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 #3 – “The Trees” by Percival Everett

This is my third Booker prize shortlist review and the second book one that I listened to on audio. I wish that I had read it on paper as I have a feeling the narration may have impacted on my enjoyment of the book. It is a powerful novel, made more so by the sparse directness of the writing and the short chapters – there is no florid description here. Everett lets his characters tell the story, and there are a lot of characters, speaking in not very sophisticated language. Whether it’s the police officers speaking in ‘police procedural’ or the simplistic and offensive chatter of the white racist townsfolk of Money, Mississippi, where most of the book is set, the atmosphere of the book – dark, southern, confederate-loving, Trump-loving – is created through their words.

The story begins with a string of bizarre murders in the small town of Money. A number of racist white males are discovered brutally murdered, strangled with barbed wire and with their testicles cut off. In each case, lying beside them is the body of a dead black man, with the white victim’s testicles in his hand. The local sheriff is flummoxed. Matters become stranger still when the dead black man disappears from the morgue and reappears at another crime scene. State investigators and the FBI are sent in on the premise that it appears to be a hate crime, which, predictably, infuriates the sheriff, especially as the outsiders are all black, and one is a woman. 

As they try to find out what is going on they meet a young black woman in a diner, Gertrude, who tells them about her great-grandmother, 105 year-old ‘Mama Zee’. Mama Zee has made it her life’s mission to compile a mass of material on the thousands of racist lynchings of black people since the year of her birth. The very first file in her archive is that of her father who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan when she was a baby. 

There is a parallel story where Gertrude invites a friend of hers, a senior academic from New York, to look at the archive. He is astonished by its breadth and in one of the chapters reads out a long list of names of all the victims in the files. This storyline begins to shed some light on the motives behind the murders currently taking place.

When copycat crimes begin to occur all over the country it seems that the officers sent in to Money, Mississippi may be losing control of the investigation, but in fact it is bringing them closer to the truth.

This is a dark and powerful novel, disturbing because it seems as if there has been no change in the century since Mama Zee’s birth; intense racism still gnaws at society and black people are still dying as a result. It portrays an America almost as two parallel worlds, divided along harsh racial and cultural lines. 

There are some moments of comedy in the book to relieve the darkness: the scene where a State Trooper pulls over the car in which the three out of town (black) investigators are travelling, clearly for no other reason than racism. They quickly embarrass him when they reveal their badges, but he is unabashed. There is also a funny satirical scene in the White House with Trump towards the end, although I have to say this did not work too well on the audio as the narrator did not do the best impression of the former president!

I liked this book a lot, it feels like a thing of importance, although I also came away from it feeling a degree of despair at the scale of the injustice; the book does not paint a picture of a world at peace with itself, where human beings see beyond their differences, or that we are even close to such a thing.

Recommended.

Booker book review #2 – “Glory” by NoViolet Bulawayo

This is my second Booker Prize shortlist review and I hardly know where to begin in writing about this novel. I don’t think anything I write could truly do it justice. It should be sufficient for me to just say “please read” and leave it at that. This book is a remarkable piece of work and I honestly felt in the presence of something great throughout. I listened to it on audio and the reading by Zimbabwean actress Chipo Chung was pure perfection – the range of voices and narrative tones she was able to deploy was outstanding. And you know when you listen to an audiobook and you feel like the narrator is reading it for the first time? Well, that is definitely not the case here; the narrator feels every word.

NoViolet Bulawayo is a new author to me but she is undoubtedly a literary heavyweight, being the first black African woman to have been shortlisted twice (her debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013). She was born in Zimbabwe, but completed her higher education in the United States. 

Glory is political satire at its acerbic best. The novel is set in the fictional African country of Jidada (“with a da and another da”) and all the characters are animals. It opens at a rally where The Old Horse, the country’s elderly ruler who has been in place for decades since the War of Liberation from the colonisers, supported by his wife, Dr Sweet Mother, and other denizens, are celebrating their great achievements before the ‘people’. This is a lengthy section that exposes the ego, hypocrisy, untramelled power, and unlimited (and stolen) wealth that characterises the leadership.  Jidada got rid of its colonial ruler, but got a tyrannical and autocratic leader in its place. The regime is cruel, murderous and corrupt. It is a thinly-disguised critique of Robert Mugabe and his followers in Zimbabwe. It is more than that, however, for it does not let so-called advanced nations off the hook. With its linguistic echoes of Trump and its suggestion that other governments are happy to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Jidada where it suits them, it implicates leaders well beyond the borders of Jidada for the cruel oppression of the population. It also takes to task the “clicktivists” who criticise from afar, largely to satisfy their own needs, but to very little tangible effect.

