I got a copy! (The publication of Sally Rooney’s new novel)

Last week, the books and publishing industry got itself into the biggest lather that I have seen since before the pandemic. In fact, the last time I can remember such excitement was almost exactly two years ago when Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was published. I did not, like some, form an orderly queue outside a participating bookshop to buy my copy on the stroke of midnight Tuesday, 7 September. I managed to hang on until Thursday before succumbing!

Have you got your copy of the biggest book of the year yet?

I was working in London at the weekend and decided it would be a good opportunity to read the book on the train. I imagined that I would devour it in a couple of sittings. I didn’t and am still only about halfway through. You may be wondering if that tells you something about how I feel about the book, but you will have to wait until I have finished it before getting my full and considered opinion.

Reception of the book so far has been positive, but with acknowledgement of the difficulties of producing work that reaches the same dizzying heights as her first two books: Anthony Cummins in The Guardian senses the difficulties the author has had writing this novel in “the glare of expectation”. John Williams in the New York Times, hates the book’s title, but mostly loves what is inside the covers, especially the author’s partly-ironic exploration of what must certainly be the autobiographical elements. He finds parts of the novel clichéd, but acknowledges the impossible situation this young (Rooney is still only 30) author is in and admires what she has achieved. The Independent gave it three stars out of five.

Sally Rooney has cited Natalia Ginzburg’s Little Virtues as an influence on her work

By chance I heard that there would be a special ‘pop-up’ event in east London, close to where I was going to be working, so I took the opportunity to go along on Saturday afternoon. A huge mural replicating the book’s cover had been painted on the outside of the venue, so it was impossible to miss. That was the highlight really; inside was a sparse,rather bleak windowless room, up some shabby stairs, with the books laid out on a couple of cloth-covered tables. The impromptu bookshop, was a joint venture between Waterstones and Faber, Rooney’s publisher. The super-enthusiastic young staff was selling copies of the novel, plus some books that Rooney had selected based on her influences for the work. I was also told I would get a free canvas bag and some ‘merch’ (badges and bookmarks) if I bought the book there and then. I said this was unlucky as I had already purchased it two days before. This did not generate the desired response; I was not offered a freebie in acknowledgement of my support. Even more disappointingly, I purchased two of “Rooney’s recommendations”, but only the main act entitled me to some ‘merch’. Shame. I would have liked a bookmark.

So, I got a bit caught up in the hype. I went along to the ‘pop-up event’ hoping some sort of magic might rub off on me. Unlike some other customers I saw, all looking like the millennials who are the main subject of the novel, I did not do a selfie with the shop mural in the background. I came away feeling slightly suckered. And hoping that this had been the publisher’s and not the author’s doing, that she had no control over how the book was marketed.

Indeed. The ‘pop-up’ event in Shoreditch, London, last weekend

I hope for her sake, Sally Rooney’s third novel is more ‘moderately’ successful than Normal People, and that she can then get on with what she does best, writing books. Does Beautiful World, Where Are You live up to the hype? I’ll let you know next week!

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

Reading challenge – September

September is may favourite time of the year. I just cannot escape that ‘back to school’ feeling and I am always filled with hope and optimism, that something is beginning. I am writing this in my garden and the weather is particularly lovely today, the kind of day that gives you both joy and energy. I have had a very energetic day in fact, having this morning completed my very first official 10k run – Yay! I completed it in almost exactly one hour, which is a very good time for me and I did it without any walking so I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

My daughters are back to school tomorrow and I will miss them being around the house. We normally take our holidays in August, but this year we went in July, so the last month has been spent mainly at home, which has been very grounding. Tomorrow also means a return to some semblance of work – I work part-time for a charity – and also trying to get back to a writing habit. I’m starting work on a new book (while also trying to get my first one submitted!) I also need to get back into a regular reading habit as that has fallen a bit by the wayside.

It is just as well that my Facebook reading challenge choice for last month was a fairly easy one (theme: a book to rest with) and lent itself to being read in small bits of time snatched here and there. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim is a collection of thoughts and wisdom from the international best-selling Korean Buddhist monk. It provides guidance on how to focus more on the important things in life, the things that give our existence substance, such as love, friendship, spirituality and commitment. It is divided into eight chapters, which begin with a short discourse, and then a couple of sub-chapters with several short paragraphs of wisdom. It was an easy read and one I can see myself keeping at my bedside and going back to time and again. Definitely one for slow absorption.

This month’s theme for my reading challenge is a YA novel. I love the YA genre and always wish I read more! The book I have chosen has the intriguing title Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It was first published in 2013 and has been described by Time magazine as the best YA book of all time – quite a recommendation! The audiobook is read by Lin Manuel Miranda, which is very tempting indeed, but I have been listening to a lot of audio recently (while training for the 10k) and I long to have a paperback novel in my hands again!

Many awards won…

Aristotle and Dante are two loners who meet at a swimming pool and seem to have very little in common. Aristotle is described as an ‘angry teen’ whose brother is in prison; Dante is a ‘know it all’. They seem unlikely companions but find they have some shared interests and develop a firm bond as they discover important truths about themselves and about life.

So, if that sounds like something you could get your teeth into, I would love for you to join me this month in the reading challenge.

I hope your September is fruitful, happy and fulfilling.

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.

