Book review: “How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig

How To Stop Time imgTom Hazard has an extremely rare condition called anageria which means he ages extremely slowly. He is one of a tiny group of people who live for many hundreds of years. Tom was born in London in 1581 and mixed with the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe in his youth, worked for Captain Cook in the 1700s and was a jazz pianist in Paris in the 1920s where he met, among others, F Scott Fitzgerald and watched Josephine Baker dance. What an incredibly lucky guy, you might think, but his condition is a curse and does not go unnoticed. He is haunted by the fact that his mother was condemned as a witch in the small village in which they lived, because the locals suspected dark forces at play when her teenage son appeared never to age. In his ‘late teens’ he meets and falls in love with Rose, and they have a child, Marion. Rose is the love of Tom’s life and although they move around, trying to avoid staying in one place too long and attracting attention, he realises that his existence presents a danger to Rose and the child. He has no choice but to leave her. The last time Tom sees Rose is when she is in her 50s, on her death bed with the plague, while he still looks like the young man she fell in love with many years earlier.

Tom has to spend his long and eventful life dodging attention, changing location every eight years or so. He, and others with his condition, are part of a worldwide secret organisation known as Albatross, led by the slightly sinister now elderly Dutchman, Hendrick. ‘Albas’, as they are known, are committed to keeping their condition secret and thereby protecting themselves from scrutiny. They fear discovery by the scientific community and what this might mean. Superstition has treated them badly in the past. Hendrick rules the organisation and controls its members, cleverly maintaining their loyalty with a delicate balance of threat and the promise of protection.

But Tom is unhappy. His condition brings him nothing but pain and grief. He lost his mother in brutal circumstances and his wife and daughter, all because of anageria. Hendrick keeps him close by telling him that his daughter Marion has inherited the condition and assuring Tom that he will find her, but Tom becomes increasingly suspicious of Hendrick’s motives.

In the present day, Tom’s new role is as a history teacher in an east London secondary school. He is a success, bearing the uncanny ability to ‘bring history alive’ to even the most apathetic of his students. At the school Tom meets Camille, a young French teacher, to whom he is attracted. The feeling is mutual, but of course, Tom knows a relationship is impossible. Tom’s inconsistent behaviour towards Camille makes her suspicious.

Thus, the scene is set for a complex and fascinating plot. The novel jumps back and forth in time from present day east London to Shakespearean London, where Tom was a renowned lute player, to the 18th century where Tom sailed to the Indies with Cook, to more recent times when Tom has had to carry out certain international missions to serve the secret organisation.

Haig creates a huge range of interesting characters and it is quite an achievement that he gives them all a depth and uniqueness, which many writers could only achieve with a much smaller cast. The book was not at all difficult to follow, despite the frequent changes of era and setting. For me, my favourite sections were the present-day ones, though, as Tom explored with great poignancy the tragedy of his existence which means he cannot build intimate connection with anyone outside the organisation, for fear not only of exposing himself but of placing them in danger; bad things happen to people who find out about the Albas. Tom is lonely and alone. The people he has loved are all gone and so he fears love. The recounting of past events in Tom’s life help to create and augment the picture of his existence where an overly extended life is a curse not something to be striven for. The unnaturalness of Tom’s situation, the burden he must bear, is profoundly portrayed.

I listened to this book on audio and the narrator, Mark Meadows, was excellent, developing an impressive range of distinctive voices and accents to distinguish the different characters. He also conveyed well a sense of Tom’s building frustration and despair, so much so that his final actions in the book are not only plausible, but completely inevitable.

I recommend this book highly.

Have you read this or any of Matt Haig’s other books? He is everywhere at the moment!

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Book review: “Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

Sight is the debut novel from British author Jessie Greengrass and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was won recently by Kamila Shamsie. This was the first novel I have read from this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist, and the one which appealed most strongly to my fellow book club members and I. We love the Women’s Prize and always try to get through a couple on the shortlist. We are all mothers, spend way too much time talking about our kids and so the blurb, about one woman’s journey to parenthood, spoke directly to us.

It is a very curious book. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s a novel as we become so deeply embedded in the internal world of the unnamed first person narrator that it feels as if it is an autobiography.

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Strange book, stranger cover!

We know very little of the narrator, except that she is a young woman of indeterminate age, though probably in her early thirties. Her partner is Johannes, whom she meets shortly after the death of her mother. The book begins with her account of her mother’s decline and death and the time she spent caring for her. It is clearly a traumatic time for her and she struggles with all the challenges it represents – emotional, physical and administrative. It is an account of what it is like to be a daughter and an only child and to lose your only parent, your only link with your birth, with your early life and with that part of your life of which you have no memory.

 

She seems to drift into the relationship with Johannes at a time when she is emotionally vulnerable. He seems to offer her stability and comfort. The issue of having a child is clearly something that looms large in their relationship and eventually she agrees, but she remains unsure about the wisdom of this step.

