We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ~ Karen Joy Fowler

51xeXD2W63LFor a number of reasons I resisted reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker short listed novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it was first published in 2013.  Like so many book club addicts I’d read and enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club but not enough to send me scurrying off to discover whatever else she had written nor to ensure that any current work would automatically find its way on to my library list.  And, again like many others (all presumably people who hadn’t read the novel) I was surprised when this latest book made the Booker long list and astounded when it reached the short list. She simply hadn’t struck me as the sort of writer that would attract the judges of literary awards.

Well, more fool me!  And more fool anyone else who has been avoiding this novel for whatever reason, because having read it twice in quick succession I think it is a remarkable work and I will certainly be going back to explore Fowler’s previous books as well as adding her to the list of writers whose new releases I automatically read as soon as I possibly can.

So, what is it about this book that makes it stand out as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year?  Well, to begin with, it is incredibly readable.  Even when it is dealing with some intensely difficult subjects the pages seem to turn themselves.  Fowler knows how to tell a story that involves the reader from the start, as well as being able to create characters you care about and empathise with.  However hard it may be to read on in some sections, you simply have to in order to find out what happens to these individuals.  By the time you get to the difficult bits you are too engaged to duck out.

Then there is the humour.  Despite the fact that there is very little in the lives of the people we meet to laugh about, Fowler still keeps us chuckling and, at times, laughing out loud.  Some sections (and I’ll quote one later) are nothing short of joyous.

Finally, and this is where I suspect the Booker nomination came from, there are the subjects that she is addressing.  And from this point on I am going to assume that you have either read the book or know what it is about.  If you don’t, then be aware that there is a reveal around seventy pages in and I am not going to avoid talking about it.  In fact, when I came to read the book for the first time (two of my book groups had chosen it for the same month) I did know that one of the main characters was a chimpanzee.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know which one and consequently tried to read the first chapters thinking it was going to be revealed that it was Rosie.  Let me tell you, that was a problem!  As it happens Rosie, who is in her early twenties when we first meet her, is definitely human but has been brought up until the age of five with Fern, who is a chimpanzee and who lives with the family as if the two girls are sisters. But at the point, after an event that Rosie has wiped from her memory, Fern vanishes and the whole structure of the family crumbles.

Inevitably, much of the book is about the animal rights issues of using primates in experimentation: something that was not uncommon in the latter part of the last century.  I’m not going to explore those here, because I am sure that when the book came out there were blogs and articles aplenty on the topic.  However, there are two other areas that I felt Fowler was addressing that I would like to mention because I think they are important to her but have been rather overlooked in discussion.

Firstly, this is an intensely feminist novel.  It celebrates the sisterhood that is possible among the most profoundly different individuals, while at the same time refusing to shy away from the fact that in many societies (including that of the chimpanzee) even the highest ranked females are seen as being beneath the lowest ranked males.  Keeping those females subdued by sexual means is common.  In one chimpanzee colony, we are told, a female was observed being raped 170 times in a three day period.  However, as Rosie’s university professor remarks

most religions [are] obsessed with policing female sexual behaviour, …for many it [is] their entire raison d’être…  “The only difference ,” he said, “is that no chimp has ever claimed that he was following God’s orders.

At the book’s conclusion it is a sisterhood of Rosie, her mother, Fern and Fern’s daughter, Hazel that somehow manages to re-establish a tentative relationship despite all the damage that has been done to them throughout the years since Fern’s removal from the family.  They don’t succeed in rebuilding the joyous companionship of those early years but for Rosie at least, the memory lingers on.

MEMORY TWO:  one of the graduate students has gotten a free compilation tape from the local radio station and she throws it into the cassette player.  We are dancing together, all the girls – Mom and Grandma Donna, Fern and I, the grad students, Amy, Caroline, and Courtney. We are rocking it old-school to “Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath,” “Palisades Park,” and “Love Potion No. 9”

I didn’t know if it was day or night.  I started kissing everything in sight.

