Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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Book Review – “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

I posted on here last week about my brain needing to have a little break from the Man Booker shortlist (especially as I have not found all the books particularly engaging so far). It is a rather bleak shortlist. I have also been unwell for a couple of weeks with sinus problems, and none of these books are exactly a ‘pick me up’! So, on a day when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself I lay down on the sofa with The Music Shop, my book club’s reading choice for November, and read the whole thing in one sitting. I loved it!

This book caught my eye last year, so it has been on my mental TBR list for some time. In September I attended a one-day conference run by the group that publishes the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook on how to get your book published (almost finished my novel), at which Rachel Joyce was a speaker. Rachel came to novel-writing relatively late in life, coming to prominence only in her late 40s (encouraging!) when her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) was widely acclaimed, and in fact found its way onto the Man Booker Longlist. Rachel came across as a lovely, down to earth human being, but with her own fascinating story to tell, and a warm and inspiring approach to all the novice writers in the room. I bought The Music Shop at that event.

The Music Shop imgThe books open in 1988 when the central character Frank opens a music shop in a rundown area (Unity Street) of an unnamed city. Frank is passionate about music, something that was instilled in him by his late mother, the eccentric Peg. It is probably the only the good thing that Frank got from her, and as the book goes on, we learn much about the lack of love and security in his childhood. This is important as it helps us to understand Frank’s actions later on. The other thing that Frank is passionate about is vinyl; he refuses to sell either cassette tapes or the new-fangled CDs in his shop, much to the chagrin of the salesmen who tell him he is a dinosaur and will have to change with the times. They gradually abandon him.

Unity Street is run-down and regularly vandalised. There are only a handful of businesses, all of them marginal and barely surviving, such as the small shop selling religious souvenirs, run by a former priest, the tattoo parlour run by the indomitable punky Maud, and the two brothers running the funeral parlour. It is a street of misfits and Frank, with his assistant Kit – clumsy, loveable, naïve – slots right in. It is the ‘80s, however, and Britain is changing. Property developers are anxious to get into Unity Street, for the residents in their run-down houses and the shop-owners barely making ends meet to leave and to bulldoze the whole area to make way for shiny new apartments.

One day, Frank meets Ilse Brauchmann. First, she faints outside his shop. The traders all rally round to help her. Frank is immediately attracted to her, which throws him into a tailspin as this is something he has never felt before. Frank has no self-esteem and does not believe she could possibly feel the same way about him. Ilse, however, leaves her handbag behind in the shop. Kit and the others make great efforts to track Ilse down, fascinated by her mysterious presence, though Frank is nonchalant. They find Ilse and draw her into their community.

Eventually, after some false starts, Ilse, on hearing how Frank has changed the lives of so many of his customers by bringing music to them, asks him to teach her about music. They begin to meet weekly in a café where Frank’s confidence gradually builds as he talks about the one subject he knows, that he feels confident about and which enables him to be his true self.

Their burgeoning relationship is destined to fail, however, as they stumble from one misunderstanding to another, because of Frank’s fear, but also because there seems to be something about Ilse that she is not revealing.

This book is a love story, but it is a roller-coaster of one, that will take you on twists and turns you cannot anticipate. It kept me absolutely gripped – I was at times so frustrated with both of them, but also deeply moved by their respective stories and the things I as the reader knew were getting in the way. The ending is not what I was expecting at all.

It is also a story about something softer and gentler which we lost when certain powerful commercial forces came and took over our towns. To that extent this book is much more than a love story, it succeeds on so many other levels too. The Unity Street traders are all lonely people who have had their troubles in life. They are all ‘the left-behind’ but they have each other and they are rich, nuanced, powerful characters in their own right and mostly have the last laugh.

I recommend this book highly. A great story which is truly uplifting. It will make you laugh at times and it may also make you cry.

Have you read The Music Shop? If so, what did you think?

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Book Review: “Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon

I was fortunate to be given a signed copy of Joanna Cannon’s second book by friends for my birthday back in January. (Her first book, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is on the list of books I want to read, but I haven’t managed it yet.) My book club picked this for our most recent read, and we all loved it! It’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, the most human, the most touching and the most interesting and unusual plot. It’s beautifully written, the dialogue and characters are authentic and wholly recognisable and it’s an engaging and compelling read.

three things about else imgThe central character of the novel is Florence Claybourne, elderly resident at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing development. Each of the residents has their own apartment, but the block is warden-controlled by Miss Bissell and Miss Ambrose, and there is a Day Room where communal activities are held. Some of the residents are frailer than others and there is the sense that this is the feeder facility for the local residential care home, Greenbank. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend, that’s the first ‘thing’ about Elsie; they have known each other since they were at school. The second ‘thing’ is that Elsie ‘always knows what to say to make me feel better’; Elsie always sounds a note of calm and reassurance whenever Florence becomes tense or upset, as she does frequently when the events of the novel unfold. Elsie and Florence are constant companions.