This is not a story. It is an internal monologue, an account of one woman’s ambivalence about having a child. In fact she seems very ambivalent about all her close relationships – with her mother, with Johannes and with the only other significant character in the book, her late grandmother, a psychotherapist who lived alone and practised in a large house in Hampstead, and with whom she spent a few weeks each summer as a child. I suppose this ambivalence is present because we are getting the narrator’s unfettered, unmediated thoughts, but I found it confusing to marry this with any notion of love. For me, love was missing from the book. I understand well that for many women, it is not easy to bond with the foetus they carry, even the baby they give birth to. I can also accept relationships with a parent can be fraught and complex, even where there is familial love on both sides. Our narrator is deeply moved by the suffering of her mother in the final stages of her life; the actions she takes, the things she tells us about, sleeping beside her in the hospice, reading to her, suggest deep love, but she does not seem to me to express it. And when she writes about her grief and her loss, it is more a loss of a role, or a relation, rather than a person. There is something very cold about her feelings, which are captured in the following quote:

“Then I was faced with the problem of what to do with all my mother’s things. I felt that I was expected, somehow, to keep them, to make myself curator, but the thought of storing this detritus of an ended lifetime, of dragging it behind me like a deadened limb, turning myself into little more than a conduit for memory, was horrifying; and so in the end I gave away what I could to anyone who wanted it and hired a skip for the weekend to deal with the rest.”

What I found most difficult was that there seemed to be little real love in her relationship with Johannes. This was the man she chose to be the father of her child and although she finds great comfort in their easy companionship, their shared interests and the great care he shows for her, there is also at times a kind of contempt.

Perhaps my reading of it is too simplistic or too literal – perhaps if my internal thoughts were this closely mapped they would also reveal ambivalences in my feelings for the people I love most in the world. Our thoughts are closed to everyone but ourselves, and even to ourselves sometimes.

This is not a linear narrative – it jumps back and forth from her childhood, to the present, the antenatal appointments, to her mother’s death. In that sense it bears similarities to a ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Woven through it are accounts of three scientific figures – Rontgen and his discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic relationship with his daughter Anna, and John Hunter and the development of early surgery in the 18th century.

What I liked about this book was the remarkable writing, the intensity of the observation, particularly of her relationship with her own young daughter:

“When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do that she was born for, which is to go away from me.”

There is profound insight in this book, not necessarily to the human condition – there was much here that I could not empathise with – but I mean in terms of the self-awareness. The deep introspection has given her a powerful knowledge of her own nature, of the events that have shaped her existence and of the impact of her relationships upon her.

This is a long review for a book in which very little happens! It was not an easy read and it sometimes frustrated me. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first novel and offers a fresh approach to much-explored themes, even if at times it feels rather dislocated.

Recommended if you prefer psychology to plot.

If you have read Sight, what did you make of it, and how does it compare to the other novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist?

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Audiobooks can be a great way to access books if you’re time-poor

I know so many people who love reading, but find it hard to find the time to do so – when you have a family, work and find yourself under pressure to provide taxi services, help with homework, cook interesting and nutritious meals, check emails….the list goes on. Reading often drops off the list. And how many of you do your reading at bedtime and find you fall asleep before you’ve even finished a chapter?

It’s a common problem. I am a great believer in two things, however. First, if you want your kids to read they have to see you doing it too – so you’re actually being a good parent by finding time to read. Second, reading can be a wonderful way of escaping all the chores and pressures of life, so you will benefit from even 10-15 minutes here and there.

glass-2557577_1920I’m a big fan of audiobooks as a way of passing otherwise dead time in a more constructive way  – for me it’s car journeys, or whilst exercising. It might also be while you’re waiting for swimming lessons to finish or at the supermarket. You have to choose your titles carefully though, because it’s not just about what you listen to, but the narrator is really key to the enjoyment. For example, audiobooks I have enjoyed have been Holding, narrated brilliantly by the author Graham Norton, Frankenstein, narrated by Derek Jacobi and 1984, narrated by Andrew Wincott (Adam from The Archers). Their reading styles enhanced my enjoyment. A title I enjoyed less because of the narration was The Girl on the Train, where I felt the male voices were not done well.

the story of a new nameI have recently finished listening to The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Book Two in her Neapolitan Novels series. I have listened to and reviewed here, Book One, My Brilliant Friend, and the narration by American actor Hilary Huber is sublime. The Story of a New Name continues where Book One left off, with Lila marrying the grocery-store owner Stefano Caracci. Lila acquires a new social standing and some material wealth, but it is a loveless affair, and the marriage soon deteriorates into violence and enmity.

Lila’s childhood friend Elena, chooses a different path; she continues her education and though at first she barely scrapes through with adequate grades, she eventually graduates and is accepted at the university in Pisa. While Lila’s life is coming apart (despite her many talents, her beauty and her magnetic appeal), Elena’s eventually triumphant academic trajectory comes as a surprise to many as her abilities and potential were not thought to be as great (especially by herself).

This book has the same wonderful setting, 1960s Naples, the same cast of fascinating characters, mostly sinister and flawed, and develops the themes of friendship, and its many complex facets, jealousy, family feuds, conflict, love, hatred and the position of women in society.

The book is long (over eighteen hours worth of listening, or nearly 500 pages in paperback), but it is epic in scale and epic in achievement. On my audiobook app you can select a faster reading speed; I tried listening at 1.25 speed, but I went back to standard speed, because Hilary Huber’s American drawl is a treat for the ears and brilliantly suited to the story.

I would highly recommend this audiobook – the cast of characters is complicated and sometimes I forgot who was who, especially when shortened or ‘pet’ names are used in the dialogue. I found it helpful to look up a cast of characters online so I could keep track. There are two more books in the series – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. I will certainly stick with the series and get both of these – even though it might take another year to get through listening to them!

Does the narration style affect your enjoyment of an audiobook?

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Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

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My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

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Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

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