Book review – “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman

We are living in an age where minorities are beginning to find their voices. Many people who have experienced discrimination are angry. Their talents have been undervalued, their lives and their health have been damaged, their daily lived experience has, for many, been characterised by fear and by acts of hostility. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is rocking the United States to its very foundations and leading to some intense friction between people who have been historically oppressed and who are saying enough is enough, and people who fear what they might lose. Some of these, no doubt, subscribe to the view that the oppressed somehow deserve their lesser status. The movement has taken hold in the UK and throughout Europe too, although it does not appear to be quite as toxic as in the USA. The conversation we all now need to engage in will be a difficult one.

In the last week or two, we have seen a resurgence of another discrimination issue which is much more long-standing, that of anti-semitism; the UK Labour Party is currently considering a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on anti-semitism in its recent past. The full report will not be published for some time yet, but this will be a painful period for a party which has tolerance and plurality at its heart. The rapper Wiley was (eventually) banned from various social media platforms after making posting anti-semitic remarks recently, repeating discredited conspiracy theories. Several celebrities and public figures boycotted Twitter in protest at the failure of the social media giant to take down Wiley immediately.

Unorthodox imgIt therefore seems timely that I recently read the memoir Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. Deborah is in her mid-thirties and lives in Berlin, with her young son. However, she grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a member of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews. She was brought up by her grandparents; her parents separated when she was very young. Her father was a man with sub-normal intelligence, though the precise nature of his disability or illness was never identified. Deborah’s mother was English, the daughter of poor divorced Jewish parents (though not Hasidic), who was unlikely ever to be able to marry well. The marriage was effectively one of convenience for both of them and Deborah was born soon after. The marriage broke down quite quickly, however, and Deborah’s mother was compelled to leave. The community put enough pressure on to ensure she left her child behind.

Unorthodox is the story of Deborah’s childhood and teenage years as a member of this closed community. It provides a fascinating insight into the norms of this ultra-orthodox group. The Hasidis have separate schools and girls are not permitted to have a full education. In fact, boys aren’t either really, they are just educated to a different end. The girls are expected to marry young, very young, and have many children. From this book I learned that Hasidis (and I hope I am representing this accurately), are opposed to the state of Israel, it being a secular state. They also believe that the Holocaust was a punishment (divine punishment?) for Zionism and by the assimilation of non-orthodox Jews with other societies. I realise the differences are probably far more complex than this, so I hope any Jewish readers will forgive any simplification – I am happy to be corrected.

The Satmar sect to which Deborah and her family belong, continue to follow centuries-old customs, which include, for example, arranged marriage, separation of the sexes and the requirement for women to wear wigs. Menstruating women and girls are considered unclean and must endure cleansing rituals before they are permitted to have sex again. Young people are taught nothing about sex, however. When she is married to a shy and inept young man at the age of seventeen, Deborah does not even know what her body parts are supposed to do. The marriage is disastrous, for both of them, and is not consummated for a year. When, finally, Deborah and her husband manage to have sex, she becomes pregnant very quickly and gives birth to a son at the age of nineteen.

To a western European reader, of no particular religious persuasion, the account of life in the community is both jaw-dropping and enlightening. It is genuinely hard to imagine how such a sect can continue to exist, particularly in the melting-pot of New York. This book, however, is not political, rather it is intensely personal. Deborah develops a curiosity from a very young age; she is interested in books by, for example Jane Austen and Roald Dahl, but she is forced to read them in secret. Her reading opens her eyes to other possibilities, however, and she glimpses a vision of a life outside the community. Her good fortune is that in some ways she never felt fully integrated, her parents having separated and her mother having come from outside the community; we are witnessing discrimination within discrimination within discrimination. This is quite telling in itself.

As she grows older, Deborah sees the cracks in the community – the absurdity of some of the customs, the cruelty these can give rise to, how the women conspire in misguided ways against one another to perpetuate their misery, and the hypocrisy in the political power struggles in the community. Deborah finally escapes the sect. You would think that a curious and intelligent girl on the doorstep of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world find it easy to leave, but reading the book gave me an insight into the degree of control the elders hold over the young people, particularly the young women, disempowering them psychologically, financially and intellectually. Perhaps this comes from a place of fear, but that is not the subject of this book – it is one woman’s story of escaping a kind of captivity and finding her own mind.