Fern is smacking her feet down, loud as she can, jumping sometimes onto the backs of the chairs and then landing on the floor.  She makes Amy swing her, and laughs the whole time she is in the air.  I am shaking it, popping it, laying it down and working it out.  “Conga line,” Mom calls.  She snakes us through the downstairs, Fern and I dancing, dancing, dancing behind her.

I am so jealous of that memory.  I would have given anything to have been there and have the right to share it.

However, what interested me most was the way in which the book explores the nature of story, the morals it is used to teach, the way in which the author, the narrator and the reader interact with each other and what happens when it is you who are telling your story to yourself through an act of memory.

Once upon a time, there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same.

The story of Rosie and Fern seems to have had the archetypal beginning.  But, as Rosie realises, when applied to real life, fairy tales run out of road.  It may be all well and good to fantasise about a situation in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, but when the elder sister’s subsequent banishment actually happens there are consequences that cannot be imagined away.  The rest of the family don’t live happily ever after, they live in the knowledge of what they have done.

Or do they?  Because of the way in which she structures the story Fowler is able to play around with the reader’s perceptions.  If you don’t know what is coming then you are likely to interpret what happens to Rosie in the book’s opening chapters very differently from the way you react when you know her past history.  As Rosie remarks, by starting the story in the middle she deprives readers of information that would help them build up a true picture of the situation.  But what becomes apparent is that Rosie is also depriving herself of necessary information because the stories that she tells are almost certainly incomplete.

the happening and the telling are very different things.  This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it.

Rosie has blocked memories of certain incidents because dealing with the implications of what really happened would be too painful.  And, even when she forces herself to bring those memories to the fore she still can never be certain that they are true.

Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten.  The new representation is called a screen memory.  A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.

Perhaps the story that Rosie eventually remembers and tells us is the truth of what happened.  Perhaps it is a screen memory.  Neither she nor we will ever know the truth of the matter.  What we do know are the consequences, consequences that no one, not Rosie, her family or the reader, will never be able to walk away from.  What each one of us has encountered in the course of this story we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.

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The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

abLouise Penny has, for some time now, been one of my favourite crime writers.  I was, therefore, very pleased to be given the opportunity to read her most recent novel, The Long Way Home, in advance of publication in order to write a review of it for Shiny New Books.  You can read that review by following this link.

However, much as I enjoyed this book, it did give me pause for thought.  As you will see from the review, I found myself questioning whether Penny, like the central (though absent) character in this novel, Peter Morrow, shouldn’t be asking herself whether or not she wanted to continue as a crime writer.  The Long Way Home doesn’t need a murder to make the point that Penny is exploring: namely the impetus behind the creative process and what examining that impetus means for the people involved.  But, Penny is a crime writer.  Her readers expect a murder.  Or perhaps, more importantly, her publishers and their publicists demand a murder because they don’t have faith in her readers to follow a writer they love into something rather different.  As I say in the review

there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.

More pertinent perhaps, is the question would her publishers ever allow her to tell them.

What I didn’t go on to to say in that review is that in this novel Penny herself references some of the writers I think she has the skills to emulate.  When I read her more recent books with their insightful dissections of the ways in which people and communities respond in moments of crisis, the authors I think of are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo and perhaps especially, Elizabeth Strout.  I would love to turn any of these loose in Three Pines and see what they had to tell us about the social chemistry of the village, but I shouldn’t need to because Penny is more than capable of telling us herself.

This isn’t the only crime novel I’ve read recently where I’ve felt there was a rather different type of story fighting to get out.  Val McDermid’s most recent freestanding story, The Skeleton Road, which I reviewed here, is another where I thought the author was much more interested in the background story than in the crime that was the excuse for telling that story.  Would her publishers have been prepared to take the risk, however, on a novel that they couldn’t advertise as the latest McDermid murder hunt?

You begin to understand why, when J K Rowling wanted to break out in a new direction, she was so insistent on doing it under another name.  Maybe it wasn’t simply (or perhaps that should be even) that her original audience wasn’t prepared to try something new, but that, where their best selling authors are concerned, publishers will only accept more of the same.

