Late in the Day ~ Tessa Hadley

At some point a friend out there in the great blogging universe must have recommended Tessa Hadley’s previous novel, The Past, to me.  Either that, or it was one of those novels that kept turning up on end of year lists as a book that you really must read.  Anyway, I did as I was told and read it and although it didn’t set my reading world alight, I do remember being very impressed with the quality of the writing.  Now, everywhere I turn, reviewers are speaking of her new novel, Late in the Day, as one of the great books of 2019 and having read it I have to say I am not inclined to disagree.

Coming to this latest work, I suspect that the reason I didn’t immediately engage with The Past is because Hadley’s work is very much character driven rather than being propelled forward by the plot and I am very much a plot driven reader.  Perhaps I engaged so much more thoroughly with this novel because the four main characters are all involved in the world of the arts and/or in teaching and so it was easier for me to appreciate their environment, even if I couldn’t always identify with their motivations and consequent behaviour.

Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary are two couples with a complex intertwining back history.  The two women have known each other since schooldays, as have the men, and, as becomes apparent fairly early on in the novel, initially the pairing was the other way round with Lydia pursuing Alex, who had just published a volume of poetry, obsessively.  Now grown into middle age and each with a daughter in her early twenties, they are established in their ways.  Christine is a moderately successful artist, Alex, having written no more poetry, is the head of a primary school, Zachary runs an extremely successful gallery and Lydia enjoys the fruits of his labour.  While I have no doubt at all that Alex would see himself as the fulcrum around which the group revolves, in fact the true lynchpin is easy going Zachary and the book opens with his sudden death.  What happens, Hadley asks, when the individual who has been responsible for maintaining a group’s equilibrium, its very understanding of its identity, is suddenly no longer there?

Ironically, perhaps what happens is that Zachary’s passing allows the others to show more clearly who they really are.  In the cases of Lydia and Alex, both of whom are intent on getting what they want, this means imposing on and abusing Christine’s friendship and trust.  (I may be biased here; I really did not like either of these characters.) Ultimately, however, it is Christine who gains most from the shift in perspective, as she comes to understand the extent to which Zachary’s interpretation of her art and her development, however well intentioned, has distorted her view of who she is as an artist and who she might become. Visiting his last exhibition, staged posthumously at the gallery and featuring the work of an artist with whom he had predicted she would identify, she discovers that the pictures bore her.

[T]hat possibility hadn’t occurred to her, it really was a surprise.… It wasn’t that she thought they were false or pretentious exactly: she could imagine the very authentic journey the artist had made towards these big pale canvases with their silver and grey and white colours, the painstaking exact grids and geometries, fine as quilting.  In pursuit of some truth of the spirit she had refined away every intrusion of ugly life: all the dirty marks it made, all its aggression and banally literal languages…She was disappointed – and indignant, too, that Zachary could have thought these works were anything like hers, or these colours.

Despite the self-seeking behaviour of her husband and friend, it is Christine you feel is going to be most capable of redefining herself in a world without Zachary; in fact, of redefining herself in her own terms, as an individual and not in relation to other people. Hadley seems to be particularly concerned with how people influence and are influenced by their partners; the extent to which we define and are defined by those with whom we chose to couple.  This is picked up in respect of both daughters, Lydia and Zachary’s Grace, who when we first met her seems only to be able to give meaning to herself through a series of disastrous one-night stands, and Isobel, who, speaking of the man whose child she is expecting, tells Christine,

I know I’m the right person for [him] … I’ll save him from himself, he needs me. We balance up perfectly. Because without me he’s in danger of becoming quite stuffy, such an old fogey… I’ll be good for him.

I found myself reading this novel much more slowly than would normally be the case.  I think in part this was because the plot is of minimal importance; it is plot which normally has me saying “just one more chapter”.  However, just as important, I would suggest, was the quality of the writing, which simply made me want to savour each sentence.  Hadley has not been particularly prolific, but there is a back catalogue and I am very much looking forward to exploring it.