It is a gripping account which I recommend highly. It has also been adapted and made into a television series by Netflix – something else to go on my ‘must-watch’ list!

Discrimination and its effects are common literary themes – what are your recommendations for books on this topic?

 

Feeling lucky to have such a wealth of great television

A the beginning of lockdown it seemed there was no end to challenges published on social media as most of us stared into an abyss of being confined in our homes for an indeterminate period. Whether it was fitness, craft, cooking, or reading, there was a challenge for everyone. For others, just staying alive and/or sane was enough of a challenge, and for many, of course, endless unfilled days were a luxury they could only dream of; health and care workers, key workers in supermarkets and delivery drivers all found their work was busier than ever. I got sucked in too, thinking that I was suddenly going to have lots of time on my hands to do all sorts of jobs I had not got around to doing for months, as well as reading more (SO much more!), being really creative, sorting out my garden, etc, etc. The reality was somewhat different. I, and many others, had not factored in the emotional toll of this period we called lockdown; it was not like a staycation AT ALL, it was really stressful! I was relatively lucky: some people were worried about dying and others were painfully lonely, some were locked up with abusive partners, others confined in an apartment with young, bored children who needed home-schooling. I only had a working from home husband and three teenagers to contend with. But still, I found it difficult to settle to very much at all.

I have posted on here before about how valuable I found the streaming of National Theatre Live performances, the Hay Festival channel, and the BBC Glastonbury channel was great (if anyone has ever wondered whether the TV license fee is worth it I hope their question has been answered well and truly in the affirmative these last few months). I have also been watching a lot more television than ever before and it has been such a treat. I finally watched the amazingly incredible His Dark Materials in full – Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua was simply the stand-out performance and she’s only 15! Season two is coming soon – the trailer alone is thrilling. I also enjoyed Normal People, the much-acclaimed adaptation of Sally Rooney’s much-acclaimed novel. I loved the book and was so excited to watch the television series. I thought it was very faithful to the book, and the acting performances (again from two very young actors) were outstanding, but it did not move me as much as the book. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or the book was just too good? I have also watched a couple of the new versions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. They are brilliant! There are twelve to watch altogether and every one of them will be fantastic I am sure as the casting is extremely high calibre.

Despite all this ‘extra time on my hands’ there are a few things I still have not got around to that are on my must-watch list: Noughts and Crosses, the series based on the Malorie Blackman novels, and My Brilliant Friend, the Italian adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, which is now available on YouTube! I can’t wait to watch it, as it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the last few years. I also haven’t even started on the epic series The Luminaries yet, which has been screening on Sunday evenings on BBC1 for the last few weeks. It has finished now and its slot has been swiftly taken by A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth’s epic novel from 1993, and still one of my all-time favourite books. Since I read Gone Girl in January I’ve also been wanting to watch the film – that’s another one on the list.

So, lockdown has not been the reading/film-watching/sewing/baking/decorating/ exercising bonanza that I thought it would be. Maybe in six months I’ll be asking myself what on earth I did with all that ‘spare’ time. Maybe I’ll just say to myself that I kept my family safe and well, I helped some people, I walked a lot, I kept my head together (ish) and I did enough.

NAMASTE

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(Image by Benjamin Balazs on Pixabay)

What are your reflections on your life in lockdown?

 

 

Book review – “The ABC Murders” by Agatha Christie

This was the title I chose for May in my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was classic crime fiction. I’ve read a few Agatha Christie’s in the last couple of years, having never much delved into this genre for most of my reading life. I loved the escapism of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express and I wanted to see if I would enjoy just as much a murder mystery set in the more prosaic location of London. I had also seen a little of the television adaptation from 2018 starring John Malkovich (though I think I only caught a couple of episodes) and it seemed altogether more grounded in the grim reality of its criminal subject. I’d love to watch it, actually, now that I’ve read the book, but sadly it’s not available at the moment. The film and television adaptations I have watched of Agatha Christie works have been more like costume dramas with more than a hint of comedy. I think I might prefer that to the darker readings of more recent years (rather like my late grandmother who was a voracious reader and loved nothing more than losing herself for a day in “a good murder”!)

