Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit west

Shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker prize, Exit West begins as a love story and turns into something more. Not quite magic realism, it is a novel that uses the fantastical in a way that reminded me a little of The Underground Railroad.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. 

The first half of this book concerns the growing relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Saeed lives at home with his parents while Nadia is estranged from hers, living alone in an apartment where Saeed visits her, waiting for her to throw down a black robe for him to wear as a disguise so that her neighbours won’t know that she is receiving a male visitor. Despite Nadia’s black robe, which she wears everywhere outside, she isn’t particularly religious, laughing at Saeed when he says that they shouldn’t have sex before marriage (though they do everything but). The robe is. she says, ‘So men don’t fuck with me.’

As their relationship develops, changes are taking place within their city. Fighting breaks out and both Saeed and Nadia lose their jobs as their companies are forced to close down. Nadia ends up moving in with Saeed’s family after realising it’s no longer safe to live alone. As fighting increases, and their part of the city is taken over by militants, they hear of a man who can get them out if they pay him. Saeed and Nadia will make this journey alone, taken first to a dentist’s clinic. After paying over their money they are shown a door through which they walk, ending up in a new room on the other side – in Mykonos.

The doors they travel through, next from Mykonos to London and finally to San Francisco, reminded me very much of the railway stations in The Underground Railroad, a representation of the refugee experience that speeds up Saeed and Nadia’s journey. This second half has a different feel to the first, partly as their relationship begins to stagnate and they find that, removed from the familiar, they have less in common. This begins to show most clearly as they land in London, living in a squat with other refugees. Nadia relishes living with a mix of people, attending meetings with a group of older Nigerian women, while Saeed travels to another squat to meet with men from his own country.

I can see why this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker. Imaginative and thought-provoking, the prose is deceptively simple, so that I whizzed through the first half in one sitting. The concept of the doors was imaginative but I wondered whether they made Saeed and Nadia’s situation appear too light. I didn’t fear for them as I imagined I would. Danger is always close by and yet the distance that the third person narration provides made me feel as though I was watching from too far away to feel more engaged. Perhaps this was the point, just as we watch tragedies occurring on the news every day without batting an eyelid. The disconnect felt real then, in a way that a more graphic and descriptive style might have failed at. I will be thinking of this book for a long time.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

goats

A little bit late to the party (Joanna Cannon’s second novel has just come out), The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was one of the big debuts of 2016.

Mrs Creasy was still missing on Tuesday, and she was even more missing on Wednesday, when she’d arranged to sell raffle tickets for the British Legion. By Thursday, her name was being passed over garden fences and threaded along the queue at shop counters. 

What about Margaret Creasy, then? someone would say. And it was like firing a starting pistol. 

Set on one street in an East Midlands town, the story is mostly told from the point of view of ten year old Grace. The year is 1976 and it’s a blazing hot summer. When Mrs Creasy from number 8 goes missing, it’s all the neighbours can talk about. Grace and her best friend Tilly decide to investigate and soon find that more than one person is keeping a secret…

Seeing events unfold through the eyes of a ten year old allows Cannon to broach some quite dark topics while keeping the tone of the book light. I think she gets hits the right note with Grace’s voice, though during the third person sections, following the adults on the avenue, were quite simplistic when tackling such things as alcoholism and abuse. In some ways, since Grace was always sticking her nose in, I would have preferred to see these things through Grace, letting the adult reader put the pieces together from what the child sees.

The main mystery, Mrs Creasy’s disappearance, is what everyone is talking about really it is concerned with what happened in the past. The narrative frequently flits back to December 1967 and the build up to a terrible event that still haunts the inhabitants of the avenue. What did actually happen, and could Mrs Creasy have found out? At over 450 pages, the plot was quite stretched out but just about held my attention throughout.

This is a quirky and charming novel, the sort of book that brings a smile to your face. Everyday goings on seen through the lens of a child make a refreshing change and the various plot strands are resolved satisfactorily at the end. Not a challenging read but perfect for a quiet winter weekend.