 

 

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Sunday Retrospective ~ April 21st 2019

Happy Easter from The Bears and myself.  It’s a beautiful day here and The Bears are toasting their toes in the sunshine and trying very hard not to get chocolate all over their paws. I am allergic to chocolate and so they are kindly eating my share for me.  That’s what friends are for.

I have had a really barren period this last week where reading has been concerned.  It happens sometimes, doesn’t it?  I started a new crime series which had a reasonable first instalment, but the second book, so often the crunch point, was a definite let down and after about a hundred pages I gave up on it.  However, I’ve just begun Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, Late in the Day and I am getting on much better with that.  I’ve only read one novel by Hadley before, The Past, which, to be honest, I didn’t quite know what to make of, although I could tell it was very well written.  This latest book, while I’m not quite certain where it is going, is engaging me much more, perhaps because the main characters are involved in the worlds of books and art and so I feel comfortable in their company.  One of them, Christine, as a student, starts a PhD on Christina Rossetti and reading about it, as is so often the case, made me realise just how little I know about the poet, either her life or her work.  I do seem to remember that there was a flurry of interest in her sometime during the last decade.  Was there an exhibition of her drawings?  I don’t know; I am dredging the dregs of my mind here.  Anyway, a quick whip round the book sites shows that there has been a relatively recent biography and a reprint of an older volume.  So, if fiction continues to be something of a let down I might turn to her life history and poetry as a palate refresher.  The only one of her poems that I know is In the Bleak Midwinter, although I do know that there is some controversy about the subtext of another – Goblin Market.

The other nudge to my book list this week has come from the Great Courses Plus site.  Have you come across this?  I know a number of you have used the Great Courses as a study resource because it was a blogger who originally suggested their materials to me when I was looking for something to provide historical background to the novels set in Roma which I was then reading. I have bought several of their courses since that time, latterly as downloads because of space considerations.  They now offer a subscription service, Great Courses Plus, which for a reasonable price gives you on-line access to their more recent output as well as additional material not available elsewhere.  Often this will be in response to something currently in the news.  So, for example, this week they have put out responses to the fire in Notre Dame alongside the lecture on the Cathedral from one of their existing offerings.   Anyway, I have begun watching their lecture series on Irish Identity.  I used to teach part of a module on Irish Drama and I read a lot of novels set in Ireland so I thought it would be interesting to get a more in-depth background to the country/countries (depending on which part of the history you are dealing with).  It’s fascinating coming at this from the American perspective of the lecturer, rather than from a British perspective.  I’m only four lectures in, but so far it is definitely a case of everything Irish = good, everything British = bad, which as someone who had an Irish student severely injured in the Omagh bombing, presumably by another Irish person, and who was in Birmingham city centre when the pub bombs went off, is a bit hard to take.  Nevertheless, it is throwing up a lot of detail which I can relate to the novels I’ve read, especially those by Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, and reminding me about works by earlier writers such as Swift and Goldsmith, that I wouldn’t mind revisiting.

 

After The Party ~ Cressida Connolly

In a previous post I mentioned that I had been exploring the short lists for past awards of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and had been amazed to discover just how many of them I had read, despite considering myself as someone who didn’t read much in that genre.  Well, last week the short list for this year’s prize was announced and again, one of the books on my library shelf, Cressida Connolly’s After The Party, is up for consideration.

The novel moves between two time periods, from 1938 through the subsequent war years, as well as 1979.  In the former, Connolly uses a third person narrative to tell the story of Phyllis Forrester and her family, newly returned to England after the contract her husband, Hugh, had with his employers has expired.  In the later period the older Phyllis gives a first person account of her memories of that time to an unnamed interviewer.

Left very much to her own devices and with three children on her hands, Phyllis is persuaded by her sister Nina to join her in arranging summer camps on the South Coast for local youth.  Nina is full of enthusiasm for the organisation she and her husband have become involved with and is particularly hoping that the group’s ‘Leader’ will come down for the day and speak to the campers.  Apparently, the sun always shines on those days when he makes an appearance.  Gradually, in a way that very much echoes the insidious manner in which any form of indoctrination takes place, Connolly drip feeds the reader with enough information for it to become clear that the Leader is Oswald Mosley and the group to which Nina and Eric belong, the British Union.