The ABC Murders imgIn The ABC Murders Poirot is involved in a cat and mouse game with a serial killer, someone who warns in advance where and when he will strike, taunting our Belgian hero; the murderer begins with middle-aged shopkeeper Mrs Alice Ascher in Andover, then flirty young waitress Betty Barnard in Bexhill-on-sea, and so on. In this novel Poirot is past his career peak and his approach is challenged as somewhat old-fashioned in the form of Inspector Crome, an ambitious young detective who prefers more modern methods in his investigation. The murderer, however, pits himself squarely against our ageing Belgian hero; it is, unusually for the Poirot novels (it seems to me), a psychological game between perpetrator and hunter.

I also found Christie much more philosophical here than in the other Poirot novels I have read, on the criminal mind and on human nature and society more generally, such as in the following quote from Poirot:

“Speech, so a wise old Frenchman said to me once, is an invention of man’s to prevent him from thinking. It is also an infallible means of discovering that which he wishes to hide.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Like so many before me I have come to love the character of Poirot, though in my mind, I can only ever see him as David Suchet! This was the quintessential book to curl up in a chair with and lose myself for an hour or so. As such, it was the perfect antidote to the continuous grim news about Coronavirus which dominated this Spring for most of us. Every time I read a Christie novel I want to run away and just read more. That might take me years since she was so prolific! I have been exploring the official Agatha Christie website with interest and it has fantastic recommendations on screen adaptations of her work, though I might need another lockdown to get through them!

If you are an Agatha Christie fan, what are your favourite novels and screen adaptations?

June choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge

My usual routines, including my reading habits, are all over the place right now! What about you? I have both my daughters at home from school and my son home from university, plus my husband working from home. Although we are fortunate to have enough space and enough technology to enable everyone to do what they need to do, there are times when we get in each other’s way. I am also a creature of habit and do not always find it easy to adjust my rhythms to fit with other people’s. So, other commitments permitting, I like sit down with a cup of tea to read at around 3pm most afternoons, just before the return home from school. But, now, that is actually the busiest time of the day in our household – everyone seems to be ‘clocking off’ and wanting interaction! First world problems, as they say. We are all well, work is plentiful; we are among the more fortunate.

At times like this, I find it’s the little things that are important, so I try to find some time every day, no matter how small, to do some reading. I have several books on the go at the moment – Ulysses (which I promised myself I’d re-read this year and which I spent a glorious couple of hours simultaneously reading and listening to on Tuesday, 16th June, Bloomsday), Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the LightThe Beekeeper of Aleppo, which I’m listening to on audiobook, for my book club, and which is amazing, and my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for this month – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. 

The secret Live sof Baba Segi's Wives This book by Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, was published in 2010 and longlisted for the then Orange Prize for fiction the following year. Shoneyin writes beautifully. I have only just started it but I already love the characterisation and the humour, although a more melancholic note is now beginning to enter. It is described in the publisher’s blurb as at once funny and moving and I can definitely see that. Baba Segi is a traditional Nigerian male, still following the practice of polygamy in modern-day Nigeria. He has seven children by his first three wives, but desires more and when he meets Bolanle, a young graduate from a more enlightened family, who are against the marriage, he thinks his wish has been granted. Not all goes to plan, however.

I am enjoying the exploration of the family dynamics – a polygamous household will be outside the experience of most Western readers – and how the relationships between the four wives are beginning to evolve.

If you would like to join me in my reading challenge this month, hop on over to the Facebook Group– there is still time! It’s a fairly short book and we are only just over halfway through the month; I might even finish on time this month!

How have your reading habits changed in these last few months?

