Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kinds strangers around her, as sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere of the road, to satisfy the need for pump and circumstance. Union Jack straight everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

‘This England,’ she murmured.

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, like her previous two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, shifts deftly through a series of different time frames.  In this instance, quite literally bookending the story in 1981 and internally moving between 1940 and 1950.  Like its predecessors, it is also primarily concerned with the Second World War and raises questions about earlier women who might possibly have been seen as sacrificial victims in the name of patriotic duty.

In the world of 1940, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 to work under the auspices of a number of men as a transcriber.  It is her job to make a copy of the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, supporters of Hitler, hiding in plain site and making plans to welcome the Third Reich should its troops manage to cross the Channel.  As Juliet becomes further integrated into the Service, she is also sent to infiltrate The Right Club, a group formed initially to rid the Conservative Party of perceived Jewish control but later boasting that its main objective was to oppose and expose the activities of organised Jewry more generally.  The names of the members of the club are inscribed in the Red Book and it is Juliet’s task to get access to a copy of this.

As an author’s note makes clear, not only did both such groups exist, but the former were tricked into revealing their intentions in just such a manner as Atkinson depicts; the transcripts of their conversations are still in existence.  However, as anyone who has worked extensively with transcription knows, it isn’t always easy to be entirely (or even moderately) accurate. It’s difficult enough when your recording is being made in the same room as the conversation takes place and with the agreement of the speakers.  When you are working from hidden equipment, trying to listen in to people who won’t obligingly target their comments in the direction of the microphone, errors and omissions will abound. In such a situation it is understandable that misunderstandings as well as mis-hearings will occur and questions will be raised as to just who can be trusted.  Are the fifth columnists and the Right Club the only non-patriots hiding in plain sight?

Moving forward to 1950, Atkinson takes us into another bastion of the British Establishment, the BBC.  I loved these sections of the novel, mainly because Juliet now works for Schools Broadcasting and I am of a generation who was brought up with regular radio programmes providing a welcome break from the typical Maths before playtime, English after, routine that was such a part of a 1950s primary education. Armstrong’s apparent fear now is that she will never be able to escape the legacy of the war years.  The secret service will keep popping back into her life with their requests for just one last job and people she thought she had left behind forever develop an annoying habit of turning up and threatening her peace of mind, both mentally and physically.  Hitler may no longer be a danger, but there are other forces at work trying to undermine the British way of life and Juliet is well aware of the role she is expected to play in relation to them.

I have been relatively late coming to this novel, given that I would normally read a new Kate Atkinson as soon as it hit the bookshelves, so I am aware that it hasn’t received the general acclaim normally afforded to her work.  I have to say that I found the book eminently readable, gulping it down in just two sittings, but I can perhaps understand why there has been less praise than normal.  While the author appears to be intending to deal with the same sort of ideas as in her previous two novels, ideas to do with the deepening perspectives offered by time and the shifting viewpoints a greater understanding of events can bring about, I don’t think she makes this as clear in Transcription.  Neither do I think she gets the tone quite right.  There were times when I felt that I was more in the world of Jackson Brodie than in that of Ursula Todd. However, none of that stopped me enjoying it immensely.

As a footnote for anyone who hasn’t seen the announcement:  there is a new Jackson Brodie to look forward to.  The fifth in the series, Big Sky,  is due for publication next June.

 

 

 

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Born in a Burial Gown ~ Mike Craven

I wish I could remember who put me onto Cumbria based The Puppet Show by M W Craven.  I owe them.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how much I had enjoyed this first novel by the writer under this name, especially the chance to meet the analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, with whom I felt a certain kinship.  So much did I enjoy it that I went in search of other novels by the same writer and found Born in a Burial Gown, the initial  book in an earlier series, also set in Cumbria, featuring DI Avison Fluke as the lead protagonist.

Craven’s leading men share certain characteristics.  To start with, they have wonderful names.  On balance I think I prefer The Puppet Show’s Washington Poe, but Avison Fluke is good too.  They both live isolate lives in the Cumbrian countryside and, when we first meet them, they are both recovering from traumatic incidents which mean that neither of them should be working.  They are also instinctive coppers, with little time for the administrative niceties. This may make each of them something of a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they work, because they make for a good story.