But, a good writer is a good writer whatever the genre they choose to adopt and to tie someone to the same patterns repeatedly is to deny them the opportunity to develop and grow.  It also denies the reader the opportunity to develop as they follow their favourite authors into new fields.  It might be a vain hope, but it would be good to see the book world taking responsibility and helping both readers and writers stretch their creative wings and, like Peter Morrow, discover that they have more than one type of story to tell, that there is more than one type of story to read.

What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

whatilovedI’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read.  I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion.  If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.

How to even begin to tell you about this novel?  Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties.  It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend.  We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be.  Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.

More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters.  These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all.  For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here.  If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too.  Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.

In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on

the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again

and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.

As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.

The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first.  It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell.  It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.

I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing.  And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t.  It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.

Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story.  From believing that

Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig

he shifts his position because

[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth

until finally he is forced into the belief that

he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing.  He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that.  Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.

Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence?  As Leo says very early on in the novel

stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life

imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through.  I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more.  For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind.  The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.

I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea.  If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible.  You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.

The Secret Place ~ Tana French

The-Secret-Place-187x300The Secret Place is the fifth novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad sequence and by my reckoning, the best yet. Rather than featuring the same group of characters in every novel, French links each successive book through the reoccurrence of a relatively minor player from the previous episode in a more significant role in the next.  Enter centre stage Detective Stephen Moran, at present a member of the Cold Case Unit, but desperate to find a place in the elite Murder Squad.  The opportunity appears to have been presented to him on a plate when a sixteen year old school girl brings him evidence relating to a murder enquiry that stalled twelve months previously.  This is, however, no ordinary schoolgirl.  We last saw Holly Mackey giving evidence as an eleven year old in another case; giving that evidence to Stephen to whom she comes now because she can trust him not to treat her like a chicken.  Furthermore, we are well acquainted with Holly’s father, Frank Mackey, who is part of the undercover unit and who has featured in several of these novels as well as playing the central role in Faithful Place.  Nobody takes Frank Mackey for a ride and it seems that his daughter has inherited much of his calculating astuteness.

Both Stephen and the reader would do well to remember this as they delve further into the murder case that is now re-opened under the leadership of Antoinette Conway, a member of the Murder Squad but someone who finds it hard to work within the team.  As a junior investigator the previous year, when the body of Chris Harper was found in the grounds of St Kilda’s Girls school, Conway was frustrated by the silence maintained by the girls in respect of the dealings between themselves and the boys from St Colm’s, where Chris was a pupil.  Knowing that it is likely the powers that be will take the case from her, she and Stephen go into St Kilda’s quickly and hard and very soon narrow their focus to two quartets of fourth years, Holly and her friends Julia, Selina and Becca and their sworn foes, Joanne, Gemma, Orla and Alison.

The difference between these two groups is crucial to the motivation behind the murder.  Joanne is one of those sixteen year olds that I, certainly, would quite willingly swing for.  She sees herself as queen of all she surveys and manipulates the other three in her dorm to service her own needs.  If someone had murdered Joanne they could have legitimately pleaded public interest as a defence.  Holly, Julia, Selina and Becca are a different matter entirely.  They have that sort of intense friendship that can only come about during teenage years: a friendship where the needs of the group and of the other members of the group are automatically placed above your own.  And while Stephen recognise this and its importance to the case, he also envies them their closeness.  It is a type of relationship he has searched for and never found.

Such intense relationships can breed problems however and the reader has a type if access to what such problems might be that is denied to the two detectives.  French maintains a strict structure in this novel.  The actual investigation takes place over a matter of hours but the chapters that tell that part of the story are interlaced with others that chart the journey of the friendship and the pressures to which both it and the individual four girls are subjected.  French knows the teenage psyche only too well and the narrative she relates detailing the passage of the last months of Chris Harper’s life is only too believable to anyone who has worked extensively with young people of this age group.  In fact, this leads me to my only criticism of this book.  If you have worked with teenagers you know very early on who the murderer is and why the crime was committed.  You also know what the damage is likely to be to those who are left.  Once I realised where this was going I found it very hard to continue to the end.