Over the course of the next few months Phyllis and Hugh, neither of them with enough on their hands to keep them gainfully employed, become more and more involved with Mosley’s circle, largely it seemed to me, as a way of boosting their own self-esteem.  They are neither of them certain of their place in British society any more and being part of a group helps them to find an identity.  They are convinced by Mosley’s politics because it supports the belief in their own entitlement as part of a British ruling elite.  Interestingly, Mosley’s links with the leaders of the Third Reich are never mentioned. Eventually, and I am giving nothing away here because it is made apparent in the novel’s opening pages, both Phyllis and Hugh are arrested and we follow Phyllis through imprisonment in Holloway and then internment on the Isle of Man.  Holloway sounds pretty awful, but given what a lot of people were suffering through the Blitz, internment was a life of comparative luxury.  Like most of the Union members, they are released before the war ends, but not before real damage has been done to their family circumstances.

Connolly skilfully shows how easy it is for someone to become involved in an extremist organisation without being aware either of what is happening to them or what the real ideology behind the group is. She may be writing about the British Union, but she could just as easily be reflecting on twenty-first century youth being lured into terrorism.  It is a salutary reminder that not all extremism develops out of an anti-establishment background.  Mosley played on the need of the class from which Phyllis and Hugh came to feel that they were still a ruling force in a society that was beginning to challenge the old class structure. Their feeling of entitlement was being threatened and it is this which seems to have festered in Phyllis’ mind over the years and which makes itself felt in the attitude she displays in the 1979 interview.  I quite warmed to the 1930s Phyllis; I was definitely alienated by the later version.

However, Connolly also explores a possible reason for the change in Phyllis.  She questions just how effective imprisonment was as a deterrent.  It’s clear that before she was incarcerated Phyllis really had very little understanding of what the British Union stood for, but her time in Holloway serves almost as a university education in the subject and she comes out committed to the cause in a way that she wouldn’t have recognised prior to her sentence.  Again, it is easy to draw parallels with the indoctrination of vulnerable  youth that apparently goes on in our prisons today.  Told by the establishment that you are a threat to society there is always the possibility that that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After The Party gives the reader a lot to think about, not only in respect of its historical context but also in terms of what it has to say about many current situations.  Connolly is a writer I shall look out for in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Retrospective ~ April 7th 2019

Sorry for the silence. It has been both literal and enforced.  The squeamish should not read on.

An x-ray during what was meant to be a routine dental appointment showed that one of my teeth was eating itself from the inside out because of something that was lodged in my jaw.  Immediate action was called for in the shape of extraction and excavation. The tooth came out easily enough but the foreign object was another matter.  It turned out to be the root of a tooth that was pulled over fifty years ago and in that time the jaw bone had grown round it.  The dentist’s breezy “I’m sure it will just flick out” will probably qualify for the most optimistic prediction of the year.  When I said excavation what I meant was excavation, because eventually the drill had to come out and the offending item was gouged out of my jaw.  Consequently I have spent the last week or so imitating someone who has gone the proverbial twelve rounds with any heavyweight boxer you care to name and not really feeling like being sociable even on line.  The external swelling has now almost gone and the pain is bearable but the swelling inside the mouth is still extensive and the stitches have yet to dissolve.  Anyway, as you can imagine, I have been very busy sitting round feeling sorry for myself and surprisingly being completely exhausted.  It seems to have taken as much out of me as major surgery.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t read anything that could be called demanding.  I caught up with the new Olivia Kiernan police procedural, The Killer in Me.  I was very impressed by the first in this series, Too Close to Breathe, and this new novel is better than the first.  Set in and around Dublin, these books feature Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan who is faced not only with a double murder but also with a possible case of false imprisonment following the release of Seán Hennessey who has served seventeen years for the killing of his parents. Caught between those who would prove Hennessey’s innocence and those who think he is also responsible for the current offences, Frankie then discovers that there is a link between the crimes past and present and her own family. Kiernan is going to be very good indeed and if you haven’t started reading her yet I would say catch up quickly.