And, Born in a Burial Gown is most definitely a good story.  It begins with an anonymous note, left on a building site, tipping the police off about a body dump.  Without the note the body of the unnamed young woman would have been buried deep in the construction foundations and lost forever.  Also, given that she is not only without any means of identification but also appears to have gone to extreme lengths to make sure that she cannot be recognised, she might not even have been reported missing. The investigation, handed over to Fluke and his team of FMIT misfits by his superior officer, DCI Chambers, looks as if it might never get past first base.  They don’t know who the victim is, they have no idea as to where she was killed and given the fact that she has changed her appearance they can’t rely on a public appeal to put a name to a face.  And then, they get a break, when a fellow officer recognises her as a woman who a few days earlier reported a rape but failed to follow through with the allegations. Has her rapist caught up with her and ensured that she cannot go through with her allegations in the most permanent way possible?  Or are the rape and the murder unconnected? Is it rather that whatever actions caused her to feel the need to drastically alter her appearance have finally come home to roost and her death has been some sort of revenge killing?  Fluke has to find out before his ever vigilant specialist drags him back into hospital and forces him to submit to the medical treatments necessary to save his life.

I very much enjoyed this book and will certainly be reading Body Breaker, the second in the series.  If it didn’t engage me quite as much as The Puppet Show that’s probably because it didn’t have a Tilly Bradshaw equivalent. I thought for a time that Lucy, ‘the bug lady’, might be going to fill the role, but it wasn’t to be.  Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a new go to crime writer and haven’t already read Craven’s work you could do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours in the company of either of his disfunctional DIs.

Crime Round-Up

I was listening last night to an edition of Radio 4’s Front Row about the positive influence of immersing yourself in reading fiction if you are plagued by forms of mental ill health.  Well, the same holds true for me when I am physically unwell and so this past week, when I have had a really bad flare-up of a chronic complaint, I have simply buried myself in three recently published crime novels and spent time in their fictional worlds as a way of escaping my own.

The first was Helen Fields most recent instalment in her Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanach and DCI Ava Turner, Perfect Silence.  It is a particularly gruesome tale in which successive murder victims, all young women whose lives have, in one way or another, fallen apart, are found with the silhouette of a doll carved into their skin.  If this isn’t stomach churning enough, the skin thus harvested then begins to turn up formed into the shape of a doll and left in a location relevant to the next victim.

Previous novels in this series have tended to focus more on Luc, but I felt that this was Ava’s story, which somehow seemed the right progression.  Luc, who has come to Edinburgh after a tortuous personal history while serving with Interpol, has finally begun to find his feet in the Scottish force and it seemed appropriate in this, the fourth novel in the series, that he and his colleagues have become comfortable enough with his presence that the author could turn the main focus of her attention elsewhere.  I also felt that Fields toned down the sharper edges of some of her other recurring characters who might occasionally have stepped a little near the line of caricature, and made them more realistic.  Even DS Lively and the dreaded Detective Superintendent Overbeck seem more believable as serving police officers.

I discovered Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire based DC Connie Childs books three Christmases ago and have read each successive novel pretty much as soon as it was available.  She has a remarkable skill of being able to convey the psychological truth of what is happening to each of her characters, often at the expense of the stereotypical expectations of the world in general.  In The Shrouded Path, also the fourth in the series, she skilfully juxtaposes two time periods, the present day and November 1957, as Connie and her boss, DI Francis Sadler, are forced to open an investigation into a number of apparently natural deaths when a seriously ill woman, who has never before mentioned her childhood, feverishly asks her daughter to find a particular friend.  What comes to light is a story of teenage spitefulness, only too readily believable, which culminated in the mental scarring of more than one young mind and then ultimately leads to cunningly concealed murder more than five decades on.

I think Ward just gets better with each book.  There is nothing salacious or outstandingly gory about her work and I find her depiction of the police force as a working unit more believable than almost any other writer in the genre.  As I say, it is her ability to portray the psychological truth of whoever and whatever she is writing about which makes her novels stand out in the memory.  If you haven’t read her then you have four remarkable books to look forward to.