Indeed, when I think back on her earlier novels I realise that French specialises in charting the harm that crime does to those who are neither the immediate perpetrator nor the most obvious victim and I find myself wondering, therefore, why I look forward to her books with such pleasurable anticipation.  Part of it is because she writes so well.  Take, for example, the closing lines of this conversation between Holly and her friends, which capture precisely a type of moment we all know but which we would be hard put to define even to ourselves.

In a while Holly says, “Hey, you know where Cliona is? She’s in the library, looking for a sonnet to copy that Smythe won’t know.”

“She’s gonna get caught,” Becca says.

“That’s so typical,” Selena says. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just write the sonnet?”

“Well, totally,” Holly says. “This always happens. She ends up working harder to get out of doing the thing than she would just doing the thing.”

They leave space for Julia to say something. When she doesn’t, the space gets bigger. The conversation falls into it and vanishes.

As long as French continues to tell me stories not only so exquisitely written but also so perfectly observed I am going to be waiting eagerly for whatever comes next.

All Day and A Night ~ Alafair Burke

Screen-Shot-2014-09-17-at-2.42.32-pmHave you had your flu’ jab yet this winter?  Those of you who know about these things will be aware that it is a different concoction every winter and apparently I am not alone in finding this year’s mix more potent than usual.  It is taking quite a lot of people out for a couple of days.  Consequently, I am very glad to be able to tell you that Issue 3 of Shiny New Books is out and to be able to do just a short post to point you in the direction of my review there of Alafair Burke’s latest Ellie Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night.

I reviewed the first in this series, Dead Connection, some time ago and made the point then that Burke’s work is hardly great literature, but even that book was a rattling good read and this, the NYPD detective’s fifth outing, is considerably better.  Like all good crime fiction, the novel is concerned with a specific situation that is indicative of a current societal issue, in this case, the question of the mistrust between the police and the public they serve, and Burke offers no easy answers to a problem that is as relevant on this side of the Atlantic as it is in America.

If you haven’t yet discovered Burke’s New York novels then you have many happy hours of reading in front of you.  She has certainly gone onto my list of authors whose new books I am looking to read the moment that they become available.

The Winter Foundlings ~ Kate Rhodes

the-winter-foundlingsI was lucky enough to stumble across Kate Rhodes’ work just after the first Alice Quentin novel, Crossbones Yard, was published.  Two things struck me immediately about that book, the quality of Rhodes writing and her knowledge of London.  Rhodes, who is a Londoner by birth, is also a published poet and both these factors are clearly influential in her series of crime novels about a psychologist who reluctantly finds herself working with the police to apprehend criminals who are also seriously disturbed individuals.

The Winter Foundlings is no exception to the established pattern.  Alice has taken a six month research placement at Northwood, a high security hospital where she is hoping that she will have time to recover from her last assignment with the Metropolitan Police Force.  However, a series of child abductions which has so far resulted in three murders, proves to have links to one of the Northwood inmates, Louis Kinsella, and although it is impossible that he can have been physically involved it is clear that in someway he is inspiring the current kidnappings.  Reluctantly, Alice agrees to try and interview him in order to seek information that might lead to the arrest of whoever is responsible and the rescue of the latest victim, Ella.

Northwood proves to be a place where many of the employees are damaged individuals themselves, which forces both Alice and the reader to ask questions about the nature of those who choose to work in such an environment and the harm that such employment can do to people who take it up.  It also, of course, provides Rhodes with a plethora of suspects.  It very soon becomes apparent that there is a connection between the crimes and the Foundling Museum which commemorates the Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739 where mothers who could no longer care for their children could leave them to be raised.  Kinsella, who at the time of his arrest was headmaster of a school, had always taken a particular interest in children from troubled backgrounds and the theory that emerges is that he has influenced at least one of these damaged minds to the extent that in adulthood they have followed him into a life of crime.  But which one?  It was only twenty pages from the end when I felt confident that I could predict the villain of the piece and even then the way in which the final scenes would play out was unclear.