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Book review – “Zennor in Darkness” by Helen Dunmore

This was the April choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. At the start of the year I choose a particular theme for each month and April’s was historical fiction. Helen Dunmore was not much on my radar until I read Birdcage Walk last year, her final novel, published posthumously (Dunmore died in 2017). I thought the book was incredible and I was desperate to read more of her work. Dunmore was also a poet and acclaimed short story writer, but her historical fiction is what she is best known for, I think, and it is outstanding. Zennor in Darkness was in fact her debut novel, published in 1993, and it won the McKitterick Prize, which is awarded to debut novels of authors over 40 (there is hope for me yet!) I was open-minded; I did not expect it to be as polished as Birdcage Walk, in which she has fully matured as a writer and truly mastered her craft, but I did think it would be interesting to observe her burgeoning talent and to be able to see how she evolved as an artist.

Zennor in DarknessI really enjoyed Zennor in Darkness. It is a great story, two stories really, which become intertwined. Clare Coyne is the only daughter of widowed Francis Coyne, and the pair live together in the small town of Zennor in Cornwall. Clare’s mother was born there and the family moved from London when Clare was a baby in order to be near family. Clare’s father’s family had a higher social status, and Clare is clearly ‘different’ from her Cornish cousins, grandparents and aunts, with whom she has spent so much time, but Clare is largely disconnected from her paternal grandparents. Francis Coyne is an ineffectual character, a botanist who earns very little money from his publishing, who spends more time with his books than with his daughter, and who does not seem to understand her on any level. Clare has artistic ability and is a talented artist. She spends her time looking after her father, keeping house, and drawing plants for his latest book project.

Clare is very close to her cousins of her own age, particularly the girls Peggy and Hannah, and her slightly older male cousin, John. The novel is set in 1917, when Britain was in a state of trauma about its involvement in the First World War, the lives lost and the lives destroyed by battle.

Another (temporary) resident of the small Cornish community is the author DH Lawrence, who is renting a house there with his German wife Frieda (this part of the story is based on fact). The couple left London as Lawrence’s anti-war views had aroused great hostility, not helped by the fact of being married to a German. In Cornwall the couple hoped to find peace and quiet, but as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that some of the locals are suspicious of Lawrence, the outsider, the anti-patriot, and rumours spread that Frieda is actually a spy; the audacious red curtains hanging in the window of their rented cottage are thought to be signals to passing German U-boats!

Clare strikes up a friendship with the Lawrences, and is excited by their bohemian lifestyle, such a contrast to her own humdrum life and community. Clare also becomes romantically and sexually involved with her beloved cousin John when he returns home briefly on leave from the trenches. Like Clare, John is a cut above, had ambitions to be a doctor when he was younger, though the war put paid to that. His ability has been recognised, however, and at the end of his leave he is to begin officer training.

The title of the novel has many meanings – the ‘Darkness’ could refer to the dark times of the war and the attendant human suffering, but also to the sometimes narrow-minded attitudes of the local community to the outsider Lawrence, to Clare and Francis even. The setting of the novel is at times idyllic; there is a sense of suspension of time and escape from war (in part why the Lawrences moved there), particularly in the wonderful scenes at the beginning of the girls paddling in the sea and the recollections of the idyllic rural childhood they enjoyed. But as the novel progresses, darkness descends ever more over the events. There is no ‘happy ending’ here (how could there be, set as it is in the First World War?) but there is a kind of peace, a reconciling and a coming of age which is partly positive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will spur me on to read more of Helen Dunmore.

Recommended.

Hello again!

It’s been a while since my last post. I’m normally pretty organised when it comes to planning my blog posts, and fairly diligent about posting regularly. School holidays and busy work periods can make things tricky but generally I’m a committed and regular blogger. I imagined that during this period of global lockdown due to Covid-19, I would have much more time to post regularly. That did not quite happen, of course, what with having the whole family at home all the time, and doing much more cooking and cleaning than I do normally (‘help’ sometimes creates more work!). I was getting on okay though, appreciating the facts of our situation: we were all together, we were well, our income was fairly secure, we had a roof over our heads, those basics were in place and so all was good.