And then there was the latest Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) publication, Lethal White. My goodness can that woman tell a story.  600+ pages, it kept me completely engrossed for almost two days solid. I have seen various press reviews which have likened it in scope to a great Victorian novel and I would have to agree as characters of all strata of society are brought together in a plot which encompasses murder, blackmail and political intrigue, not to mention the tortured personal complications for the two main protagonists, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, brought about by Robin’s failure to act on her impulse, three or four days into her marriage to the creepy little Matthew, to tell her new husband precisely where he can put himself.  Like many a Victorian heroine, Robin can be just too nice for her own good.

One of the things I like most about these novels is the glimpses we get of Strike’s peculiar childhood and the families it brought him into contact with.  One such family, the Chiswells, (pronounced Chizzle, about as Dickensian as you can get) is at the heart of this particular story.  Long standing members of the Tory upper classes, they are now reduced to penury (i.e, they can no longer afford the upkeep of the London home, the country estate, the nine horses etc) and further disaster threatens in the shape of the Socialist Worker son of the old family retainer who knows their deepest and most shameful secrets.  Cormoran and Robin are dragged into this both by the appearance of the mentally troubled Billy, who turns up in the office one day asking for help in investigating a killing he believes he witnessed as a child and by the Chizzle Pater Familias, who wants his blackmailers caught before his political career goes completely to pot.   Murder mystery though it is, it is all great fun and just the thing to help you get through a couple of days when life is getting you down, even if only because the descriptions of the pain Strike undergoes as a result of his ill-fitting prosthesis make anything you are suffering seem slight by comparison.

The Comforts of Home ~ Susan Hill

Writing about Patrick Gale‘s new novel, Take Nothing With You, I mentioned that I had originally come to his work through the recommendation of one of my reading groups. The same is true of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler books, the first of which, The Various Haunts of Men, was an immediate hit with everyone in the group who read it. While very much a police procedural, it was a success even with group members who would never normally choose to read that genre I think for two reasons: firstly, it was, as you might expect, extremely well written, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was as much concerned with the psychological effect that the revelation of the murderer had on the close- knit community of Lafferton as on the reveal itself.  Unfortunately, to my way of thinking at least, none of the subsequent books (and this is the ninth in the series) has ever quite lived up to that opening episode in the life of DCI (as he was then, DS now) Simon Serrailler and the rest of his rather dysfunctional family and while The Comforts of Home is as well written as the first instalment it really doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.

There are several different narrative strands at play in the novel.  Chief among these, I suppose, is the storyline relating to Serrailler himself.  Seriously injured at the end of the eighth book, and still on extended sick leave, Simon takes himself off to a small Scottish island where he is well-known to a community that will give him the space he needs to continue his recovery.  Joined there by his nephew, Sam, they are both shocked when the body of relative newcomer, Sandy Murdoch, is found, the more so when it becomes apparent that the death is not accidental.

However, pretty much equal narrative weight is given to the ongoing events in Lafferton, where Serrailler’s widowed sister, Cat, has married her brother’s boss, Kieron Bright, the local Chief Constable.  Bright is faced with a series of apparently random arson attacks fortunately on derelict properties, but worrying nonetheless, so when the mother of a young woman who went missing five years earlier turns up demanding that her daughter’s case be reopened even though everyone is fairly certain that the man who abducted her is already behind bars, he sends the files north to Simon and asks him to look into it.

Then we have the French strand centred around Simon and Cat’s father, as nasty a piece of work as you are ever likely to meet.  Saving face by leaving England after escaping a rape charge on a technicality, and now involved with a young waitress, Delphine, he sets up as part of the ex-pat community only to turn tail and hot foot it back to England when things go wrong, becoming ill in the process and forcing Cat into a position where she has to take him into her home, thus threatening her new relationship.  After all, who could possibly be more important than him.  (As you might have gathered, personally I would have swung for Richard Serrailler; ill or not, he would never have set foot over the doorstep. Cat is much nicer than I am.)

Add to this the question of what Sam, Cat’s eldest, is going to do with his life and the issue of how Cat herself is going to cope with the life balance of going back to work as a GP at the same time as bringing up her family and establishing a new relationship and you have more storylines than you can shake a stick at.