One of the structural features of this novel is a narrative split between the main aspects of the story as they feature Alice and the events as they are seen from the point-of-view of ten year old Ella, the most recent victim.  Normally, I find this method of story-telling very difficult to deal with.  It often seems to have been adopted only as an excuse for introducing gratuitous violence and I tend to agree with the Ancient Greek playwrights that such actions are better kept off stage and reported to the audience via a convenient messenger.  Here, however, the second narrative is a vital part of both the story and the psychological phenomenon that Rhodes is exploring.  Ella may be a child, but she is mentally very mature for her age and capable of thinking clearly and understanding the situation she is in.  Her captor, on the other hand, though physically adult, is still, in many respects, the damaged youngster who fell under the influence of Kinsella before he was caught and committed.  What I found interesting was that while such individuals might most commonly be thought of as still being a child, when you observe them in the company of an astute child like Ella you can see that that isn’t an accurate description at all.  The damage that has been done to them may have in some way retarded their emotional and psychological development but they are nothing like a child and I wonder how much more damage society inflicts by not realising the difference.  Perhaps this is something of which professionals who work in places like Northwood are well aware, but this book certainly made me stop and think about my own perceptions.

Kate Rhodes is fast becoming one of my favourite crime writers and certainly one I can recommend to you if you haven’t already encountered her work.  I’m very grateful to Mulholland Books for sending me a copy of this latest novel for review.

The Rosie Effect ~ Graeme Simsion

9781922182104This time last year I posted about my astonishment at discovering that Graeme Simsion’s first book featuring Aspergers’ sufferer, Don Tillman, The Rosie Project, was not only very funny but also very moving.  As I said then, being low level on the Aspergers’ continuum myself, I could readily identify with the struggles that Don had to engage at any real level of understanding with the world around him and was cheering from the rafters when he met and married Rosie, someone not without her own problems but capable of seeing and accommodating the truly generous and loving person Don had the potential to be.  Now, in The Rosie Effect, we follow Don and Rosie as they set up home (in the beer cellar of an ageing rock star – but what else would you expect!) and begin to build a life for themselves in New York.

Like most of us with Aspergers, Don doesn’t ‘do’ surprises, which means that when Rosie tells him she is pregnant for a moment his world spins the wrong way on its axis.  Learning to live with one person has stretched Don’s tolerance to the extent that, as he informs us, he

sometimes spent longer in the bathroom than was strictly necessary.

Learning to live with two, and one of those a small person whose immediate needs and emotions Don knows he is going to have great difficulty comprehending, is a frightening prospect indeed.  And so begins Don’s attempt to understand what a being a long-term father might entail and most immediately what might be expected of him as a father-to-be.

Recognising that he has no awareness whatsoever of the ways in which small children behave, he takes the advice of a friend and sets off to the nearest playground to get in some intensive observation.  He is somewhat concerned when the adults accompanying the toddlers move off to a different part of the play area, but undeterred follows along so that he can continue to monitor the behaviour of the child he has chosen to study.  You don’t need me to tell you who turns up on the scene ten minutes later.

Fortunately for Don, one of the members of the NYPD with whom he subsequently finds himself engaging has family experience of Aspergers, but even so he is sent for assessment to social services and thus begins a six month attempt to keep this situation from Rosie in order to save her any unnecessary stress, something Don’s intensive research on pregnancy has convinced him is to be avoided at all cost.

However, because the novel is told in the first person, from Don’s point of view, one of the things that the reader may well not immediately realise is that Rosie’s background is giving her problems of her own, most especially in terms of the expectations she has of the way in which a father should relate to his child.  And this is an important element within the book because while Don may stumble in his attempts to understand what she requires of him, Rosie herself has difficulty divorcing her own childhood experiences from her current situation.  As a result, while the novel is frequently funny on the surface, there is an ever-growing, underlying, level of distress as we realise that the past damage that has been done to these two highly engaging people may be more than they can get over in this particular situation.

In fact the tone of the book in general strikes me as more serious than was the case with The Rosie Project.  There is a moment when Lydia, the social worker, accuses Don of having no feelings at all and I wanted to cheer as he finally snapped, stopped being an apologist, and went in to bat for himself.