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

mr loverman

Seventy-four years old, Antiguan born and bred, flamboyant Hackney personality, Barry is known for his dapper taste and fondness for retro suits.

He is a husband, a father and a grandfather.

And for the past sixty years he has been in a secret relationship with his childhood friend and soulmate, Morris.

The obvious theme of this novel is the prejudice surrounding gay relationships, focusing particularly on the British Caribbean community. Barry’s wife, Carmel, has long suspected that Barry has been having an affair. He isn’t interested in sex with her and has suggested on occasion that they have their own bedrooms now that the kids have left. What she has no clue about is that Morris, Barry’s best friend, is actually his lover and has been since before she married Barry. at the age of sixteen.

Barry is a lovable rogue, a character who has a lot of flaws but who wins you over nevertheless. For years he’s been living a double life, feeling guilty for misleading Carmel but there are enough hints that she could have walked away earlier to stop the reader thinking the worst of him. Morris’s own wife left him and returned to Antigua after catching him in bed with Barry but kept her silence. Since then, Morris has gently pressured Barry to come clean, only Barry is afraid of losing his family, not only Carmel but his two adult daughters and his grandson.

Things come to a head when Carmel’s ninety odd year old father falls ill and isn’t expected to last long. She leaves immediately for Antigua and drops an ultimatum as she goes: things will have to change when she gets back. Barry takes this as a sign and as soon as she’s on the plane he makes his own decision. Finally he will tell Carmel the truth and move in with Morris.

I flew through this novel in a day. Barry is a delight despite his obvious selfishness and sometimes unreliable narration. He’s not a stereotype but instead is a man who has spent sixty years sneaking around when he’d rather not have, a man with a certain amount of wealth, who worked his way up in the Ford factory in Dagenham and who cared for his daughters when Carmel suffered post-natal depression. For all his bad points there’s an equalling positive side and he was a refreshing character to spend time with. His reluctance to come out is a lot more to do with his own prejudices than a real fear of what people will think, and he is surprised to find support from corners he’d not expected.

This book is for you if you want a feel good story with complexity. It isn’t perfect, and I found Barry’s daughters quite irritating, but it’s worth the read for Barry and Morris alone.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Tattooist

Amongst a spate of recent novels set in Auschwitz, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a real man, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was forced to work in that role during his imprisonment in Auschwitz. In 2003 Heather Morris met Lale and they became friends over the years it took for him to tell her his story. Morris is a screenwriter rather than a novelist (this is her debut) and so first wrote this story as a screenplay before adapting it into this novel. Unfortunately, this becomes more evident as the novel goes on.

What I admired in this book is the way Morris presents all the horror without glorifying it. The things Lale had to see are at times incomprehensible, but there is no gratuitous presentation. Of course, knowing that Lale will survive to tell his story does stop you from fearing for his life, but that doesn’t minimise the danger he often finds himself in. Lale’s sense of determination is also impressive. He enlists fellow inmates to smuggle out jewels and money that are confiscated from the new arrivals, using them to buy extra food and supplies from the local villagers who work in the camp.  He often uses the influence afforded by his role to help others, but there is the constant risk of being discovered.

The disappointment for me is in the way the book is written. It is almost as if Morris took her screenplay and wrote out each scene, replacing much of the dialogue with prose. They are short scenes with barely any internal reflection. At times it’s like reading non-fiction, just facts and events written down. It is such a shame as Lale and Gita’s love story could have been elevated but I wasn’t drawn into it the way I would have hoped. Even when Josef Mengele shows up, Morris tells us how terrifying he is rather than letting the reader work it out. This is basically a novel length example of telling rather than showing.

This novel is worthwhile reading if you have an interest in Lale and his story. It is a comprehensive retelling of a fascinating story, but as a novel it leaves me cold.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

on chesil

With the film version of On Chesil Beach due out later this year, it seemed a good time to try another McEwan (also, a short novel felt manageable on a New Year’s hangover). I’ve had mixed feelings when it comes to McEwan. I almost always like his ideas, but sometimes find his novels to be populated with insufferable characters.

