Man Booker Review #2 – “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson

Time for my second Man Booker shortlist review and of the three I have read so far, my favourite. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did; the subject matter – a D-Day veteran suffering from PTSD – did not appeal particularly and when I saw the format – extended verse – I found my heart sinking slightly. That’s totally unfair, and I can in no way begin to justify that reaction other than to say I just love a good solid novel! I am delighted to say I was completely wrong, and I think it’s great when our prejudices and preferences are tested and we are pleasantly surprised.

The Long Take imgThe central character is Walker, a man from rural Nova Scotia, who fought with the Allied forces in the D-Day landings. He has seen and experienced terrible events, death and injury that most of us can barely even imagine, and he survived. After the end of the war, he goes back to the United States and finds himself living among the homeless in New York City. The book is divided into four sections: 1946, 1948, 1951 and 1953 each set in a different US city (though Los Angeles is the setting for both 1948 and 1953). As he reflects on his experiences, it becomes clear that it was impossible for him to return home to Canada. He reminisces about the quiet, gentle life he led there, where the rhythms of the seasons, the dependence on the harvests of the seas, and community events (such as village hall dances) dominate everyone’s existence. It’s as if the contrast between that life and the brutality he witnessed in the war means he fears contaminating the innocence of those he has left behind. He can never go back, never unsee what he has seen, and those he once loved will never be able to understand how he has been changed.

In New York City, Walker lives among the vulnerable and the dispossessed. He is already suffering the effects of his PTSD:

A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car

                Backfiring, and he’s in France again’

                That taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.”

In 1948 Walker moves to Los Angeles and begins working on a city newspaper, initially writing film reviews, but then, as his profile grows and he earns respect among fellow journalists for his writing, he is given weightier projects. He persuades his Editor to let him do an extended investigation into homelessness. This takes him to San Francisco in 1951, and then back to LA in 1953. Walker is an observer, he seems to move on the periphery. He earns the trust of the cast of characters he befriends on the streets and his own personal trauma enables him to empathise with them:

                “People; just like him.

                Having given up the country for the city,

                Boredom for fear, the faces

                Gather here in these streets

                Like spectators in a dream.

                They wanted to be anonymous

                Not swallowed whole, not to disappear.”

The final part of the book is the most intensely drawn. Walker recalls the devastation of older parts of the city, the traditional buildings, to make way for modern concrete highways and car parks, fuelled by corruption in the city authorities and mafia money. In the process many of the itinerant population were made homeless from whatever meagre shelter they had created for themselves and effectively thrown onto the scrap heap. The account of the destruction of the soul of the city is juxtaposed with vivid and detailed descriptions of the war:

                “The side of a building fell like a tree.

                Then the rest of it just collapsed

                In on itself, immediately lost

                In a dense cloud of brick dust;

                The delay of the noise and shock waves.

                There was an army there, pulling down everything north of 1st.

                …

The sound of mortars like gravel on a metal slide; a running tear. Right next to me, young Benjamin took some shrapnel in the throat: his windpipe torn open, so he’s gargling blood and staring at me, fumbling at his neck like he feels his napkin is slipping.”

What is fascinating and moving about the work is how Walker’s wartime experiences have made him more human, more empathic, whereas those who live oblivious are consumed by inhumanity, lack of feeling for others and, in the case of the authorities, cruelty. America is failing those in need in the pursuit of economic growth, greed and modernism.

I thought I would find the verse structure annoying, but it is beautiful, as is the economy of Robertson’s language. It perfectly suits the slightly ethereal, enigmatic central character and his own relatively silent presence in the communities in which he moves and verse provides a way of creating the vivid imagery of his wartime recollections.

I recommend this book highly. Don’t be put off if you are not used to reading verse, you will get used to it quickly. An amazing piece of work.

What is your favourite book on the Man Booker 2018 shortlist so far?