I was suddenly angry. I wanted to shake not just Lydia but the whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own.  It was ridiculous to think that the pilot who landed the plane safely on the Hudson River loved his wife any less than the passenger who panicked.

Yea!

If you read and enjoyed The Rosie Project then there is no way that you are not going to enjoy this second instalment.  I can imagine, however, that there might be readers who feel let down because the humour is so clearly unlaid by a sense of possible impending doom.  Please don’t be.  The book is still laugh aloud funny and ultimately full of feel-good factor but, for me, at least, it takes a more realistic view of the difficulties people like Don face as they try to make sense of the world around them and offers a starker view of the loneliness that can come about as a result of no fault of their own.

With thanks to Penguin Books for providing a review copy.

The Paying Guests ~ Sarah Waters

the-paying-guestsI should say, right from the outset, that in the past I have not been a Sarah Waters fan.  To be honest, her first three books bored me; I actually gave up on Fingersmith half way through because I couldn’t bear to wade my way through the same events for a second time, even though they were going to be seen from a different perspective – one of my favourite narrative devices.  I preface this review in this manner as a warning to all devoted Waters fans, so that when I say that I really enjoyed her latest novel, The Paying Guests, they might be alerted to the fact that this isn’t, in my view at least, typical of her work.  I would call it Sarah Waters Lite.

Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking why I persist in attempting to read Waters’ novels when I have such difficulty with them.  Well, she is one of those authors about whom I have the sneaking feeling that the fault must lie in me rather than in her writing.  Couple that with the fact that this time round I was offered a free preview copy and you have the answer to my continued perseverance.  Remember what you were always told at school.  Eventually, perseverance pays off.

The Paying Guests is set four years after the First World War, a time when the reality of that conflict’s aftermath is becoming more and more apparent. Frances Wray and her mother are desperately trying to maintain their London home after the deaths of both the sons of the family and of the financially inept Mr Wray.  The house is crumbling around them and its daily maintenance is far more than Frances can manage herself.  The only answer is to take in paying guests – lodgers to you and me.  Enter Lilian and Leonard Barber, representatives of the clerking class, a rising breed as alien to Mrs Wray and Frances as any exotic bird might have been.

With no intention but to be model tenants, the Barbers manage to completely disrupt the household.  Mrs Wray is disturbed simply by their presence, the more so when Lilian’s exuberant, but wonderful, family come to visit.  Frances, on the other hand, is disturbed in more visceral ways. She has had to give up a previous affair in order to maintain relationships with her family, now she finds herself living in the same house as a woman who moves her to passionate love.

As we gradually discover, the Barbers’ marriage is deeply flawed and Lilian responds to Frances’ overtures.  Inevitably, when Leonard discovers this, tempers fly and an act is committed from which there can be no going back.  The rest of the novel is then concerned with how the two women deal with the consequences of what has happened and what it does not only to their relationship but also to each of them as individuals as they are forced to face what they discover about themselves in the light of their subsequent behaviour.  As Frances eventually recognises decency, loyalty, courage…all shrivel away when one [is] frightened.

So, why did I enjoy this book that much more than Waters’ other work?  Perhaps it attracted me more than the first three at least because it was about a time I felt I could more easily relate to.  No, I’m not Methuselah, I wasn’t around just after the First World War, but both my parents were and I have their recollections of what life was like trying to rebuild in a world that had changed forever both in respect of the material and the societal.  My maternal grandmother, like Mrs Wray, had lost all the men in her family and she was left to cope with three daughters only the eldest of whom was old enough to really be of any assistance.  Mind you, Mary Ellen, was made of very different stuff to Mrs Wray and would have demolished Frances’ mother with one lash of her extremely harsh tongue.  Nevertheless, the situation in which the Wrays find themselves is one that I can understand and also is extremely well drawn by Waters.  Her depiction of both the material deprivations of the post war years and the physical and emotional exhaustion against which everyone was still doing battle is excellent.  While there were times when I wanted to shake Mrs Wray for her complete inability to face the reality of what the world, her world, had become, I could still understand her confusion as everything she had been brought up to believe was inviolate simply crumbled around her.