After Easter, though, I noticed a real dip in my mood. I cannot really explain it because nothing specific happened. A few things upset or angered me – the ever-increasing death tolls on the nightly news, the increasingly grave news about the economy, the anxiety about how countries with weaker health systems than ours would cope (some of them rather better than the UK it turns out), events I had booked for the coming months were gradually cancelled. I also find myself getting irrationally cross about people who seemed to believe that the measures designed to protect us all didn’t actually apply to them. But, those things didn’t seem to explain the more general malaise I found myself experiencing. I struggled for motivation. Even with at least a million things I could have been doing I felt at a loose end. And when I heard the stories on the television of people who had lost loved ones to the virus, I found the complicated grief I felt about my mother’s death last Autumn, resurfaced in ways I had not expected. Some days I felt relief that she wasn’t here to experience or be worried about getting the disease (she would certainly have died had she got it as she was very unwell), but at the same time I felt, selfishly, like screaming, hey what about the rest of us who lost people recently, NOT due to Covid-19. It was all very complicated.

I even found it difficult to read. I wasn’t able to focus. I bought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light at the start of the lockdown, thinking that long weeks of no socialising would give me plenty of opportunity to work my way through the hefty tome. Alas not. I have not even picked it up yet.

Thankfully, I can feel my mojo starting to return this last week or so, just as suddenly and as inexplicably as it went away. To what do I credit this change of mood? The following:

  • Grown Ups imgMarian Keyes – Grown Ups to be precise. It was my book club’s choice the last time we met in person and although it was probably not a book I would have picked up it was the most perfect tonic, especially as I listened to it on audio, with Marian’s wonderful narration.
  • Vincent Van Gogh – many years ago my husband bought me a 1000 piece Photomosaic jigsaw puzzle of a Van Gogh self-portrait. If you’ve never seen these, they are very clever, the larger image is made up of hundreds of tiny little photos, fiendishly difficult, but completely addictive. I had never done that jigsaw, but seemed to decide that ‘now’ was the time. Many dinners were burned or delayed as I found it difficult to drag myself away from it. We had to eat round it as it sat at the end of the dining table, a fortnight-long work in progress.  There was one near-disaster when the cat, in a last desperate attempt to get my attention to feed him, leapt up on the dining table and almost sent several hundred carefully colour-organised pieces crashing to the ground. Lucky for him, only a few pieces fell and Ziggy the cat lives to fight another day!

VVG

  • Withdrawal from social media – I’m not a big social media user, but I dabble.I found I really couldn’t take much Facebook though and Twitter was a total no-go – way too much anger and too many chronically-opinionated people.
  • And finally, free arts online – more than anything I am missing the arts (hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious). The audience with Hilary Mantel I had booked for April was cancelled, as was West Side Story at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the Hay Festival, the Thom Yorke gig in Manchester next month as well as various performances my kids were involved with and a couple of work trips to London with exhibitions to be taken in. Thank goodness for the National Theatre’s weekly NT Live recordings, the virtual tours of museums around the world, and Radiohead classic concerts on YouTube.

It hasn’t been all play, of course, I only dabbled with all of the above. I got a bit sick of hearing lifestyle-y type people saying how bored they were and were looking for things to do. I have felt busier than ever, my work has been emotionally quite demanding, and it’s never good hearing from over-achievers in those circumstances.

So, like most people, I am muddling along, looking forward to some normal things and trying to make the best of the situation. And hopefully getting back to an even keel on the blogging front.

I hope you are all doing okay. 

 

Book Review – “The King’s Evil” by Andrew Taylor

As I sat down at my computer to write this review, I was struck suddenly by the irony of being in lockdown as a result of a global pandemic, to write about a book whose title is the common term for an ancient disease. Scrofula (or mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis to give it its medical name!) causes unsightly swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck which may burst to create open sores. It is an infectious disease, often associated with tuberculosis, which declined rapidly by the 20th century as more successful treatments for tuberculosis came on stream. It is still around today, mainly affecting immunocompromised patients, and there was a resurgence during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Who knew?!

Scrofula became known as ‘the king’s evil’ because it was once believed that the touch of a monarch was enough to cure a patient of the disease. If only such treatment were enough for Covid-19. Although this book is not about scrofula directly, it opens in the Palace of Westminster where King Charles II is bestowing his ‘cure’ on a group of his disease affected subjects in a public ceremony.