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Man Booker Review #1 – “Milkman” by Anna Burns

With just a few days to go now until the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, my goal to read all six titles by the 16th is not going well! In fact, it’s my worst performance in several years; I have only just started on my third title. Milkman took me some time to read. It is quite long, but it is also written in a way that I found it nearly impossible to read at my usual pace. The lyrical prose style that means you have to read nearly every word in order to feel the full impact. The same is true of the second book I read, The Long Take by Robin Robertson, which is in fact an extended poem, although it is somewhat shorter. I’m now on Everything Under, also quite short, but I’m not really enjoying it so finding it quite hard going.

Milkman imgMilkman is set in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the central character and narrator is a young Catholic woman who finds herself drawn unwillingly into a relationship with a local paramilitary leader. It is not clear when the book is set, but I am guessing around the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Northern Ireland is known to be socially conservative, but the general sense of the place of women in society suggests to me that it dates back quite some time. Our central character (not named, I’ll come onto this) is from a large family. Her father is dead and she has several siblings, both older and younger. She is in a “maybe-relationship” with a local young man, who she has been seeing for about a year, though they have not made a commitment to one another. She is keen on running as a hobby and shares this with “third brother-in-law”. Whilst out running one day in a local park she finds that she is observed by a man in a white van. Over subsequent weeks he infiltrates her life by stealth, indicating that he expects her to have a relationship with him. He is known only as “Milkman”. It becomes clear to her that he is quite a powerful local figure in the paramilitary world, so not only does she have little choice about whether to become involved with him or not, it is made quite clear to her that as long as she goes along with him no harm will come to her “Maybe-boyfriend”.

The pace of the novel is slow as we follow her complex internal dialogue about what she should do, her fears, her accounts of how the community reacts to her activities and descriptions of what life is like in this environment of threat, surveillance, oppression and violence. At first I found this slow pace frustrating, especially as there were parts early on that I felt could have been edited down. However, by the end of the book I could see that the author was building her character’s world quite carefully. Some readers will no doubt be only too aware of what life was like at this time in Belfast, the segregation, the violence, the suspicion, but most of us will not, and the slow pace ultimately helped to draw me in and help me appreciate the character’s dilemma. The sense of how she had no choice, the sense of how any behaviour outside the accepted norms is considered beyond the pale. For example, our character has a habit of “Walking while reading”, which almost everyone around her considers unacceptable behaviour and comments upon and encourages her to stop doing. It is ironic that such innocuous behaviour is thought to be dangerous and provocative in a context where shooting, killing and blackmail are not.

None of the characters in the book are named, all are referred to by their relationship to the central character (eg Ma, wee sisters, first sister), or some other title. This is not as complicated as it sounds and I think the author is trying to make her characters representative of the lived experiences of so many ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that time. It is also indicative of the dehumanising effect of the Troubles, and in particular what our young woman went through. By removing any autonomy or choice from her (and it was not just Milkman doing this, it was the strictures of the community) there is a gradual destruction of her selfhood.

So, a long and complex read, but a brilliant novel from a very talented writer. The prose is sublime, the language is like nothing I’ve read before, except perhaps Lisa McInerney. It won’t appeal to those who like action and plot, but for an examination of the day to day life of a young person in Northern Ireland during that terrible period it is something quite special, and very enlightening. Recommended.

Have you managed to read any of the Man Booker shortlisted titles yet?

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7 ways that reading improves your mental health

World-Mental-Health-Day

On World Mental Health Day, I would like to flag up the obvious – reading is good for you. If you need a reason, here are seven:

  1. Reading reduces stress – it can slow your heart rate and help you relax.
  2. It can help you sleep – reading before bed induces sleep much more effectively than any other activity. Switching off your mobile phone and picking up a book will promote good sleep hygiene.
  3. Reading stops you ruminating – many of us build up our anxiety levels by going over and over stressful experiences. Reading a book will take you out of that negative thought cycle.
  4. Books do not mess with your melatonin – unlike a phone. Young people in particular benefit from putting the phone, with its melatonin-suppressing blue light, away and picking up a book.
  5. Reading explands your mind – much more than YouTube or EastEnders ever will.
  6. Reading improves focus and concentration – and that can help you manage the demands of life more effectively, especially if you find it difficult to complete tasks, with all the consequent pressures that brings.
  7. You won’t be comparing yourself with perfection – most characters in good books are flawed…like the rest of us. Normal. You will not meet people living seemingly amazing lives, with perfect bodies and hundreds of friends, who are going to make you feel rubbish. You will meet characters like you. And others not like you. Life’s rich tapestry in fact.

