klara is one of the most likeable characters in the book, but perhaps that is the point; it is not necessarily what AI will become that is the threat, but what it will cost us in human terms to get there.

A brilliant, engaging, complex novel, I recommend this highly.