The nation eventually tires of The Old Horse and particularly his wife, and there is a military coup, led by Tuvius Shasha, the former Vice President. The Old Horse goes into exile. The situation for the country does not improve, however. The economy in fact worsens still further and discontent abounds. Enter Destiny Lozikeyi, a gentle female goat who fled her village many years earlier but who has now returned to search for her family and her history. She shows her fellow citizens how desperate their situation is and, slowly, a citizen-led uprising begins.

It would be easy to describe this novel as an African Animal Farm, as many indeed have already done. True, it does many of the same things, but it is borne of an entirely different tradition, I think, and to draw parallels between the two is to over-simplify. The writing in Glory is breathtaking – it is a linguistic tour de force. The precision of its attack is awesome as it deftly dismantles every pretence of democracy, fairness and good governance that the leaders of Jidada claim. Africa is not the only focus of the author’s laser-like gaze, however; in her observation of referenda that return 90% plus votes in favour of the leaders she wags a finger at every dictator currently on the planet and the hypocritical international order that often enables them.  

I was blown away by this book. It is long, but worth every second. Highly recommended.

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.

Book review – “Violeta” by Isabel Allende

I have a particular fondness for Isabel Allende. She is an icon of world literature, of global feminism, of how to embrace ageing and of the joy, beauty and depth of south American culture. In a week when the world said its goodbyes to one female icon (Queen Elizabeth II, regardless of what you think about monarchy, it was quite a moment) and were shocked to learn of the sudden death of another, this time from the world of literature (the terribly sad news of Hilary Mantel’s untimely passing), it seems appropriate to praise Allende and value her for all that she has given us. 

The last arts event I attended before most of the world went into lockdown on the brink of the Coronavirus pandemic, was a talk in Manchester between Allende and Jeanette Winterson on the publication of her last but one novel The Long Petal of the Sea. I enjoyed that book though I felt it was not among her best. Allende’s latest novel, Violeta, published earlier this year and written, one assumes, during the pandemic feels like that to me too. 

The central character, Violeta, is an elderly woman (almost 100 years old we will learn) writing a letter, memoir, for another character Camilo. We don’t know the connection between Violeta and Camilo until about halfway through the book and I’m not going to give any spoilers here, though we do know that she loves him “more than anyone else in this world”. The story begins with Violeta’s birth in 1920 at the time of the Spanish ‘flu outbreak in Chile. Her father committed suicide, after a series of failed business ventures brought him and his family to a situation of near penury, and it was Violeta who found his body.

Her childhood was spent mostly in a rural setting on a smallholding where she was educated in the school of life. The family was forced to flee there after they lost everything in the Depression. She grew up with her brother in the care of a poor family who showered her with love and protection. She married a man who was the son of affluent European hoteliers, but the marriage was largely sexless and doomed. When Violeta met the dashing Julian Bravo, a pilot, and a passionate lothario, she was immediately swept off her feet and left her husband. This brought disgrace upon her head, particularly as Julian refused to marry her, even when she bore him a son and a daughter. 

Julian lived life on the edge, having lots of money one minute and none the next, so although their relationship was initially a fulfilling one, it lacked stability. As a young woman it was clear that Violeta had business acumen so she set up a company with her brother in the construction industry and was very successful, able to support herself and her family without being dependent on her wayward lover. 