Writing about this mishmash of plots it suddenly strikes me that what it most resembles is an episode of a soap opera, specifically, I think, The Archers, for which Hill once wrote.  Firstyou follow this character’s storyline, then you focus on someone else, before switching back to catch up on events that started out in a previous instalment. Reaching the conclusion of this particular segment there are several strands left open-ended but that’s all right because it will bring you back at the same time tomorrow night.  Except it isn’t all right, because there probably won’t be another episode for a couple of years and at no point do I feel that there is one driving narrative line that pushes this particular instalment forward; that gives it a focal point.  What it seemed to me that I was left with when I reached the end of The Comforts of Home, was the need to search for some sort of theme that would at least link the disparate parts of the book together, as you occasionally find in an episode of say Casualty, where several incidents will all have the same underlying message. If there is such a message then I suppose it is to do with not trying to rush things but to give life the time it needs to work things out, a sensible enough pronouncement, but no substitute for a good plot.  When the next episode is finally available I’m not sure that I will be tuning in.

With thanks to NetGalley and Random House U.K. for a review copy.

Take Nothing With You ~ Patrick Gale

Having begun to settle into my new market town life I have been casting around for ways of getting to know like-minded people.  Because of my U3A connections I already have a number of good friends here but they are all of a certain age and I would like to widen my scope of acquaintance.  So, I trotted down to the local library last week and suggested that they might want to host a new book group, not one where we all read the same book (I already belong to two of those) but one like my first ever group where we came together once a month to talk about whatever we had read since the last meeting and swap ideas for future reads.  It’s a format that works well because no one is under pressure to have read a particular text and it is possible to come along even if you’ve had a nightmare month and read nothing yet still get something out of the evening.

I was reminded of that earlier group as I began Patrick Gale’s latest novel, Take Nothing With You, because it was there that I was first introduced to Gale’s work and because of them that I became a devoted reader.  I thought his last book, A Place Called Winter, was his best yet and so came to the new work with some trepidation.  I should not have worried. Every now and again you come across a book that absorbs you in the way that butter absorbs a hot knife.  The reading act is no effort at all, engagement is complete and ultimately the only sorrow is that the book is over.  Take Nothing With You is such a book.

When we first meet Eustace he is battling both with his health and with his conscience: his health because he has been diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and his conscience because he hasn’t told Theo, his new long distance partner, about his condition.  As a final element of his treatment Eustace must swallow a radioactive capsule and then spend a couple of days, first in a lead-lined room and then avoiding anyone who might be vulnerable to his still radioactive self.  Told to bring nothing with him that he won’t mind leaving behind, he is given a cheap MP3 player by his close friend, Naomi, of music for the cello, the instrument that brought them together in the first place.  Incarcerated in his hospital ‘cell’ Eustace goes back in his mind to the time when he was first introduced to the cello, to his sensitive teacher, Carla Gold, and through her and her friends to an understanding of his own ‘otherness’.

As a study of a teenage boy coming to terms with his sexuality and finding his place in the often treacherous world of school and burgeoning adulthood this is pitch perfect.  In part this is because much of what Eustace experiences is based on Gale’s own background.  Although the setting of 1970s Weston-Super-Mare is different, Gale, like Eustace, was brought up in close proximity to what might be called an institution, in the author’s case his father was a prison governor, while Eustace’s parents run a home for old people.  Like Eustace, Gale took up the cello and also studied with one of the foremost teachers of the day only to discover that a career as a professional musician was not going to materialise.  (I am giving nothing away here; it is apparent from the beginning that this isn’t the route that Eustace has followed.)  In fact, Eustace’s path through adolescence and to his eventual acceptance of his sexuality is, with one horrendous exception, relatively easy, given that no teenager’s journey to adulthood is ever a bed of roses.  For the adults in his life, however, brought up in a far less permissive age, their enforced exploration of their own sexual identity is more tortuous and ultimately disastrous.  If I wept for anyone in this novel it wasn’t for Eustace and his generation but for that of his parents, bound by the mores of a society that still condemned anything other than the sexual ‘norm’ and compelled not only to deny their true identity but to see themselves as somehow defective.