So, celebrate World Mental Health Day by doing something for yourself and sitting down with a book.

New rules for life?

I dip into self-help books from time to time and have a reviewed a few on here, from Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, which aims to improve our relationship with the things in our home, to Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, which helped me to change my mindset about my right to be creative and to think of myself in that way. Both very powerful. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet (audiobooks seems to take me much longer to get through), which I have found immensely enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to say it was inspirational. I also picked up Jordan Peterson’s much-hyped 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos although I’m afraid I found it quite turgid and didn’t get very far before I had to take it back to the library for the next person on the reserve list.

So, I originally planned for this post to be a compare and contrast between the two, but it’s going to focus more on the Haig, which, from what I read, was better anyway. Matt Haig has suffered with depression and anxiety for much of his life and it sounds as if this has at times been debilitating. Mental illness is a huge topic of conversation at the moment, rightly so, and it is very much a spectrum from occasionally feeling down or going through periods of stress and anxiety, to full-blown depression that afflicts people for years, to suicide. Matt Haig does not use this book directly to examine or discuss his own battles with depression, it’s not a memoir, but he does refer to it throughout as a way of illustrating his points.

Matt Haig’s book is more about how modern life is placing almost unbearable pressures on human beings today. He is particularly concerned about young people, and the impact of social media on their mental health. Social media forces us all into unrealistic comparisons where we will inevitably fall short. And the fact that we are constantly connected, constantly reachable and how it is so difficult to ‘switch off’ (both literally and figuratively) makes so many of us vulnerable. It is ironic that at a time when we have more ‘friends’ and followers than ever before, we seem to be more lonely than ever. This topic has been in the news again this week as new research undertaken by the BBC is revealing the extent of loneliness felt amongst young people in particular.

Notes On A Nervous Planet is, in my view, required reading, especially for young people. There are lots of people on my Christmas list who will be getting copies. I listened to it on audiobook and found Matt’s lovely, warm voice, made it particularly compelling. I will  now buy the book, however, it’s one I’d definitely like to read again.

By contrast, the little bit I read of Jordan Peterson’s left me rather cold. I think with self-help books, there are just the ones you like and the ones you don’t, and I’m afraid 12 Rules for Life probably falls into the latter category. His rules include “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t” and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”. I’m sure there is some real wisdom in some of these more cryptic headlines, but there are a lot of words to plough through before you get to it and, sadly, it did not resonate with me. I fell asleep several evenings, just reading the (very long) Foreword! I’ll give it another go, when my turn comes around for the reservation, but I’ll not be rushing out to buy it. As a general rule, I don’t do very well with ‘Rules’ and prescriptions, particularly for something as chaotic as life.

If you have read either of these books, I’d be interested to know what you think.

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Book review: “The Last Runaway” by Tracy Chevalier

This was one of my holidays reads and one of two books my book club chose for our summer break. It’s only my third Tracy Chevalier novel, but each time I read her I just want more! I read Girl with a Pearl Earring years ago when it was first published and then The Lady and the Unicorn a year or so ago, which I thought was wonderful. I have since picked up Virgin Blue from my local secondhand bookshop so that will be next on my list.