I also read the first in another crime series, this one set in Derbyshire and written by Roz Watkins.  Having seen a very positive review of her second novel, Dead Man’s Daughter, I got hold of the first, The Devil’s Dice, an absolute page turner if ever there was one.  DI Meg Dalton has returned to her Derbyshire roots having previously served in Manchester.  During the course of the story it becomes apparent that Meg has suffered some sort of trauma in her previous posting and that she is now anxious to regain not only her standing with her colleagues, but also her belief in her own abilities.  Called out to the discovery of a body in a cave system she has to decide whether the death is the result of suicide or of murder. Investigating the victim’s background she finds herself caught up in a fierce struggle between a group who believe in assisted dying for those who are in the final stages of debilitating and painful illnesses and fundamentalist Christians who will go to any lengths to stop them. As with the Kiernan novel, the protagonist discovers that her own family have an involvement in what is happening and Meg is placed in the difficult posisition of having to decide whether to give evidence against a close relative.  I thought this was a very strong first novel and will definitely be getting hold of a copy of Dead Man’s Daughter as soon as possible.

Sunday Retrospective ~ March 24th 2019

This coming week sees the end of the Oxford University online Shakespeare course I have been taking.  I’ve very much enjoyed it, but although when I began I thought I might continue working with them, taking a different course each term, the last ten weeks have changed my mind.  Like all such courses the amount of time that it is suggested you need to give is radically underestimated. Ten hours a week is what is proposed, but if you want to be properly involved and be in a position to complete the necessary assignments then you are definitely looking at nearer twenty.  When I look back at what I have read so far this year I can see just how that has eaten into my reading time and I know that if I went on and did any further study I would really begin to resent that.  The pressure is particularly intense when it comes round to the time for submitting assignments. My last one went in this week and so I am now waiting judgement on it.  I was explaining what I had written to a friend, a Professor of English Language, who just said, “I am really glad I don’t have to mark your work”.  What is so unusual about comparing Leontes ‘journey’ through The Winter’s Tale to St Paul’s damascene moment in the Acts of the Apostles, that’s what I want to know?  My only problem was trying to manage it in 1500 words.  I like what I write to have a certain rhythm to it and that often makes extreme brevity difficult.

So, I have read almost nothing during the last seven days with the exception of the book I mentioned in my previous post: the one that was a complete disaster.  I’m hoping things will now pick up.  I’ve just started Linda Grant’s new novel, A Stranger City, which is promising well.  I really enjoyed her last book, The Dark Circle, which uses the setting of a 1950s sanitorium to explore the changes in society after the Second World War, but other than that I haven’t read anything else by her.  Does anyone have any favourites that I might put onto a summer reading list?  I also have Olivia Kiernan’s second Frankie Sheenan novel, The Killer in Me, waiting.  Too Close to Breathe was an excellent start to this series and with the new one due out at the beginning of April I must get reading quickly and post a review.

Tell Me A Story

Yesterday I picked up a book which has been long listed for at least two of this year’s major awards.  For once I had a whole afternoon free and I was looking forward to really getting into this new novel.  Two hours later, having crawled my way through the first fifty or so pages, I put it onto the pile to go back to the library wondering just what had gone wrong.  I could see that it was a very well written work.  Here was a writer who loved language and knew how to use it.  The author also had a keen eye for detail and created believable and precise characters and locations. However, what there didn’t seem to be was any attempt at telling a story.  Breaking off to seek out reviews, what I discovered was a series of comments about the way in which the lives and characteristics of the central figures were portrayed and the extent to which the writer had used them to comment on a certain strata of society.  Nobody tried to tell me about the plot – probably because there isn’t one.

Let me say straight away that I am not condemning the book on this account.  I’m sure that for some readers it will be a delight.  What I am more interested in is what it says about me as a reader. I want a story.  I want a plot with the ubiquitous beginning, middle and end, even if those elements don’t come in the right order.  Oh, I’m interested in character as well, but I need them to do something other than just walk through their daily lives.  I want to be able to describe at least one of them as a protagonist, which was a word I almost used in the previous paragraph before deciding that something as proactive as that could never be associated with any of the characters I had been reading about.  Maybe this makes me an unsophisticated reader, but do you know what, at this point in my life I don’t care.  Story is what has always been important to me.  I think it is important to most of us.  As Barbara Hardy so famously once said narrative is a primary act of mind, we all automatically tell stories about what we’ve been up to, even if what we are describing is the most mundane day of our lives.   Not for nothing did I spend my working life researching and teaching the way in which, from our earliest days, we learn how to shape and communicate the stories that define who we are.