Is this as good a novel as A Place called Winter? It perhaps doesn’t raise as many issues, cover as much ground.  However, as a piece of writing it is, for me, almost perfection.  I can’t remember the last time I was so absorbed in a book and so invested in the characters.  Interestingly, I don’t think I would propose it as a book group read.  I’m not sure it is a book that would benefit from close dissection.  But, if the new recommendation based group gets going then it will be the first suggestion I shall offer in the hope that I can introduce other readers to Gale’s work in the same way that I was introduced twenty or so years ago.

 

The Darkest Place ~ Jo Spain

Jo Spain’s Chief Inspector Tom Reynolds has had a bad year, harassed by his immediate boss, Joe Kennedy (a portentous name if ever there was one) and blamed by the press for problems that are not of his making, things only get worse when he is contacted by Kennedy on Christmas Day and told that he is to prepare to travel to the West Coast Island of Oileán na Coilte to investigate a forty year old cold case. The island housed St Christina’s an asylum long ago closed down and now the subject of archeological investigation as a precursor to modern development.  Forty years previously, however, it had been the centre of an investigation into the disappearance of one of its senior doctors, Conrad Howe.  Howe’s wife, Miriam, has never given up hope that he will return home and each Christmas, on the anniversary of his disappearance, she dresses the Christmas tree in exactly the way he liked it in anticipation of his homecoming.  Now, concealed in one of the mass graves dug for the patients, Howe’s body has been found, little more than a skeleton, but still wearing his distinctive jacket which also contains his wallet.

Horrified by the details he reads in a diary, secreted by Howe in his attic, of the treatments inflicted on the asylum’s patients, Tom finds himself searching not just for a murderer, but also for the identity of the doctor at the centre of this abuse.  His efforts and those of his team are thwarted at every turn, however, by the presence on the island of Dr Lawrence Boylan, former head of the asylum and now a seriously ill man.  It is clear that he and the ex-nurse, Carla Crowley, who now takes care of him, are hiding something but whether it is to do with Conrad Howe’s disappearance or with more recent occurrences isn’t immediately apparent.

There have been several novels over the past decade that have dealt with the aftermath of the closing of asylums, many of which housed people who should never have been classified as insane in the first place.  One of the most interesting questions that Spain poses in The Darkest Place is to do with the effect that living and working in such an institution had on the people employed there.  No doubt many of the patients wrongly incarcerated did eventually become mentally unstable, but what about the staff?  How many of them managed to retain their sanity and what were the consequences for all concerned if they did become ill?

Because of its subject matter, this is not an easy book to read but it is a good crime novel. I did suddenly click what had happened, what the truth was behind Conrad’s disappearance but not until about eighty-five percent of the way through, which I think is about the right time for the light bulb to go on.  Jo Spain is a writer I am becoming increasingly impressed by and I warmly recommend this, her latest offering.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

Prague Spring ~ Simon Mawer

F9F2A25A-543F-4899-9866-D8DF120D57ECWay back in the early 1990s, just before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the College at which I worked entertained three Czech secondary teachers for a month and I was given the pleasurable task of showing them round the country and taking them to various music and theatre events.  Their English was perfect (I took them to an Oscar Wilde play and they laughed in all the right places – a lot of native English speakers don’t get Wilde’s humour) so we were able to have really interesting conversations about the different ways in which we had been brought up and educated.  One evening we were talking over coffee in the foyer of Symphony Hall and the subject of the Prague Spring and its aftermath came up. “I remember that,” I said. “I remember I had just bought a rucksack made in Czechoslovakia and wondering if we would be getting any more imports from your country.”  “Yes,” said one of our visitors.  “I remember it too. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the Russian tanks rolling through our village”.  There is remembering and remembering.

Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, memorialises the weeks immediately before the Russian invasion from several different points of view. The book opens in Oxford where two students, Ellie and James, having both been let down over holiday plans, join forces to hitchhike across Europe during that summer of 1968.  Ellie, from a seriously middle-class background, has already been involved in student politics including the ‘riots’ in Paris the previous year.  James is a northern working-class lad who is nowhere near as politically inclined. Making decisions pretty much on the toss of a coin, they bumble their way across Europe, ending up in a Prague heady from the new freedoms that the Czech people have been demanding for themselves.