This story is mainly set on one evening in July 1962. Edward and Florence are newly married, arrived at a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset following their wedding earlier that day. Both of them are virgins but where Edward has spent much of their year long courtship desperate to take things further, Florence is terrified of what their wedding night holds in store. She finds herself repulsed by the very idea of sex but hasn’t said anything to Edward because she loves him and would rather suffer through the act than upset him. As they eat dinner in their honeymoon suite, we see their thoughts as nerves begin to intensify; Edward’s full of growing excitement, Florence full of growing terror.

Amidst the awkwardness of their dinner is interspersed the backstory of how Edward and Florence met, their respective family life and the successes and failures of their courtship so far. Edward knows from past experience that Florence has shied away from physical contact and is worried that things might go awry. McEwan shows us both points of view, so we see their first meeting from both perspectives and their individual thoughts on Florence’s fear of physical intimacy (though Edward doesn’t realise the extent of it).

The skill here is in showing us their misunderstandings. So when Florence pulls away from Edward’s kiss because she can’t stand his tongue in her mouth any longer, the only distraction she can come up with is to take his hand and lead him towards the bedroom. Of course, Edward is thrilled to think that she is keen to go to bed with him, not knowing that she is already regretting not being able to voice her concerns.

Like several of McEwan’s novels, this one hinges upon one event that has long lasting repercussions. As a short novel this works well and there was just enough of a backstory to make me believe in the love of these two people who at times feel still to be strangers to one another. We are shown the couple’s development and growing love, the responses to certain past events, and the fact that it is 1962 – attitudes to sex were different, although Florence acknowledges that her fears are extreme. A minor complaint is that the aftermath seems to mainly be told from Edward’s point of view and I missed Florence’s take. I do understand why this was done but it didn’t stop me wanting to know! This isn’t my favourite McEwan but it is an accomplished piece of writing that drew me in and made me care about the characters.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

sport of kings

This book has been on my TBR since earlier this year when it was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. A hefty (545 pages) epic tale set in Kentucky and centred on horse racing – you’ve got to be in the right mood to pick that up. Am I glad I bothered? Yes and no…

This is the story of two families. One is rich and white, the other poor and black. The Forge family are a Southern dynasty going back generations in Kentucky. Their wealth came from working the farm, or rather from putting their slaves to work on the farm. The novel begins back in the 1960s, the young Henry Forge running away from the wrath of his father after accidentally killing the neighbour’s bull. Henry, son of John Henry, is taught that the white man is intellectually superior to the black man. Heritage is all, and John Henry wants his son to understand that it is his place to follow in his father’s footsteps. But Henry falls in love with horses and wants to turn the old farm into a stud farm. Over his dead body, says John Henry, and so it is.

The other family is Allmon Shaughnessy’s. He grows up with his mother Marie in a two room apartment in Cincinnati. Marie is black; his father, who turns up every now and again until one day he doesn’t, is white. With only Marie’s dwindling wages to survive on, things get worse when she begins to suffer with an unnamed autoimmune disease (similar to Lupus but not). With a job that doesn’t offer healthcare and only just pays her too much to qualify for Medicaid, Marie cannot afford to see a doctor or get treatment. When the local crack dealer offers Allmon a job, he takes the money for his mother to get a doctor’s appointment:

Marie: I don’t have insurance.

Doctor: Oh. I see. And with these medical records, you’re ineligible. Well…the only other thing I can suggest is that we get you started on prednisone. It’s cheap and it works. Of course, sometimes the side effects of the drug can be worse than the disease. 

Marie: There’s nothing else?

Doctor: Not really. Lupus doesn’t get much research. Mostly, colored women get it. There’s nothing else to do but take steroids. We’re all still following a script that was written fifty years ago. 

To pay the bills, Allmon runs drugs, ends up in juvenile detention through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then ends up in adult jail (in a strange self-destructive act that makes no sense to me at the second time of reading). Surviving by alternately keeping his head down and fighting back when necessary, Allmon ends up in a lower security facility where he’s put to work with horses as part of his rehabilitation. It is this experience that brings him to the Forge farm on a day when Henry is absent, when his daughter Henrietta is in charge of hiring new staff.

