Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Care to join us for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month?

A few days ago I published a review of Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe, which was the July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The book seemed to go down quite well and I enjoyed it too. The theme for August is ‘a beach read’, reflecting the fact that many people will be going on holiday this month (if, like me, you are confined to school holidays). But even if you are a holiday free agent and choose June or September to go away (I know I would!), August is often languid month when the pace of things tends to slow and you can take the opportunity to rest mind and body. The ‘beach read’ theme reflects this too as I wanted something that will be pure pleasure and not too demanding of our normally over-taxed brains.

The Lido imgI have chosen a book which caught my eye a couple of months ago – The Lido by Libby Page. It concerns a friendship between two women, 86 year-old widow Rosemary and 26 year-old Kate, who strike up a bond when their local outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, south London, is threatened with closure. The two women have different reasons for wanting to campaign to keep the lido open, but they are brought together in a common cause.

The book has received pretty universal praise, so far as I can tell, is a Sunday Times bestseller and looks like being one of the hits of the summer. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ll be doing some family visiting and some holidaying myself over the next few weeks, and after some books which have been either quite tough reads on the reading challenge this one feels like a reward for hard work!

I hope you will join us on the challenge this month. Hop over to the Facebook page if you’d like to join the group.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Does your reading taste change in the summer or at holiday time?

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Book review – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

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Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

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Facebook reading challenge – join us in June

Despite the awful British weather, it is actually June at the moment, halfway through it in fact, so it must be time for a new book on my Facebook Reading Challenge. Earlier in the week, I published a review of the May title – Lord of the Flies by William Golding, one of the great literary classics of the 20th century. So many people have studied this book at school, at a time, perhaps, when English literature was not the thing they were most into, that it can often elicit groans of anguish! In fact, coming to it again after so many years (and as a mother!), I saw new things in this book. That’s the great thing about a reading challenge; you pick up books that you might otherwise have turned away from.

This month’s theme is something from the Women’s Prize shortlist. At the time of setting the challenge I obviously did not know what was going to be on the shortlist. The title I selected is a book I have had my eye on for some time. In fact, I recommended it over a year ago in a post Hot new books for springAn Amercian Marriage by Tayari Jones has since been announced as the winner of the prize, as of 5 June, so I’m delighted to be reading it this month.

2019-06-14 10.49.53The book is about a young newly-married couple, Celestial and Roy, and is set in the American Deep South. Their lives appear full of potential until Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit. He is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The book concerns the effect of the separation on their marriage, how Celestial copes alone and what this means for their shared dreams.

The chair of judges of the women’s prize described the book as one that “shines a light on today’s America” and it has won praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, as well as achieving wide acclaim in the review columns. The whole shortlist was extremely impressive and I could have chosen any of the books on; the fact that it beat Anna Burns’s Man Booker winner Milkman, which I loved, tells you something about the high calibre.

So, if you fancy a good read and getting involved in the discussion, do join us, it’s not too late. 

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Book review: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a comparison of a handful of books with their film adaptations; it was 2016, a bumper year for great books in the Oscars with The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room and Carol all nominated. Emma Donoghue’s Room was I think my favourite of that batch (both the film and the book) and was one of my best reads of that year. Shortly after, I picked up The Wonder and it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since! I resolved to read it while I was away over Easter and, my goodness, it did not disappoint.

2019-05-01 15.19.27
Lovely cover too

Set in rural Ireland in 1859, in the shadows of the Irish Famine and the Crimean War, the main protagonists have had disturbing brushes with death and suffering which impact the way they behave and how they interact with one another. Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright is a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. She is sent to Ireland on a commission to observe an eleven year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who, it is alleged, has not eaten for four months. Her survival without food is being hailed as a miracle and the village council has recruited a team of two (Lib, the English nurse, and an Irish nun) to watch her in shifts to ensure the child is genuinely not receiving sustenance. Many visitors have already come from both Ireland and abroad to view the child, and to perhaps receive some divine benefit from being in her midst.

Lib, with her scientific outlook, naturally suspects foul play. She has no religious faith and believes it impossible for the human body to survive without food or water; she fully expects quickly to get to the bottom of the suspected ruse. She approaches Anna with scepticism initially, believing she and her family are nothing more than manipulative, deceiving, attention-seeking hoaxers seeking to profit from their little miracle. Lib is also haughty, however; whilst she is aware of some of the wrongs that have been wrought upon the Irish people by her own country, she brings with her certain prejudices about social and cultural backwardness. She meets a Dublin journalist, staying at the same inn, and there to report on Anna’s case for his newspaper, and her conversations with him begin to educate her about Irish history about the status and role of Catholicism and about the nature of the people.

As Lib gets to know Anna better in the long hours she spends watching her, she also begins to grow fond of the child, something she does not expect and which interferes with her sense of herself as a rational being. She makes detailed notes about her observations of the child, and when it becomes truly apparent to her that little or no nourishment is reaching Anna, she becomes concerned about the deterioration in her health. The unwillingness of the family to confess to the hoax, as she sees it, disturbs her, and the vested interests of the local community, both the medical and religious elements, which seem to prevent them stepping in to save the child’s life, challenges her medical ethics. Most remarkably for Lib, however, is the commitment Anna has to her starvation; she truly has no desire to eat, and her religious fervour seems genuine and uncorrupted. Lib suspects some deep trauma (she is familiar with this notion following her experience in the Crimea) possibly connected to the death of her older brother a few months earlier, but struggles to get to the bottom of it.

The job Lib has been paid to undertake begins to take a grave emotional toll on her and all her certainties, her assumptions and the truths she has held dear begin to unravel at the same time as Anna’s health status is becoming increasingly grave.

This is a remarkable and complex novel which I found both profoundly moving and deeply interesting. The author provides an insight into a community, a belief system and a set of codes that most of us will struggle to comprehend. And yet, the way she recounts the story, you can see how Anna’s actions might make perfect sense to her, to her family and to her community. This is the most alarming part – how easily it could be seen as real and reasonable – and gives an insight into how sometimes bizarre doctrines can take hold in groups so that they can seem true, in spite of scientific evidence.

The plot of this book is also gripping and it has some remarkable twists, not to be revealed here, which will have you on the edge of your seat.

Highly recommended, a real page-turner which will draw you into a world you did not know about.

Have you read any other Emma Donoghue books – which would you recommend I read next?

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