The Last Runaway imgOne thing that is so impressive about Chevalier is how beautifully she creates the  historical setting: the two novels I have read so far have been set in 17th century Holland and 15th century Paris and Brussels and I can only begin to imagine the amount of research she has to undertake. The Last Runaway is set in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when parts of the country were only just being settled. Honor Bright, our main character is a young Quaker woman from Dorset in England. She has led a modest and sheltered life, but her world was turned upside down when her fiancé left her and their close-knit Quaker community for another woman. This was not only a scandal but it left Honor distraught and in a very difficult position. When her sister, Grace, is persuaded by her fiancé that they should move to America, Honor decides she must go with her, not only to support her sister, but to escape the oppression of her situation and have some chance of making a life for herself.

Their journey from Bristol to New York is arduous and Honor suffers with debilitating seasickness. As they travel the long distance from New York to Ohio, Grace contracts Yellow Fever and dies. This places Honor in a further difficult position: not only must she tell Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, that she is dead, but she is also in fear about where that leaves her as he, of course, has no obligation to support her. Honor, however, cannot face going back to England either because of the journey or the shame.

On the final leg of her journey, Honor has a frightening encounter with a local slave-hunter, Donovan. Honor is appalled both by his profession and his dangerous air, and yet also finds herself strangely drawn to him when he seems to flirt with her. This also sends her into a tailspin as it conflicts with her Quaker outlook and moral code.

Honor arrives in the small town of Wellington, close to Faithwell, her intended destination. There, she finds quarters with Belle Mills, the local milliner, who, it transpires, is also the half-sister of the mysterious Donovan. Belle warns Honor about him and it is clear there is a tension between these siblings. During her stay with Belle, Honor adapts her talent for quilting (quilting, its traditions, the patterns and its place in Quaker culture, are a strong and fascinating motif running through the novel) and shows promise as a hat-maker, endearing her to Belle and her many customers. Belle’s designs are often flamboyant, which is an anathema to Honor, who, as a Quaker, must observe plainness and modesty in all forms of dress. The two women develop a firm friendship, however, and Honor begins to feel more confident.

Honor first realises there is something strange going on when she finds a black man under a woodpile in the yard of Belle’s home. Honor is aware of the existence of the slave trade, indeed, the Quakers were an important part of the movement calling for its abolition, but this is the first time she has come so close to an escapee. She is terrified, particularly when Donovan comes searching at his sister’s property, sensing the presence of the runaway. Honor later learns that Belle is part of a network of citizens who provided the means of escape, food and shelter for runaway slaves fleeing the South to states which had already outlawed slavery – the ‘underground railroad’. Belle was what was known as a ‘station-master’.

Honor is collected from Belle’s by Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, and taken back to Faithwell, to live with him and his sister-in-law (also widowed) and to work in their shop. The domestic situation is uncomfortable for Honor, however, and her prospects only  brighten when she is wooed and then married to fellow Quaker Jack Haymaker. At first it seems like a good marriage that will improve Honor’s situation, but her mother-in-law proves to be a formidable presence, who does not conceal her contempt for her daughter-in-law and how little she has to offer when Honor goes to live with them on their isolated farm. At first, Jack is attentive and loving, but quickly becomes complacent and Honor grows increasingly miserable, despite her efforts to feel and appropriate degree of godly gratitude. Tensions deepen when Honor decides she will provide support for runaway slaves passing through their property. This is against the expressed wishes of the Haymakers. A law has been passed which makes it illegal for anyone to help a runaway, and the penalties are severe. Whilst the Quakers are against slavery, they are also against law-breaking and Honor’s actions are seen as a threat to their livelihood. Honor finds herself increasingly in conflict with the family until the point where her position becomes untenable. All the while, Donovan hovers in the background, stalking Honor and sniffing out runaways.

I will say no more as the events of the story then take quite dramatic turns. I loved the unexpected twists of the plot. I also love the way the author wove in details about the slave trade and the underground railroad (which I confess I knew very little about). Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad brought the existence of this movement to the attention of many readers for the first time, I think. I was not aware that Tracy Chevalier had also written this novel about it. I also loved the domesticity of this novel, its femaleness and the feminine craft of homemaking, particularly in relation to the skills required for good quilting. This seems to be a common theme in Chevalier’s work. I loved how strong the women were in this novel; the men do not come out looking so good!