The Kings Evil imgThis is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series of Marwood & Lovett novels. I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two books, The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and have listened to all three on audiobook. I love the narration of Leighton Pugh who is able to conjure the most amazing range of voices to suit the various characters. The fourth novel in the series, The Last Protector, was published earlier this month and I can’t wait to get on to that one now.

The book is set in Restoration London, in 1667, the year following the Great Fire (the first book in the series takes place during and in the immediate aftermath of that terrible event). In a further ironic twist for the times we are living in, let us not forget that the Great Fire immediately followed the plague epidemic of 1665-66 which is thought to have killed 100,000 people, or a quarter of London’s population at the time.

James Marwood is a Whitehall clerk, the son of a former Fifth Columnist, or traitor against the monarchy, who was imprisoned for his crimes. Marwood senior, a frail and senile character, was present in the first book, but died in the second, but the son is never quite free of his father’s reputation. Cat Lovett is the daughter of a regicide, a spirited and ambitious young woman with a passion for architecture, who, in the first novel was raped by her cousin, and, in fighting back, almost killed him when she poked his eye out. As a result she lives in hiding under an assumed name. It helps if you have read the first two books as it provides context and gives you an idea of the characters and their motivations, but it is not essential as the author brings in elements of the back-story.

Death and murder seem to follow James Marwood like a wasp to honey; when you are watching television shows like Midsummer Murders or Morse, you have to suspend your disbelief that so many suspicious deaths could occur in one small place, and it is rather like that with these novels! What I really like, however, is how the character of Marwood is developing, how his activity is drawing him ever closer into the inner workings of the royal court and therefore ever more entwined in the inevitable intrigue.

In this book, Marwood, who is in the employ of a senior Whitehall official and has gradually secured that man’s trust, is called upon to investigate a mysterious death at the home of Lord Clarendon, a relative by marriage of the king, but a man whose past has earned him many enemies at Court. By coincidence, Clarendon House is also undergoing building renovations which are being supervised by the architect James Haxeby, the ageing fiancé of Cat Lovett (masquerading as Jane Haxeby, the architect’s cousin). The dead man turns out to be Edward Alderley, Cat’s cousin and the man who raped her a year earlier, and Cat is about to be fitted up for the crime. When she then disappears, certain courtiers believe her guilt is obvious. Marwood believes Cat did not do it (though it must be said he is not 100% sure), and when sent in to investigate the circumstances of the murder he finds he is drawn into a much more sinister web of intrigue, of political turmoil among factions at Court and find himself in direct contact with the King himself, whom he has to inform about certain facts of the case which do not suit the accepted (and acceptable) version of events. For the first time in this series there is also a bit of love interest for Marwood, though I don’t want to reveal any spoilers!

Marwood’s fortunes and prospects are improving with each novel, but so is the degree of difficulty he finds himself in. This is a really fascinating series and I cannot wait to find out what happens to him in The Last Protector.  The sense of time and place is powerfully evoked and it is clear that an impressive amount of research has gone into this and the other books in the series. These books are great to get thoroughly lost in, reading about a disease in the distant past may help you forget the disease we are facing in the present.

Highly recommended.

What kind of books provide escapism for you?

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Book review – “Please Look After Mother” by Kyung-Sook Shin

This was the March choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a book from Asia. I hadn’t realised the coincidence, that, of course, Mother’s Day is in March in the UK, so it was an even more appropriate choice than I planned! If you were looking for some sentimental celebration of the joys of maternal love, this was not it, however. It was, in its own way, though, a celebration of mothering.

Please Look After MotherThe premise of the story is very simple: So-nyo is a wife and mother to five children, all of whom are now grown-up and living their lives in different parts of the country (South Korea). So-nyo lives a very simple fairly rural life with her husband at the family home, where there are many privations. The place is almost a throwback to a bygone era. So-nyo’s eldest son, Hyong-chol, lives in Seoul with his wife and family and it is while his parents are on their way to visit him (to celebrate the father’s birthday) that his mother goes missing; she was holding her husband’s hand on the busy underground station platform one moment, then she seemed to slip from his grasp and just disappeared into the crowd.