That is as much as I will say about the plot. The book is basically the story of a life so to tell you any more would be to give you a full synopsis! The life story it tells is an interesting one and Violeta certainly has an interesting life. She is also telling the story from the perspective of a person of a great age, so she is able to reflect on her mistakes as well as celebrate her life’s achievements. It is a pretty linear first-person narrative and that, for me, is where it disappoints. I have come to expect more of such a great writer and the book for me never really delivers. Throughout I was just wanting more. There is no doubt that Allende is a great storyteller and the interweaving of history into the narrative, the politics of south America in the twentieth century, the dictatorships, the terrors, the corruption and the sheltering of Nazis fleeing Europe, is fascinating and deftly done, but I just felt she was capable of more. Some parts of it are clumsy (for example the love scenes which made me squirm a little!) and some parts of it feel autobiographical (for example, Violeta’s views on feminism), almost as if Allende herself is writing a letter to her readers.  

I hope there is more to come from this wonderful author, and fans of Allende (and I count myself as one) will of course treasure every word she writes, but I do rather feel this book lacks some of her usual creative energy.  Perhaps that is a result of its having been written during a lockdown. My fellow book club members enjoyed it, and found its uncomplicated approach quite refreshing, especially as we read it over the summer. It also does have a rather neat symmetry, which you will see if you read it. 

Recommended if you like a good story that does not ask too much of a reader. 

Book review: “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

I’d heard a bit about this book before I read it, but I have to say that I had not paid too much attention to it. I’d recently tried to watch the film Passing (made in 2021 and starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson), one that had been on my must-watch list for some time, and I fell asleep less than halfway through! It was slow and I found it hard to get into, but perhaps I should give it another chance. The Vanishing Half deals with a similar topic so I was not in a rush to pick it up. It came up as an audiobook suggestion, however, so I decided to give it a go over the summer. 

The story begins with twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, growing up in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana in the 1950s. Segregation remains in place in the Deep South of America, of course, but the black citizens of Mallard are unusual in that they are particularly light-skinned, a consequence of the town’s history and in particular its founder. Prejudice and discrimination are nonetheless deeply embedded. Both girls are bright and ambitious, but their widowed mother withdraws them from school prematurely in order that they can work with her at the house of wealthy local landowners and help to support the family. 

Stella and Desiree are frustrated by the manual toil and the unwelcome sexual advances of their employer and decide to run away. The twins have starkly different personalities; Stella is the quieter one, the more academic, Desiree is more outgoing, more vocal in her desire to escape the oppressed atmosphere of Mallard and is the prime mover in the escape plan. 

The two young women find themselves in New Orleans working in a laundry, with little money. After her sister is fired, Desiree encourages Stella to apply for a clerical job. Stella does not expect to be successful, but, with her very light skin, she is mistaken for a white woman which means that her skin colour is less important than her skills and she gets a job working for Blake Sanders. Finding that her status as a “white woman” affords her privileges which she has never before experienced, Stella maintains her secret and soon finds there is no way back. Furthermore, Blake falls in love with Stella and eventually asks her to marry him. Stella decides to leave her sister and her old life behind.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

From Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half

Meanwhile, Desiree, newly bereft, gets on with her own life. She marries a black man and moves to New York, where they have a daughter, Jude (whose skin is very dark like her father’s, not light, like her mother’s). But her husband becomes violent and so she decides to leave him. Desiree has nothing and has completely lost touch with her sister and so returns home to her mother’s house in Mallard with her daughter. Desiree never intends to stay, but somehow she does. She gets a job in the local cafe, where she quickly becomes indispensable, begins a relationship with a childhood admirer, Early Jones, who works as a shadowy investigator, and settles into small town life.

Meanwhile Stella has also had a daughter (blonde and white), Kennedy, and leads a privileged life in California. Her world is somewhat rocked when a black family moves into her affluent neighbourhood. They are treated with suspicion and contempt by local residents and Stella finds herself torn. Despite herself, Stella develops a close friendship with the woman, which triggers a series of events and changes in Stella, a burgeoning of desires which will eventually lead her back to Mallard.

Unlike what little I saw of the film Passing, The Vanishing Half has a complex plot which is deftly handled by Brit Bennett. It spans a large time span, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and moves back and forth in time and between the parallel lives of the two sisters. It becomes even more complex when the two women’s daughters begin to play a larger part in the story, leading their own lives away from their mothers. The book also explores many different types of relationship, between Stella and Desiree and their husbands, Desiree’s with Early, fathers and daughters, the women’s relationship with their mother Adele, and the two, very different, cousins, Kennedy and Jude. There are many ‘halves’ in the book; Stella and Desiree, as twins, are of course, two halves of a single birth event, but there is also the dichotomy in Stella’s life in particular. There is also the issue of two sides to every story and in this novel each person’s personal narrative is multi-layered. 