I recommend this book highly. It’s a great story, a fascinating read and will give you an insight into worlds you may not know much about.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your views.

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Book Review: “Harvesting” by Lisa Harding

This book was given to me by a family member as a Secret Santa gift last year. I have been dying to read it for ages but it seemed to keeping slipping down the TBR list (does that happen to you too?) I determined to read it on my summer holiday, although in many ways it was rather a strange choice; not your traditional beach read! The subject matter is child sex trafficking and the author, a well-known actor in Ireland, came up with the idea after she became involved with a campaign to raise awareness of the issue in 2012.

Harvesting img

The book tells the parallel stories of two young girls, Nico and Sammy. Nico is from Moldova. She lives in a deprived rural setting, her family is poor and her father and two of her brothers are cruel and misogynistic. They have become brutalised by their poverty and by the systemic corruption and organised crime in their society. Nico’s mother is oppressed and powerless to stop the terrible fate that awaits her daughter. Nico has another brother, Luca, who disagrees with the family’s plans for her and wants to protect her, but he also cannot stand in their way. Lacking money for even a basic standard of living, Nico’s father sells his daughter for marriage to an older man, as soon as she starts her periods (so she is around 13). As far as the prevailing culture is concerned, she is a woman now and the family see no reason why they should continue to support her, so they seek to profit from her. Nico’s father believes that Petre, Nico’s future ‘husband’, will give Nico a good life in London and buy her all the things her family have been unable to give her. The two men are colluding in a mutual self-deception, one assumes because this is the only way that Nico’s father can justify selling his child in this way.

Nico is effectively kidnapped and it becomes very quickly apparent that she along with a number of other girls, is to be prepared for life as a prostitute. Nico is particularly valuable because she is so young and a virgin. The girls are drugged, abused, beaten and then trafficked across European borders until eventually they reach Ireland. Petre’s girlfriend Magda is the only person able to protect Nico even a little from the worst excesses of the gangsters and she is only able to do so on the basis that Nico is worth more if they treat her less cruelly than if she becomes ill through mistreatment. It is the only fragment of protection that Nico has.

The other main protagonist in the book is Sammy, a young Irish girl, of around 16, who represents a different side of sex slavery. She falls into a life of prostitution almost by accident. Problems at home (her mother is an alcoholic and her father can only cope by separating himself) and at school lead to her leaving home and falling into the hands of adults who exploit and abuse her. Sammy presents a more challenging character, firstly because, at a superficial level, her problems seem to be of her own making; she is rebellious, uncooperative and undisciplined. She puts herself in dangerous situations which have been interpreted as attention-seeking acts. She is a child out of control and has sacrificed the sympathy of those who might (should!) help her, such as the school authorities. What Harding does skilfully, though, is show us that, despite the fact that she is sassy and street-wise, Sammy is a child and no less deserving of protection than the more ‘innocent’ Nico.

What is also particularly chilling about Sammy’s story is that in a modern democratic western society, with liberal traditions, social services and proper policies and procedures in place to protect young people, even a young girl from a middle-class background can fall through the cracks and, worse, some of those who should be protecting her, are part of the problem.

The two girls eventually meet when they find themselves in the same suburban brothel and their fates become intertwined. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and some readers may find they are unable to bear the sex scenes. It is hard-hitting. Some aspects of it are almost unbelievable; as a frequent visitor to Ireland for many years now I find it difficult to accept that there is a huge underground network providing children for an illicit sex trade in a city I know and love. But the author has clearly researched the story extensively, and fact-checked with people who work and campaign in this field. This lends the book a shocking credibility. And we know from child sexual abuse cases of recent years that the worst perpetrators are often hiding in plain sight, and that the collective disbelief that people could act in such ways can blind us to the realities. This book will definitely shake you out of any complacency.

I recommend this book – it is hard to say it’s enjoyable, more that it is an important book, that is compelling, thought-provoking and necessarily shocking. It is well-written with strong characters.

Can you recommend any similarly hard-hitting but important books?

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