Once in the capital they encounter both politically involved Czech citizens and Sam  Wareham, a first secretary at the British Embassy who is observing developments from a professional and personal point of view.  Professionally he ought to be maintaining a level of detachment, but personally he is involved with a young activist, Lenka  Konecková, who isn’t the slightest bit backwards at coming forwards whenever she gets the opportunity of challenging those who are meant to be leading her country towards increased independence from Soviet interference. Through Lenka we learn something of the depredations that the Czech people have suffered over the two decades since the take-over by the Communist Party in 1948 and of the humiliations they have been forced to endure in order to forge any sort of life for themselves at all.

The reader meets Sam and Lenka long before the young British couple arrive in Prague, theirs is the second point of view we encounter.  There is, however, a third commentator,  what I would have to call ‘an intrusive narrator’ although I didn’t find him/her worryingly so.  This is a voice that clearly comes from the future and knows what is about to happen to these people who are so desperately fighting for their independence.  I did wonder at first if it was going to turn out to be one of the characters looking back with hindsight, but in fact it is more abstract than that.  It is the voice of each one of us, inevitably reading this book knowing what is about to happen, experiencing the vitality of these young people while aware of what the outcome is going to be and powerless to anything to prevent it.

It is this sense of inevitability which drives the novel and the reader forward.  There is no real suspense involved, because we know what brought that Prague Spring to an end.  We worry about certain characters, but nothing the writer nor the reader can do will stop those Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square.  What it seems to me that Mawer is most concerned about is the way in which the outcomes for ordinary, everyday people are so randomly decided; how little say they have in their own destiny. We come across this in several ways.  There is, of course, the tossing of the coin that I have already mentioned.  Ellie and James abnegate their decision as to where they are going to travel and hand their future over to fate. They are lucky they have the option to renounce personal choice of their own free will.  Those under Soviet domination will not be so lucky. Unless, of course, they happen to have money and influence.  If you are a world renown conductor then don’t worry, someone will get you out to the West.  An ordinary citizen, like Lenka, however is going to have to stay and, if you will excuse the pun, face the music.  Most telling however, are the constant reminders of how James and Ellie met, taking part in what is described as a sub-Beckett play in which their two characters, Fando and Lis, are searching (fruitlessly) for the city of Tar.  Reading about the Czechs’ attempts to exert free will, knowing that they are not going to make it, is very like watching the characters in a Beckett play delude themselves that they are in charge of their destinies when all the time the world is conspiring to reduce them to ashes.

This is not the first time that Simon Mawer has written about Czechoslovakia’s troubled history.  His 2009 Booker shortlisted novel, The Glass Room, explored the years between 1930 and the country’s annexation by the Nazis in 1938 through into the post-war period.  Perhaps there is some family connection, I don’t know.  What I do know is that he appears to have a real sense of empathy with the Czech people and the turbulent times through which they have lived and I strongly recommend this book.

Circe ~ Madeline Miller

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3When I was ‘learning to read’ at primary school (i.e. crawling my way through a reading scheme designed to put children off books for life) the light at the end of the tunnel was a series of books called Wide Range Readers, which contained ‘proper stories’ rather than a  sequence of unrelated sentences about how much I loved (loathed) Dick and Dora.  I think there were twelve of these books altogether and each one included at least one tale from the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome.  This must be where I first encountered Circe, who I have to say did not impress herself on me anywhere near as much as Jason searching for the Golden Fleece or Theseus defeating the Minotaur.  I suspect she cropped up only as an appendage to the story of Odysseus. I certainly remember something about his sailors being turned into pigs ; it’s the sort of detail that stays in your mind.