We meet Song-nyo’s family one week after the disappearance. They are gathered at Hyong-chol’s house, trying frantically to come up with a strategy to find their missing mother. Police searches have so far turned up nothing and although there have been a couple of random sightings, when one or other of the siblings goes to investigate, they find the trail has gone cold. There is tension in the group, all of them, in their anxiety blaming the other for some oversight that has led to their mother’s disappearance. The following chapters are told from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, there is Chi-hon, the third of the five children, a successful novelist and So-nyo’s eldest daughter. Chi-hon is the first of the family members to begin to reflect on how she has taken her mother for granted all her life (as they all have) and is only just now realising this, now that mother has gone. She tries to recall when it was that she discovered her mother could not read, a fact she managed to conceal from the world because she was so ashamed.

Through Hyon-chol’s recollections we learn of how ambitious So-nyo was for her children and of how much she sacrificed for them, particularly her eldest son, traditionally the most prized child according to her culture, a fact resented by the others, particularly Chi-hon, who never understood it fully.

There is also the reflection and sense of regret from So-nyo’s husband, who, for a time, left his wife for another woman, but who came back eventually, though on somewhat different terms. Returning to the home they shared after leaving Seoul, some weeks after his wife’s disappearance, he is visited by a stranger who runs a nearby orphanage, and who is looking for So-nyo, the woman who was a frequent visitor to the home, who gave her time and money generously to the orphanage. So-nyo’s husband realises he barely knew the woman he was married to.

I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that So-nyo herself makes appearances in the novel, particularly in the later stages. She narrates a chapter about her younger daughter, now a woman married with three young children, a bright girl who went to college, but who is now a stay-at-home mother, much like So-nyo, and yet not like So-nyo at all. So-nyo regrets how she did not give her youngest daughter the support and encouragement she deserved, either when she was a young girl or when she became a mother herself.

Through their regrets and reflections we learn about So-nyo, about her commitment to the culture of her ancestors and of how for her children she was the only bridge to that past, which is now, it would seem, gone. As they consider that they may well have lost their mother forever, each of the main characters goes on their own journey, not just rethinking their attitude to their mother, realising the part she has played in their lives, but also learning much about themselves in the process.

This book was at times very difficult for me as it is only a few months since I lost my own mother. The first Mothering Sunday without her did not affect me too much as I was somewhat distracted by the lockdown that had only just been implemented, but it would have been her 77th birthday last Easter Monday, while this book was still fresh in my mind, and that was quite hard. I spent most of the day gardening, something she would have appreciated, I think. In the last few months, rather like the characters in this book, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what my mother did for me. Perhaps we only truly grow up when we lose our parents.

Not the easiest read, but a powerful one and certainly one of the most unusual books I have read in a while.

Recommended.

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Book review – Black Moss by David Nolan

This was one of my Book Club choices and I read it on a weekend away with some girlfriends (the aforementioned Book Club) for our first Annual General Meeting!! I downloaded it to my Kindle, perfect as it took up less space for our hand luggage only trip. We chose it because it has a local flavour (to us), set in Manchester, and because we hadn’t done a thriller for some time. It is not a book I would ordinarily have chosen (but isn’t that the point of book clubs?); thrillers are not usually my thing, although I have to say that I am usually gripped when I read one (the good ones anyway). Whilst I would not describe it as my read of the year, I did enjoy it, it engaged me and I thought it was a pretty decent story – I did not predict the ending.

Black Moss imgThe book jumps back and forth in time between the present day and April 1990. In the present day we meet a middle-aged Danny Johnston, a long-in-the-tooth presenter of investigative television documentaries. He is past his peak professionally and clearly has some deep-rooted, well-suppressed emotional difficulties; the book opens with him crashing into a tree whilst drunk. He lives an empty life alone in London and is borderline alcoholic. His accident is well-publicised in the media and as a result he loses his television contract and is let go by his agent. With nothing to keep him in London he decides to return to the north, to Manchester where he grew up and where he began his career as a local radio reporter.