Waters is also excellent in her portrayal of the various stages through which Frances and Lilian’s relationship goes as their individual situations become more and more precarious.  As Frances herself recognises, the two women really know very little about each other and this, coupled with the corroding fear of what might happen to them if the truth should come out, drives a wedge between them which may or may not remain forever as a barrier to a closer relationship.

If the book has a weakness then for me it is in the way in which it deals with the moral dilemma the women face when it appears that someone else may be blamed for the action they have perpetrated and the aftermath of that false accusation.  I can understand why they behave as they do and I think the manner in which they try to push the possible outcome from their minds is completely believable, but at the book’s conclusion the fact that they have got away with it is fore-staged over the question of what the knowledge of their escape is going to do to them in later life.  Perhaps that has to be a whole other book, but I was left feeling that, whatever their motivation, wrong had won and that subsequent retribution needed to part of the story as well.

The Skeleton Road ~ Val McDermid

51FXygpW68LOne of the most horrific features of the war that raged across the lands previously know as Yugoslavia during the 1990s was the scant attention paid to it in the rest of Europe.  Yes, we were aware that something was going on, probably because our holidays to the region had had to be cancelled, but if challenged to say anything about the reasons behind the conflict or to distinguish between the warring parties most of us would have been silent.  I am still at a loss to understand quite why that was the case, but Val McDermid’s latest standalone novel, The Skeleton Road, does, perhaps, go someway towards explaining the West’s blinkered response.  As we get deeper into the back story of Dimitar Petrovic, an officer in the Croatian Army, and his partner, Professor Maggie Blake, it become clear that so much of what happened was the result of generations of bitter infighting and acts of sectarian revenge.  It brought to mind something that I once heard said about the Northern Ireland conflict: if you think you understand what is going on in Northern Ireland then you don’t understand what is going on in Northern Ireland.  I suspect the same is true of what was happening in Eastern Europe at that time.  You had to be part of it and to have the cultural memory of the region to have any hope of even following, let alone understanding, what was going on.

However, McDermid’s story doesn’t begin on the streets of Dubrovnik but on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh building where, tucked away out of sight, a skeleton is found: a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull.  The investigation falls to DCI Karen Pirie, head of a Cold Crimes Unit, along with well-meaning but rather less well intellectually endowed, DC Jason Murray, predictably known as the Mint. Their enquiries lead them to Oxford and to the College set of Professor Maggie Blake, a lecturer in Geopolitics, where they hear for the first time the story of General Petrovic, the lover that Maggie thought had left her eight years previously to return to his Balkan roots.

Gradually, both women piece together the story of what has happened to Petrovic and why; Karen because it is her job and Maggie because she is now faced with the knowledge that there are things in her partner’s past about which she has had little, if any, understanding. As it becomes clear that the reason for the murder must lie somewhere in the maelstrom of the earlier conflict, the two women journey to the small village that was Dimitar’s childhood home and come face to face with what it means to be caught up in the centuries of revenge killings that mock the very concept of civilisation.

I normally very much enjoy McDermid’s standalone novels and certainly this one begins with real promise.  However, the further in I got the more I started to feel as if what I was reading was a draft that still needed working on.  To begin with, there are simply too many strands to the narrative.  As well as those associated with Pirie and Blake there is also the Professor’s written account of her earlier time in Dubrovnik and a further story attached to two members of the war crimes tribunal who are tasked with finding out who is killing people about to be indicted before they can be brought to justice.  This fourth strand never really gets integrated into the rest of the story and just adds characters and plot lines that confuse rather than elucidate the main thrust of the tale.  It is redundant and what information it does contribute could have been included far more economically elsewhere.

This would then have given more narrative space to developing the main characters and their relationships, especially DCI Pirie.  Karen Pirie has potential.  She is a likeable character, her work is interesting and could easily have been developed into a series and the relationship between her and the Mint has the capacity to grow into one of fiction’s great investigative partnerships.  But we simply don’t get enough page time with her and in what we are allowed narrative threads are started which then come to nothing.  For example, the animosities between her and her immediate superior which ends one chapter on a very obvious cliffhanger is subsequently ignored.  Why is it there?

Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that Pirie was little more than a means of allowing McDermid to make a point about the capacity that all humans have within them to respond viscerally at times of crisis.  And it’s a fair point but in the end the way in which it is given voice left me unsatisfied and feeling that this is not one of McDermid’s best crafted novels and has perhaps been rushed out before it was really ready.

The Devil in the Marshalsea ~ Antonia Hodgson

TDitMarshalseaLittle Dorrit has always been amongst my favourite Dickens’ novels and so I approached Antonia Hodgson’s first novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, with a mixture of caution and anticipation.  I didn’t want to read anything that would detract from my vision of London’s notorious debtors’ prison but equally I was looking forward to revisiting its precincts.

In fact, Hodgson’s Marshalsea is a very different place from that which Dickens describes, both in real life and fictionally.  Her novel is set in the Autumn of 1727, almost a hundred years before the 1820s’ setting given to Little Dorrit.  The prison that she describes, although still located on Borough High Street, was not on the same site and the conditions in which the prisoners were kept were very much harsher.  This latter fact is all the more apparent if you come to this novel after reading Dickens’ work and one of the things that I very soon began to realise as I read what is an excellent piece of historical crime fiction, was just how much I had romanticised the existence that those imprisoned in this goal were forced to endure.  Mr Dorrit may lack his freedom and his self-respect but he does not spend each day worrying about whether or not it will be his last and, if he is to die, what horrible torments will precede his final moments.

The same is not true for Hodgson’s protagonist, Tom Hawkins, a young man whose family has destined him for the cloth but whose own plans for advancement are somewhat different.  Confined to the Marshalsea after he has been robbed of the money that would have paid off his debts and allowed him to start over, Tom finds himself lodged with the notorious Samuel Fleet, in a berth previously occupied by one Captain Roberts, a prisoner who officially is said to have committed suicide but whom many are certain was murdered – possibly by the infamous Fleet himself.

Roberts’ death has left a sense of unease in the Marshalsea, all the more noticeable because daily so many other deaths go unremarked.  His widow still haunts the prison in the hope that someone will help her to prove that her husband was not a suicide and thus enable her to regain custody of their son who has been taken from her by her family.  And, those who have power within and over the controlling prison regime are anxious to have it shown that they had nothing to do with a deliberate killing, despite the fact that they are responsible for the conditions and punishments that regularly bring about the deaths of so many others.  So, Tom Hawkins is offered a flickering light in the darkness of his despair.  If he can find out who did kill Captain Roberts his debts will be paid and he can go free.  But, is it possible for him to make such a discovery on his own and in the few days that he is allowed for his inquiries?  If he does ask for help then whom can he trust in a society where personal gain is always going to trump communal needs?  Loyalty, as he soon discovers, lodges in unexpected places and those on whose support he ought to be able to depend can prove less than steadfast.

In recounting Tom’s story Hodgson shows that she can weave a really convincing plot, including catching the reader out at the last moment, without ever once stretching the bounds of credulity.  She held me in the grip of her story telling and carried me relentlessly along with her narrative drive.  However, the real strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to recreate the horrors of the world in which Tom finds himself confined and I for one will never see the Marshalsea in quite the same way again.  The evils that were perpetrated on men, women and children who, in many instances through nothing more than ill-fortune, found themselves incarcerated in conditions that were worse than in-human are nothing short of demonic.  And, once individuals found themselves imprisoned in this den of iniquity they were very unlikely to ever make their way out.  The cost of living in the Marshalsea was far higher than it was outside the prison walls, the rents and prices paid for food going, for the most part, straight into the pockets of the governor and his trustees.  Rather than being able to pay their debts off the prisoners were more likely to find them growing exponentially.  It would seem that the basic strategies employed today by pay-day loan companies are nothing new at all.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is as good a first novel as I’ve read in a long time and I am very grateful to Hodder for having sent me a copy for review.  I understand that there is a sequel in hand and I am now looking forward to what I hope will be a continuing sequence of stories from a time in England’s history that has not always been as well served by historical fiction as it might have been.