Madeline Miller’s most recent novel, Circe, redresses the balance. While Jason, the Minotaur and most especially Odysseus make their appearance, this first person narrative is centred solely around the nymph herself.  Daughter of the titan, Helios, Circe finds herself caught in the middle of the continuing struggle between her father’s people and the Olympian gods.  In a move to retain the delicate balance between the two sets of immortals, Circe is exiled to the island of Aiaia as punishment for having turned Scylla, her rival in love, into a truly hideous monster. However, in the process of achieving this Circe has discovered her vocation as pharmakis; the problem being, that then, as  throughout history, a woman working with the produce of the natural world to create even the most harmless of remedies is labelled Witch.  And this opens up Miller’s exploration of the story of Circe and the way in which she has been portrayed through the ages into a more far reaching feminist consideration of the way in which women thought the ages have been suppressed by men.  The titans have always treated both wives and daughters as nothing more than toys available as and when for their sexual pleasure and Circe turns Odysseus’ sailors into pigs because she has reason to know how even human men will treat her if she doesn’t take steps to protect herself from their sexual appetites.

It would be wrong, however, to see this book as simply a feminist tract. Miller is, I think, much more concerned with the question of what it means to be human, or more particularly, what it means for Circe not to be, but rather to be cursed with the ‘gift’ of immortality. This isn’t something that has troubled her father, Helios, who believed the world’s natural order was to please him and who had never been able to imagine the world without himself in it, but Circe is both fascinated by the humans that she encounters and increasingly aware that her own eternal life condemns her to repeatedly lose those,  such as the inventor, Daedalus, with whom she finds a commonality. This comes to a head when she bears Odysseus a son, Telegonus, and, as he sets out to find his father, fully realises the fragility of human existence.  Perhaps ironically then, it is Odysseus’ son by Penelope, Telemachus, who finally brings about a resolution to her inner conflict and also offers her a way of escape from her island exile.

Initally, I found the novel rather slow, but once I was into it and, most particularly, once I had become attuned to the very clear music that dictates the patterns behind Miller’s writing, I had a hard time putting it down.  I really enjoyed her earlier novel, The Song of Achilles, but this, I think, is the more thoughtful book and I am impatient to see what she offers us next.

The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

IMG_0001Just what do you do when the 2000 year old skeleton you are in the process of excavating rings you up and, when you fail to answer, sends you a text message?  You send for Ruth Galloway, of course.  The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths’ tenth novel featuring the Norfolk based forensic archeologist, begins in the Liri Valley in Italy where Professor Angelo Morelli, an old acquaintance of Ruth, is clearly as concerned about his television presence as he is about ‘Toni’, the skeleton he is unearthing.  When his phone rings in the middle of shooting, the skeleton suddenly gets all his attention.  The television moguls are not, however, amused and so, in a bid to save his media career, Angelo invites Ruth, who much to her dismay he sells to them as an international bones expert, to come over to Italy and give her opinion about Toni’s provenance.

Ruth is not in a good place.  The Dark Angel takes up from exactly where The Chalk Pit ended, at DS Clough’s wedding.  As we follow Ruth and her six year old daughter, Kate, to the reception, it is clear that she has been stunned by the announcement of Michelle Nelson’s pregnancy.  Michelle is the wife of DCI Harry Nelson, who is Kate’s father, and the forthcoming birth of this unexpected child makes it very clear that any future that Ruth might have hoped for with Nelson is not going to materialise. When the call to Italy comes, with the promise of accommodation for her and Kate and the chance to stay on for a few days holiday afterwards, she welcomes the opportunity to get away.  Accompanied by her friend Shona and Shona’s four year old Louis, Ruth takes herself off to sunnier climes.

Although two murders are committed, one in Italy and the other in Norfolk, they are not the focus of this novel which is actually about the concept of family and the legacy of grievances which can resurface from one generation to another.  This manifests itself not only in the complications of Ruth’s relationship with Nelson but also in the history of Angelo’s family.  To some Angelo’s recently deceased grandfather is a hero, others are not so sure.  A member of the Italian resistance, he brought aid to the wartime partisans as they fought against the Nazis.  Some people, however, argue that such individuals only made matters worse for the populace in general, bringing the wrath of Mussolini’s black shirts down on everyone, regardless of their involvement.  Angelo and his mother Elsa defend his reputation vigorously but the undercurrents of ancient grievances are clearly there.