I was gripped by this book and on audio it was brilliantly read by Shayna Small. I might have wished for a neater ending, but in fiction, as in life, things don’t always work out quite how you want them to!

Nonetheless I recommend this book highly.

Book review: “Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov

The last month has flown by. Not only have I not been blogging very much in the last few weeks, but my reading has also been patchy at best. As I mentioned in my last post, I was on a family holiday in France for two weeks. My eighteen year-old daughter, who has turned into a bit of a bookworm in the last couple of years, observed that you always think you are going to read more on holiday than you actually do. I always take at least one book for each week that I am away (and that’s when I am being restrained!), but if my recent performance is anything to go by, I seldom get through even one! I planned to read Margaret Atwood’s very bulky Burning Questions, but it came back with me unread because I had only just started a book called The Behindlings by an author I do not know, Nicola Barker. It’s a bizarre and curiously compelling (also very long) book which I have yet to complete. More about that for a future post.

This week I would like to tell you about another book that took me a very long time to get through, and which I posted about my intention to read many weeks ago – Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. This was first published in Kyiv in 1996. The first edition in English came out in 2001. It has been reissued this year with an updated foreword by the author under the Read for Ukraine initiative in association with Oxfam. For each copy sold, a donation has been given to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.  

Death and the Penguin is considered one of the greats of contemporary Ukrainian literature and Andrey Kurkov is a respected international commentator. He has written over twenty novels as well as books for children and is a documentary maker. Born in St Petersburg, he writes in Russian but in his foreword to this edition he writes of has sadness and dismay at the Russian invasion of his country.

I read this book very slowly, almost in real time with the events of the novel! The central character is Viktor and his pet penguin is Misha, a powerful presence in the book and a motif for Viktor’s state of mind. Viktor is an aspiring writer who is offered a job writing obituaries for a newspaper. It soon becomes apparent that he is writing notices about people not yet dead, and that his subjects are being assassinated mafia-style. Viktor becomes increasingly paranoid and he enters into a series of bizarre relationships. First he is left in charge of a young girl, Sonya, the daughter of the Chief of Police, known as ‘Misha non-penguin’ to distinguish him from his animal namesake, a hilarious touch. Misha non-penguin disappears and Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a militiaman he meets, as a nanny for Sonya, to look after the child while he is working, or hiding form the increasing list of dangerous individuals he believes are in pursuit of him. Viktor starts a relationship with Nina, but it is a strangely cold one and stands in contrast to his relationship with the penguin.

Viktor’s situation starts to look increasingly desperate when he finds that a new person has been hired to write obituaries and that he, Viktor, is to be the subject of one. In the meantime, Misha starts to become sick and Viktor is told that the penguin needs a heart transplant or else he will die. A child’s heart becomes available and the operation is successful, but Viktor decides that he must return Misha to Antarctica. He learns of an expedition that is travelling there and he pays for Misha to go. At the very last minute, however, Viktor opts to save his own life and switches places with the penguin, figuring that the penguin in popular and someone else will take care of him.

This is a surreal and dark book, with moments of black humour. Set in the 1990s in Kyiv and its environs it captures the sense of surveillance, of corruption, of secrecy and scarcity that pervaded the former Soviet republics at the time. It has been described as an existentialist novel, exploring as it does Viktor’s inner turmoil and expressing that through the mood and health of the unspeaking penguin.

It is a work of surreal quality that reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech writer Milan Kundera, set in a similar context and with the same feeling of oppressiveness, as well, of course, as the presence of a pet. There were times when I wondered what on earth the book was about, but I understand it better having reflected on it. Kurkov is definitely an author whose work I would like to explore further.

I would recommend this book to gain an insight into a very different literary tradition, and to trigger a donation to the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. Let’s hope the war is over soon and that justice prevails.