When he is back in Manchester Danny decides to follow up a police case he was involved in that was never solved. It was April 1990 and the riots at Strangeways prison dominated the media for weeks. The ‘occupation’ of the prison by the inmates lasted twenty-five days. At around the same time, the body of a young boy is found at Black Moss reservoir just outside Oldham. Danny is assigned to report on the case, the more senior reporters having their attention fully occupied by Strangeways, and happens to be the first reporter on the scene. He catches a sight of the boy’s body as a breeze lifts the covering on it, and sees that it has been partially taped up, presumably by the killer. This detail is omitted from the public statements made by the police which makes Danny feel there is more to this than the average homicide. Danny starts to build a relationship with the chief investigator on the case Detective Inspector Smithdown who takes Danny into his trust, he being one of only two reporters showing any interest in the case. The other is a reporter from the Oldham Messenger called Kate, who also happens to be the daughter of DI Smithdown.

As a disgraced middle-aged ex-broadcaster Danny gets in touch again with Kate. He learns that her father is still alive and he goes to see him. They talk about the unsolved case of the boy at Black Moss and Danny feels it is time for him to try and resolve it once and for all. It sets him on a journey which will expose him to a dark underbelly of historic child abuse in the Manchester area and police corruption. It will also force him to face aspects of his past that he has suppressed all his life and to learn things about his childhood that go part way to explaining his present day problems.

I enjoyed the book and felt the pace was good. It was a decent story to get your teeth into and deals with some important issues. Here in Manchester and the north west of England more widely we have still to come to terms with some dark facts of recent history where children, particularly those living on the margins of society, were abused. Whilst this book is fictional, I think it is a brave piece of work and part of the catharsis which it will be necessary to experience before we can all put this chapter behind us. I understand that police officers and child protection professionals were consulted in the writing of it.

Well worth a read, and a local author (to me anyway!) to boot.

I find thrillers a bit hit and miss – have you read any good ones lately? I also like Cath Staincliffe.

The art of re-reading – “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

I’m not a big re-reader; I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of books that I still desire to read so the thought of going back to something I’ve already ticked off the list can feel like a waste of time! I still haven’t quite accepted that I probably don’t have enough years left in my life to get through all the books I will want to read (perhaps not even the books in my TBR pile!). The joy of reading, though, is not about who can read the most, who has the most impressive library or can quote most extensively from their bookish knowledge. It is about the individual and the solitary pleasure of getting lost in a story. And you can do that in the same book many times over, if it’s good enough and if you love it enough. Re-reading gives a pleasure all of its own.

To The Lighthouse imgI had that very experience recently with my book club when we decided to read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Some of us had read it before (though years earlier) others had not read it at all. But even those of us who had read it before could not remember very much about it! I read it when I was studying for my English degree 30 years ago; I would probably have got through most of Virginia Woolf’s books in a very short space of time, because that was what my degree entailed – reading lots and lots of books very quickly! I always remembered that To The Lighthouse was my favourite, but I could not honestly have told you what happens in it, except that the journey to the eponymous lighthouse was about something desired more than something fulfilled.

Coming to it again, therefore, was a perfect pleasure and I am so glad we chose it. I read it of course, through totally different eyes. I was in my early twenties when I read it first and now I am…somewhat older! I am a mother of three children and so I saw aspects of the novel that I simply could not have understood fully before. By happy coincidence, the current lockdown gave me the opportunity to read it in three long sittings, which this book definitely deserves. I became totally absorbed in the life of the Ramsay household, the inner world of the characters thrown uneasily together in the Skye summer house and the quest for something unattainable.

The other difference was that when I read it all those years ago, I was the student and the reading would have been for a different purpose – to write an essay, spot the references or the autobiographical aspects. This time I read it just for itself.

Re-reading is definitely something I would like to do more of. One of the opportunities this period of lockdown offers is a suspension of all normal routines, time proceeds differently and I feel less boxed-in to my usual routines. I feel we have stepped off the treadmill. We will be desperate to get back on it soon enough, no doubt, especially as the economy teeters, but until then my next re-read is going to be Ulysses. I first read it on a lazy week’s holiday in Spain about twenty years ago (pre-children!) – I think it deserves my time again now!

Are you a re-reader or do you tend mainly to read new titles, like me?