Literary sightseeing #2 – James Joyce’s Dublin

I have just returned from a couple of weeks holiday in Dublin where we were visiting my in-laws whom we had not seen since Christmas 2019. We spent most of our time with family, naturally, but with two whole weeks to fill (and not wanting to go any further afield on this trip) it was a good opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing in the city. Remarkably, in all the years that I have been visiting Dublin, this is something I have rarely done. I decided to start re-reading Ulysses a few months ago. I had not got very far into my mission so I used the downtime to read, listen and study the book. I took my Ulysses companion with me and at a secondhand book stall in Dun Laoghaire market I picked up a copy of The Ulysses Guide: Tours through Joyce’s Dublin by Robert Nicholson (first published in 1988) which offers several tour options corresponding to the different chapters in the book, in the order that Leopold Bloom takes them.

James Joyce was actually born less than a mile from where my in-laws live in Rathgar, a south Dublin suburb. Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, a red-brick Victorian terraced house in a quiet residential area. The house is very typical of the area, but fairly unremarkable.

The building with which Joyce is most associated, however, and the venue for the first part of Ulysses (Telemachus) is the martello tower at Sandycove. This is now home to the James Joyce Tower and Museum. I visited it many years ago on a trip I once made to Dublin in the ’90s. I would have loved to have gone again this time, but unfortunately, at the time of writing, it has not yet reopened following the pandemic.

Sandymount strand, another site in Ulysses is lovely, really typical Dublin by the sea, with a view of Howth on the opposite side of Dublin Bay, a haven for walkers and dog owners and now also a protected area due to some rare grasses having taken root there. You can reach both the museum and the Strand from the city centre by taking the Dart train at Connolly station (to Sydney Parade for Sandymount Strand, then a 10 minute walk, and Sandycove for the Museum, followed by a 15 minute walk). On the left hand side you can also see Ringsend pier, another site in Ulysses.

Sandymount Strand – a panorama

Chapter six of the book, also known as Hades, covers Paddy Dignam’s funeral procession (an associate of Bloom’s and many of the other characters appearing throughout the book) from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery. The cortege passes through and along many of the city’s most well-known locations – O’Connell Street, the bridges over the Liffey, the Dodder and Grand and Royal Canals (these four waterways represent the four rivers on Odysseus’s journey to the underworld). They also pass through Ringsend and Pigeonhouse Road (Poolbeg Road), where a family member of mine actually now owns a house.

Glasnevin Cemetery, where the funeral cortege ends up, is a Dublin ‘must-see’. It is one of the most important historic sites in the country. Covering 124 acres, it is the final resting place of approximately 1.5 million people. Its inhabitants include Michael Collins, Daniel O’Connell, Eamon de Valera, Charles Stewart Parnell, Maud Gonne, Brendan Behan and Christy Brown. Tours of the cemetery are usually possible and are expected to resume shortly. The cemetery is also adjacent to the National Botanical Gardens, nothing to do with Joyce, but a beautiful place that should be high on the list of any Dublin visitor.

The Round Tower, which stands over the grave of Daniel O’Connell, at Glasnevin Cemetery, as seen from the Botanical Gardens

That’s as far as I got this holiday, both in my reading and my sightseeing. James Joyce devotees in Dublin run a programme of events every year on 16 June, the day depicted in Ulysses. These include talks, tours, readings and dressing-up! It is on my bucket list to participate sometime, but always falls in term time for me so has not been possible yet…but soon! For more detail on all of the above as well as many of the other wonderful things you can do in the beautiful city of Dublin see www.visitdublin.com

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.

Facebook Reading Challenge – July choice

Last month’s reading challenge book, Murder in Midsummer, a collection of short stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Ruth Rendell, was the perfect bit of light-hearted escapism for me. Nothing too challenging, great entertainment. Look out for my review next week.

This month is going to be completely different! The theme is “a book to travel with”. Since travel as we know it, is pretty much off the agenda at the moment (the UK government’s new list of green and amber countries was announced last week, and, guess what, most of us are going nowhere!) we are all having to think a little laterally at the moment. Perhaps you booked your caravan in Torquay months ago, in which case congratulations, but those less organised among us, waited. I thought we were being organised by booking the ferry to Ireland back in March, assuming we would be out of this pandemic by the summer, but alas, it does not look as if Ireland will have us and our potential Delta variant, not for the moment at least, without stringent quarantine restrictions that make the trip impractical. So, it’s back to the drawing board for us and yet more months before we see family again. I’m sure many of you are in the same boat.

What does it mean to ‘travel’ anyway? Many of us will have at least a few far-flung destinations on our bucket lists, but if we look back, the trips that mean most to us are usually the ones which involved some sort of mental or emotional journey, or spiritual transformation too. So, rather than choose a book about A N Other’s fantastic trip to Paradise, that makes me too jealous to read, I’ve chosen a book which is about travel as catharsis or recovery. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published in 2012 by American writer Cheryl Strayed and was the first choice of Oprah’s book club when it was launched the same year.

Strayed wrote this memoir during a particularly difficult time in her life; her mother had died prematurely, when Cheryl was only 22, she and her husband divorced and she became a drug user. She undertook the punishing 1100 mile hike through California, Oregon and Washington as a form of therapy.

Okay, so it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs, maybe even triggering for some, but I think it is possibly a journey worth taking. And I get the sense that it is ultimately uplifting.

So, I would love for you to join me in the challenge in July. Hop on over to the Facebook group and join if you would like.

Happy reading everyone, however and wherever you will be travelling this month.