Wartime feuds are recent history, however, compared with the debate raging in academic circles as to the relative importance of the Romans when compared with the even older tribes who populated the region at the time when the smart phone savvy Toni was buried.  The Volsci (remembered mostly in Britain for their role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) have had little attention paid to them but their descendants are determined that the ‘family’ will not be forgotten and are prepared to go to some lengths to prevent further excavation of Roman sites, pushing instead for investigations into the other Italic tribes.

Into this mix is introduced Samir, a Catholic Syrian refugee, who is separated from his family and has risked life and limb in order to try to meet up with them in Italy where he hopes to be able to build a new life for them all.  There is an uncomfortable passage in the middle of the novel where his background is explained.  Uncomfortable, because of what it is describing, but also uncomfortable because the writing is suddenly different from the rest of the text and as consequence it sticks out as a polemic rather than being better integrated into the story.

But then the whole novel is something of a polemic about the complexity of family and the difficulties that defence of family brings with it and as a result for me, at least, this undermines the overall structure of the story.  The notion of the family is relevant to both crimes but the focus of the book is on neither and so they seem almost peripheral to what is happening.  This really isn’t a crime novel; it is a novel about Ruth and Nelson’s relationship and as such I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I have the earlier books in the series.  Its saving grace is that, Samir’s exposition apart, it still maintains the rather quirky narrative voice which presides over the action and lets no one get away with anything even so much as resembling a half truth.  Ruth packing for Italy asks What else does the conscientious mother need?  Antiseptic cream? Nit comb? Gin? and paying their respects to Sunday as a day of spiritual significance Nelson and Michelle are in the modern British equivalent of church: a garden centre. And it has Kate, a far more active presence than in previous books, who, with her Paddington hard stares is ever bit as effective as the narrator when it comes to deflating adult egos.  So, not a complete disaster, but not what I was looking for when I picked this book up.  I hope when we next meet Ruth it will be in a more crime focused context and that her personal life will be a little less to the fore.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Net Galley for making a copy of this book available.

The Lying Kind ~Alison James

IMG_0093Six year old Lola Jade Harper has been missing for seven months after disappearing from her mother’s home in Eastwell, Surrey.  A child likely to be at the heart of a bitter custody battle, she appears to have been abducted to order and inevitably her father, Gavin, is a major suspect.  Now Gavin has also disappeared and given that there have been reported sightings of Lola Jade on the continent, the National Crime Agency, once better known as Interpol, has been tasked to assist in finding him.  DI Rachel Prince and her Sergeant, Mark Brickall, are handed the file and told to liaise with the Surrey force in an attempt to discover whether the little girl has been taken abroad to keep her from her mother.

However, Michelle Harper may not be all that she seems.  While most of the social network comments are supportive of her, there are other indications that she is seriously unstable and very early in her involvement with the case Rachel finds herself questioning just how sincere Lola Jade’s mother is wanting to find the child. Making sure that her husband takes the blame appears to be much more important. When Gavin is eventually tracked down and it becomes apparent that his daughter isn’t with him attention turns back to the UK and Michelle Harper’s movements come under closer scrutiny.  Why has she moved out of the family home to live with her sister and what is happening to the money that has been collected on a just giving site to help with the search?

The Missing Child raises a number of interesting questions about the dynamics of family life.  If a marriage starts to go wrong how do you deal with the growing awareness that you have made a mistake?  Rachel herself has a failed relationship behind her: one from which she has withdrawn without allowing either herself or her husband any form of closure.  What happens when husband and wife have different views not only about having children but also as to how any children should be brought up?  How much can one sibling ask of another and what are the consequences when sibling bonds are broken?  And, most pertinently, what are the consequences when love for a child is subverted by love of oneself.  Alison James successfully manages to integrate each of these different strands into both the central plot and the background material she provides about her main characters in this her first novel.  At the end of the book the reader is left not only with a satisfactory storyline but also with sufficient detail about Rachel, her Sergeant and their personal and professional histories to feel that they are real people with real lives.

This is an accomplished first novel, well plotted, with convincingly drawn characters and also stylishly written.  It isn’t that often that the first in a series is strong enough to make me automatically put a writer on my go-to list of authors but I shall definitely be on the look out for Alison James’ next novel.  I think she may be a writer to watch.

With thanks to NetGalley for making this available for review.