Perhaps I should make a bigger effort to engage with novels that don’t work with plot, but when there are so many books out there that I want to read which do have a story to tell to be honest I’m not sure I really want to try.  Maybe I’m just in a grumpy mood this morning.

Sunday Retrospective ~ March 9th 2019

A very brief retrospective this week because I am running up against the deadline for the second assignment on my Shakespeare course so just two simple genre related points.

First, a plea for help.  A friend of mine (really, a friend of mine, I’m not hiding behind a false anonymity here) has been asked by the local library service to select books for some of their housebound borrowers. One of these only wants to read what I would call cosy (cozy) crime.  My friend isn’t a crime reader at all and I am not really into the cosy end of the spectrum.  I have the beginnings of a list of recommendations but would welcome any further suggestions. This borrower gets through fifteen books a month so it may have to become a question of quantity over quality.

My current list is

A C Beaton

Carola Dunn

Elizabeth Peters

Alan Hunter

Kerry Greenwood

Simon Brett

Nicola Upson

Frances Brody

I shall also suggest that she looks at writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Elizabeth Peters and, if those go down well, point her in the direction of the British Library Classic Crime series.  Are there any other writers that you can suggest?  We would both be very grateful for any help you can give.

Secondly, an observation about my own stupidity.  I have been reading my friend Helen’s blog, She Reads Novels, quite literally for years. As those of you who are discriminating enough to do the same will know, Helen mostly reads and blogs about historical fiction.  I really enjoy her posts but if you had asked me before the beginning of this week I would have told you that personally I was not a fan of the genre.  Well, on Wednesday The Walter Scott Prize announced the long list for this year’s award, which unsurprisingly is for Historical Fiction and Helen posted about it here. I was astounded.  What do I mean I don’t read historical fiction?  I’ve already read three of these novels and have another three on my up and coming list. (That’s the one with books I really do intend to read as opposed to the tbr list which we all know is a flight of fancy.). So, I went back and checked previous nominees and discovered that one year I’d read the entire short list!  I simply didn’t classify them as Historical Fiction because in my mind (Helen, I’m really sorry!) they were far too good.

Actually, I think there are two factors at work here.  First, when I was reading historical fiction, in my teens, there were a lot of poorly written examples of the genre and for the most part what I was borrowing from the library was substandard romance fiction in an historical setting. That experience has undoubtedly coloured my view. The second is to do with what counts as historical. For goodness sake, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle is on one of the short lists. That describes events that happened in my own life time. When did I become historical?

Anyway, enough of my blinkered approach to genre. As soon as my course is over (I have loved doing it, but it has really cut into reading time) I am going to mine the back lists of the Walter Scott Prize because, if the novels I have read are anything to go by, the others are going to be well worth exploring too.

The Scholar ~ Dervla McTiernan

Dervla McTiernan’s first novel, The Ruin, which introduced Galway based Gardaí sergeant, Cormac Reilly, was published last year to almost universal acclaim.  I very much enjoyed it on a first read, but was less certain a second time round.  I thought McTiernan started too many hares and that as a result the central narrative line got lost. I was also concerned about the number of members of the Galway force who were at best incompetent, at worst corrupt.  I have friends living in Galway and I feared for their safety.  I came to The Scholar, the second in the series, therefore, with a certain amount of trepidation.  Fortunately, this novel is more tightly plotted and, while there are still one or two members of the force who clearly have issues, I suspect that is true of any group of police and this time round there is, thank goodness, a sense that as a whole they do actually want to see justice done.