In the opening chapter of the novel, entitled ‘4.48pm’ we meet Florence lying on the floor in her apartment. She has had a fall and finds she is unable to reach her emergency cord, wondering who will find her and when. Florence’s abandonment on the floor proceeds almost in real time (at the end of the novel it is 11.12pm and she has still not been discovered, don’t worry that’s not a spoiler!) and whilst she is lying there she has flashbacks about recent events at Cherry Tree and the connection with her past life and her relationship with Elsie. It is through these flashbacks that the story of the novel unfolds. It’s a clever structure and works very well.

Life at Cherry Tree was predictable and dull until the arrival of a new resident. Florence immediately recognises him as a figure from her and Elsie’s past, a former boyfriend of Elsie’s sister Beryl, who appears to have had an abusive relationship with her and was somehow connected with Beryl’s mysterious death, though nothing was ever proved. Florence is convinced this new resident is Beryl’s former lover, Ronnie Butler, but unfortunately, this resident is called Gabriel Price and Ronnie’s body was allegedly found in the canal a little after Beryl’s death. Florence manages to convince Elsie and another friend and fellow resident, Jack, that Gabriel is Ronnie and has some sinister intent in seeking them out after all these years. Certain odd things start happening, such as items in Florence’s flat being moved, the sudden appearance in her kitchen of a cupboard full of Battenburg cakes, and a fire averted in Florence’s flat after an iron was left on while she was out. These events set Florence up against Miss Ambrose, Cherry Tree’s manager, who has been charmed by the amiable and charismatic Mr Price, and who already finds Florence rebellious and truculent, and now feels she may be declining into dementia. She puts Florence ‘on probation’, warning her that if her behaviour continues in this vein she will have no choice but to send her to the dreaded Greenbank.

The rest of the novel is about Florence, Jack and Elsie’s quest to uncover the truth about Gabriel Price and his involvement with Elsie’s family, and particularly the circumstances of Beryl’s death. It is at times laugh out loud, as the intrepid trio grapple with the challenges of old age, but it is always poignant. It is a moving and sobering tale about how often elderly people in our society are lonely and disempowered, shuffled off to care homes to await the end of their lives, and not always with respect.

“’How can you talk to somebody when even their eyes aren’t listening.’”

Florence and her friends reflect on the futility of possessions as you approach the end of life, and the greater importance of love and relationships. It is not just in old age that this happens, however; some of the employees at Cherry Tree lead equally unsatisfying lives without meaningful human connection.

As the book progresses, the Ronnie Butler/Gabriel Price mystery unfolds and we learn more about Florence and Elsie and Jack, about Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s resident maintenance man, Miss Ambrose, and the events of their earlier lives. There is a stunning denouement at the end, when we find out the third thing about Elsie, which I absolutely did not see coming! The book is wonderful as an observation of old age, and that alone would have been enough, but coupled with a sophisticated and brilliantly worked plot it is a tour de force, truly a novel for our time.

There are some really powerful and moving observations in this book, beautifully expressed in some wonderful passages – I wish I could quote them all. So, unusually, I’ll end with some extracts that I hope will give you a flavour of the novel.

I recommend this book highly.

Florence reflects on the death of a fellow Cherry Tree resident:

“The skip was filled with her life – Brenda’s, or Barbara’s, or perhaps Betty’s. There were ornaments she had loved and paintings she had chosen. Books she’d read, or would never finish; photographs that had smashed from their frames as they’d hit against the metal. Photographs she had dusted and cared for, of people who were clearly no longer here to claim themselves from the debris. It was so quickly disposed of, so easily dismantled. A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she’d ever been there.”

“When your days are small, routine is the only scaffolding that holds you together.”

Florence reflects on the changes to the high street:

“’And every other shop is a hairdressers. I never realised people had so much hair.’”

Florence on the swift passage of time:

“’You always think “one day”, don’t you, and then you realise you’ve reached the point when you’ve run out of them.’”

“It’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.”

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