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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books due out this spring

If you were watching, listening to or reading the news over the Christmas and New Year holidays, you might think that the publishing event of 2023 had already happened. Yes, that autobiography! It is everywhere and has already become the fastest selling non-fiction book ever. I suspect that anyone who was going to buy it has already done so which I hope means that the initial brouhaha has died down. Those of us interested in books rather than gossip, however, can settle down and look forward to some far more interesting offerings for the first few months of the year. Here are a few of the titles I’ve picked that are due for publication this spring and which I am heartily looking forward to.

Two of the world’s finest living writers will be publishing new work this spring. Margaret Atwood releases what will be her eleventh short story collection Old Babes in the Wood in March. Salman Rushdie, who last year survived a vicious stabbing incident, perpetrated while he was a guest at a literary festival in the US, publishes his thirteenth novel Victory City, which is due out later this month.

I am very excited about the prospect of a new Marwood and Lovett mystery by one of my favourite contemporary authors, Andrew Taylor. His sixth book in the series, The Shadows of London, which follows on from his other post-Great Fire of London novels, many of which I have reviewed on here, is due out in March.

Caleb Azumah Nelson is undoubtedly one of the young new authors to watch at the moment. His first novel Open Water, published in 2021, was multi-award winning. His next offering Small Worlds, is due out in May and is about a young man in London whose life revolves around music and dancing. The world he has built for himself begins to be challenged however, in his relationship with his father, his faith, and his Ghanaian heritage. It’s being widely trailed already.

One of my favourite children’s authors of recent years is Zillah Bethel. Her 2016 book A Whisper of Horses is a joy. Her latest novel The Song Walker is out this month and concerns a young girl who wakes up in the middle of the desert with no idea who she is or how she got there. She meets Tarni, also alone and on her own mysterious journey, and the two trek across the Australian outback in search of answers to their respective questions.

Journalist Ian Dunt is a thoughtful and interesting political commentator, and there has been lots to comment on in the UK in the last few years! The public is now beginning to ask seriously whether the system of government we have is fit for purpose. As I ease my way back into some non-fiction, his new book How Westminster Works and Why It Doesn’t, due out in April, might be one to reach for for answers.

And finally, a book I will definitely be coveting is How to be Invisible: selected lyrics of Kate Bush, the paperback version of which is due out in April with a new introduction by the woman herself. I am a huge admirer and still listen to her music frequently, but she is such a recluse that we fans have to take every little Kate-tidbit that comes our way! Definitely a keeper!

What publishing events are you looking forward to in the next few months?

On reading challenges

Every year there are very many interesting reading challenges that bloggers and others set themselves. I have done one every year since I started this blog more than six years ago and I have participated in others, some successfully, some not. For a while there my challenge was to pick a genre or theme for each month and select a title. The aim was to expand my reading horizons and delve into things that would not normally attract my attention, such as science fiction or autobiography. It worked and I read some amazing things. Some stand-out discoveries for me were Emily Bain Murphy’s The Disappearances, the very first choice in my very first reading challenge in 2018, classic crime fiction (I never imagined I’d become a fan of Agatha Christie) and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I confess I had been a bit snooty about when it was published.

Last year, I decided I wanted to read more non-fiction. I only managed about four books! And, another confession, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions, which I think I started last summer, remains in my bedside pile, only half-read! Don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying it, but it’s a chunky volume and is a series of essays, some only a few pages long, so it’s the kind of book you dip in and out of. Definitely not one to speed read. It was a tricky year between one thing and another and I neither read nor blogged as much as I have done in previous years.

So, as the end of January draws near (noticeably longer days, hurray!) I find myself reading about other people’s reading challenges and wondering should I be doing one? And the conclusion I have come to, is perhaps not. Having failed (and I’m using that word with a degree or irony) last year to achieve quite a number of the goals I had set myself, due to a mixture of over-estimating my time and abilities, and under-estimating the other demands that would be placed upon me by life, I have concluded that perhaps the overall goal of expanding my reading horizons has been met, and I don’t need to do that any more. That particular habit has been well and truly established and neither do I need encouragement to read.

What I am going to do, however, is aim to pull an unread book off one of my shelves each month to read. If you are reading this you will no doubt be familiar with the particular compulsion that we book lovers have to just keeping on buying new ones, despite the many dozens of unread ones we already own! This is both a waste of money and a source of unnecessary guilt. I’m going to aim for one a month but be kind to myself if I don’t manage it.

First title to be dusted off the ‘unread’ shelf!

There’s less than a week left of the current month, so I’ve been looking for something shortish, and I’ve landed on Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, published in 1989. I have no idea how long I have had my copy, but I vividly remember reading her 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety. It was one of the first books I read after completing my English degree (at which point my head was too saturated to read anything substantial for a long time) and it reignited my passion for literature, so I’m guessing I bought this book around that time. Hmm. I make that about thirty years. It’s time to give it the attention it deserves, don’t you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Audiobook review – “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

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

SPOILER ALERT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booker Prize winner announced tonight

Yesterday I posted my fourth Booker Prize shortlist review. The winner of this year’s prize will be announced this evening at 7pm. You can follow it live on various radio and online channels (details here). Unfortunately, I have to work this evening so I will have to wait until later to find out the result.

I did not manage to read all six books on the shortlist this year. I have completed and posted reviews of the following:

I have started The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, but I’m afraid I have put it down again twice and gone to a different book! I just can’t seem to get into it.

I am most annoyed that I have not yet finished Treacle Walker by Alan Garner. Alan is an author who is from Alderley Edge in Cheshire, not far from where I live. It’s very exciting to have a local author on the shortlist. It would be amazing if he won!

I have thoroughly enjoyed all four of the books I have read and reviewed, it’s a strong shortlist, but the easy standout for me is Glory. It is just such a powerful and ingenious novel. I haven’t read anything like it before.

So, for me, it’s fingers crossed for NoViolet Bulawayo or Alan Garner!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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