Cormac Reilly has transferred from Dublin to Galway to be with his partner, Emma Sweeney, who has secured a five year funded position at a medical research lab.  The two met after Emma was charged with a murder from which she was later exonerated and the experience, unsurprisingly, has left scars on both of them.  When, therefore, Emma rings Cormac and tells him that she has found a dead body in the University car park he is concerned not only for her well-being but also that she may be seen as a suspect in what turns out to be a particularly vicious, and clearly deliberate, hit and run.  When it becomes apparent that the victim has links to the facility in which Emma works Reilly’s involvement in the case becomes questionable however, he is determined to hang on to the investigation not only to ensure that Emma is not unduly pressured but also because this is the first real test of his ability in his new posting.

At the heart of the case are two seriously dysfunctional families.  Carline Darcy is the granddaughter of a man who has made billions through the development of medical advances. John Darcy is a seriously nasty piece of work, who has no time for Carline despite the fact that she seems to crave his approval.  To that end she has enrolled on the Bio-Pharmaceutical Chemistry degree at the University and is seeking to prove by her work that she is worthy of a place in Darcy Pharmaceuticals.  Here she encounters and works alongside Della Lambert, the eldest daughter of a family struggling to make ends meet after the financial crash causes her father to lose his business.  On the face of it, the two girls have nothing in common, but there is one thing that Della can apparently offer Carline: a way to gain her grandfather’s approval.

To anyone who has worked in the University sector, Carline’s plan is obviously flawed,  but at eighteen you think you can order the world to run in line with your scenario.  Sooner rather than later her scheme would have come crashing down around both girls heads. However, there is one member of Darcy Pharmaceutical who can’t afford to wait for that to happen and, with Emma Sweeney on hand to be offered up as the obvious suspect, that individual decides to take deadly action.

I think this is definitely a more tightly written book than The Ruin and McTiernan has given greater definition to more of her characters, especially Emma, Cormac’s fellow sergeant, Carrie O’Halloran, and Garda Peter Fisher, who is clearly ripe either for promotion for using his own initiative or dismissal on the grounds of overstepping the mark. While she isn’t yet rivalling Claire McGowan or Tana French in respect of Irish crime writing, I will certainly be coming back for more.

The Scandal ~ Mari Hannah

Over the past several years Mari Hannah has been a prolific writer, sometimes publishing as many as three books in a twelve month. She has three series on the go, that featuring DCI Kate Daniels, the Matthew Ryan books and most recently novels centred around DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. All of her work is set in the North East and sometimes characters, most notably DCS Bright, Head of CID, cross from one series to another. The Scandal is the third appearance for Stone and Oliver along with Ben, Stone’s nephew and Belinda Wells, that unusual phenomenon in crime fiction, a journalist who can be trusted.

Chris Adams, (another decent journalist, so perhaps I am prejudice) is found dying in a dark alleyway.  His murder hits Frankie hard.  She and Chris had grown up together and because of past experiences in her own family she is only too aware of how this is going to effect his mother, a woman who has already had to fight the demon of alcoholism. Very early on in the investigation the suggestion is raised that the journalist’s death might have been a means of siliencing him in respect of a story he was chasing.  Following this up, however, proves difficult as his editor, Mark Fox, clearly had no time for the young man and refuses to credit the idea that he could possibly have had anything of importance to report. At this point, somewhat reluctantly Stone brings Belinda Wells into the picture, reluctantly because Ben, the nephew to whom Stone has become a surrogate father, is shadowing the journalist and the DCI would prefer to keep the young man out of his policing life.

Gradually, links are made between Adams and a missing woman, Nancy Carver.  The reader already knows that Nancy has made plans to disappear, as the book opens with her attempts to vanish from her job and leave no evidence as to where she has gone. The implication is that she is about to become a whistleblower, but whether or not she has been able to make good her escape, whether her current status as a misper is voluntary or enforced, is something we are left to speculate about.  Whatever her situation, it becomes clear that the institution for which she worked is going to bear close scrutiny; not however, if Stone has anything to do with it, at the hands of his nephew.