#KeepKidsReading book review #1 – “The Fire Cats of London” by Anna Fargher

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour accompanying the launch of Anna Fargher’s latest book The Fire Cats of London, which was published just a week ago. This is Anna’s third children’s book; I reviewed her first book The Umbrella Mouse (published in 2019) on here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The follow-up, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, came out in 2020, reprising the same central character and historical period (the Second World War).

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS SINCE IT IS MEANT AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

Anna’s latest book introduces us to a new, feisty central character, Asta, a wildcat, and explores a different historical period, the 17th century and specifically the Great Fire of London. Asta is a young wildcat living in the forests on the outskirts of London with her twin brother Ash and their mother, when hunters capture the young pair (killing their mother in the process) and sell them to a shady London apothecary, Rathder. He plans to use the wildcats to harvest their whiskers, blood and fur, which are rare and valuable ingredients in the potions he makes and sells to his customers. Rathder has his own pet cat, a wily British Blue named Beauty, who flirts with Ash and wins him over, convincing him that he will be safer in captivity with Rathder than in the outside world. Asta refuses to be drawn in, however, and maintains a strong desire to escape back to the wild.

The Great Fire occupies only the last quarter or so of the book. In between the wildcats’ capture and the Fire, Asta is used as a fighting cat at the Bartholomew Fair, where she makes friends with a bear and her young cub. The bear, Tilia is also desperate to escape captivity, most especially for the sake of her cub Lipa. Asta and Tilia plot a daring escape, aided and abetted by their raven friend Jet. Jet lives with Miriam, a wealthy widow and a herbalist, protege of the famous Culpeper, whose mission is to free animals that are used for human sport and quack remedies. She hears about Asta and the bears and determines to help them in whatever way she can.

Asta and Lipa do escape the Fair, though sadly Tilia dies in the attempt, and they make it to Miriam’s. She is a sworn enemy of Rathder and his accomplice Moore, both of whom suspect that she is behind the chaos caused at the Fair and the escape of the animals. This has had a direct financial impact on them both and they are determined to make her pay.

Miriam hides Asta and Lipa and plans to take them to Epping Forest (in Essex) to release them. Their plans are thrown into jeopardy however, when the Great Fire begins in Pudding Lane and they are forced to make a much more hasty departure. All the while, Asta has never forgotten her brother Ash and wants to free him from Rathder and Beauty’s clutches. This leads her to make a bold and high-risk move at the very last minute when she is close to safety.

Anna Fargher is a clever writer and as with The Umbrella Mouse has created a charming cast of animal characters in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows. Asta is a powerful central character, brave, loving, principled who, when faced with adversity, rises to the challenge and emerges triumphant, all good characteristics in a role model! I think she also weaves in some brilliant history lessons, about the period in London, the Great Fire and the various social tensions between different religious factions and races.

There is a lot of peril in the book – at the beginning when the wildcats are hunted, at the Fair, where the animals are brutally treated, and at the end with the Fire itself. There is also the fact that two mothers die! (Tilia the bear, and Ash and Asta’s mother). Younger children might find aspects of it challenging, or indeed triggering. There is something to be said for not sugar-coating the world for our children, especially our history, but some readers may need a bit of support.

The author has brought in some fantastic contemporary themes – the unequal and controlling relationship between Ash and Beauty, showing children that not all friendships are good ones even when someone seems to be nice to you. The importance of true friends and family, filial love, the importance of believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe is right. The impact of humans on the environment, the animal world in particular, is another powerful theme and one which is clearly close to the author’s heart. She has spoken of the decline of biodiversity in the British Isles, and the plight of Britian’s wildcats in particular seems to have captured her imagination.

Wildcats are Britain’s rarest mammal. They are now found only in Scotland. On the brink of extinction, only 30 native cats remain. The decline began with Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s Vermin Acts, where Bounties were paid for culling animals believed to pose a risk to livestock and grain.

No wildcats have roamed England and Wales for at least 150 years, and although the current numbers are woefully low, there is hope. Rewilding programs are in motion, and the more we know about them, the more we can fight to preserve them.

Anna Fargher, 2022

There is much in this book for children to learn about, as well as a cracking good story for them to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for an advance review copy of this title.

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