Hannah starts a number of hares in this novel: the abuse of a particular section of the public, the plight of those who are forced into homelessness and the effect that staff reduction measures are having on the police.  I can get on board with all of these but I did feel that at times, especially where the latter is concerned, she stood on her soapbox too often and banged her drum just a little bit too hard.  No one who reads modern crime fiction can help but be aware of the difficulties our police forces are facing in the current economic climate and while one of the genre’s most important features is the way in which it draws attention to those aspects of our society that it can be most difficult to acknowledge, I think it is better when the story is allowed to make that point for itself rather than having it over emphasised. Nevertheless, this is as good a read as all of Hannah’s other work and if you haven’t already enjoyed her novels then I strongly recommend her.  If you’re new to the author, however, I would suggest you go back to the beginning at least of this series and possibly to the beginning of her output, to orientate yourself to her world and I envy you having all eleven of her books still to enjoy.

With thanks to the Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel.

The Truth About Lies ~ Tracy Darnton

Once, long ago and probably in a land far away, I used to lecture in Children’s Literature. For the best part of forty years, if you wanted to know what was current on the children’s/YA book scene I was the person to whom you turned.  However, over the last decade I have gradually left that existence behind and very much lost touch with what is being published in a field that dominated my reading for most of my adult life.  Then, a couple of weeks ago Waterstones sent me one of their regular emails announcing the short lists for their Children’s Book Prize for 2019 and just out of curiosity I glanced through it to see if there were any names I recognised. What I wasn’t expecting was to see my own surname there.

Now, if your name is Smith or Jones coming across someone with the same surname as you must be pretty much a daily occurrence, but when you share that name with less than two hundred people world wide it rather takes your breath away.  So, out of sheer nosiness for the first time in over ten years I found myself ordering and reading a YA novel and, thank goodness, very much enjoying it.

Jess Wilson is a relatively new student at Dartmeet College in Devon. Like many of the other students there she has been traumatised by the fate of her roommate, Hanna, who has fallen to her death from the window of the room they shared.  The relationship between Jess and Hanna had been fraught, not the least because Hanna had started a romance with Ed, the boy that Jess fancied, and Jess, when we first meet her, is clearly concerned that her subsequent behaviour towards Hanna was responsible, in one way or another, for her death.  However, Jess has far more to worry her than that, because she carries secrets from her past life that isolate her not only from the other students but from the wider world as well.  Blessed or cursed (take your pick) not only with a photographic (eidetic) memory but also with hyperthymesia, the type of memory that allows an individual to recall everything that has ever happened to them, Jess has run away from a programme led by one Professor Coleman where she has been more or less used as a lab rat to find out whether or not it is possible to erase traumatic memories from people’s minds.  No more PTSD – or at least that is the more anodyne of the possible outcomes of the Professor’s research.  Of course, if you want to test a theory like that then the subject involved has to have a traumatic memory for you to erase and Jess’s memory of her mother’s death in a road traffic accident fits the bill perfectly.

Or does it?  As Jess finds herself, however unwillingly, becoming more and more involved in the life of the College and her fellow students she, and the reader, begin to question the accuracy and the completeness of her recall. If there is no one against whom you can test your memory how do you know what you remember is what actually happened; how can you be certain that there aren’t things that you have forgotten?  This is a first person narrative.  When I am being told that the narrator is as reliable as it is possible to get, perhaps I should be asking if really, however unwittingly, Jess isn’t the ultimate unreliable narrator.  Was she involved in Hanna’s death?  Is Professor Coleman actually the monster she makes out?  This is what Jess and the reader have to explore.

The Truth About Lies is an extremely interesting exploration both of how our memory can define us and how it can deceive us as to who we truly are.  Coming immediately after my reading of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, where memory is set against thought, Tracy Darnton’s book pits it against feelings, suggesting that while it may be possible to wipe out recall of events, erasing the feelings attached to those events is neither possible nor desirable.  This is an excellent first novel and if I baulked a bit at the dénouement I pulled myself up short and reminded myself that many an adult thriller has an ending that seems a bit too neat.  Will it win the Waterstone’s prize?  I don’t know.  Maybe I should return to my roots and read the other contenders. This book has made me recall why I chose to specialise in Children’s Literature in the first place.