What I loved about this book was the use of language. Morgan revels in rich description, though at times it does become a little too extensive, and reading it I felt the time that had been taken to create each image in a way that the reader could visualise the scene. The Kentucky tourist board must love this book! This is a brave book. Morgan tackles race, sex, violence, genetics, incest and legacy head on. The poverty of Marie and Allmon is as vivid as the richness of the Forge estate, and watching Marie’s illness progress, knowing that it was a failure in the system that was letting her down (and knowing that it wouldn’t happen in the UK, for all our own faults) was heartbreaking. There was a hopelessness to Marie’s plight. The foreshadowing of future events was at first clever, though I did then begin to guess the plot ahead of time. The amount of research done into genetics, presented on the page in a way that ties in with the story and doesn’t obstruct it, was brilliant.

What didn’t work so well for me was Allmon’s story arc. At no time is Allmon in control of his own destiny and this bothers me greatly. He makes mistakes that seem to follow the racist logic that old John Henry teaches his son back in the 1960s. Even his arrival at the Forge farm is down to the advice of an officer at the penitentiary. He embarks on an affair with Henrietta Forge after she makes advances, even though there is some doubt as to whether he even likes her. He leaves without a word when her father threatens him. For me,  Allmon was reduced to acting as a template of what the author imagined a stereotypical man of colour to be. The ending proved that once and for all, a blazing climax that seemed to come from nowhere and have no useful purpose other than marking a dramatic end to the Forge era.

At first I wondered if this was a fault of the author not living through these experiences. But I actually had just as big an issue with Henrietta. After her parents divorce she is left with a father who becomes obsessed with her. In retaliation for his behaviour, as an adult she drives to a pub out of town, where nowhere will know her, and begins to use it as a place to pick up men. In this way her seduction of Allmon fits, but when she decides she’s in love after a few rolls in the hay with a man she knows nothing about because they never talk about anything, this feels like the author steering a plot back on course rather than an organic turn of events. I also call foul when characters don’t have any friends or confidantes. Henrietta I could buy since she grows up under her father’s shadow and is home schooled, but it seems strange that Allmon would not have any friends, even as a child in his old neighbourhood.

Overall thoughts: this could have been a brilliant book. It had all of the ingredients – masterful storytelling, epic reach, breathtaking prose. For me, I longed to root for a character. I would rather lose the horse analogies for a couple of hundred pages and have Henrietta break back against her father, or to have Allmon make a decision for himself that didn’t rely on Henry Forge’s twisted deals. By the end of 545 pages I just didn’t care what happened to any of them and that was disappointing.

All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

all change

The fifth, and final, book in the Cazalet Chronicles. The title says it all – this is the end of an era and the beginning of something new. It’s a novel that I think has to be read as part of the series. If you came to this as a standalone book you’d be lost within pages. I gave up trying to differentiate between the vast array of children after less than fifty! As with the other books there is a handy family tree at the front to refer back to when you forget which child belongs to which parent (every other chapter, especially since they are always meeting up  and you end up with multiple children milling about the page).

This book begins in 1956, a gap of nine years after Casting Off. This delay allows the ‘adults’ to be now bordering on old age, the ‘children’ to be married off with their own offspring, and for new children (of which there are many and even two sets of twins) to be taking the place that their parents occupied in The Light Years. The Duchy, that grand Cazalet matriarch, dies in the first chapter, tended to by her beloved daughter Rachel. Her passing marks the beginning of a period of change for the whole family, presented over the next two and a half years.

I had many questions entering this novel: would Rachel finally stop hiding her love for Sid; would Edward have made a huge mistake by divorcing Villy and marrying Diana?; will Clary and Archie make a go of it; will Louise regret leaving her son with her vile ex-husband? Most of these are answered fairly quickly. Sid and Rachel do sort of stop hiding their love for one another, in a way that suits the times. The family accept that they are in love, at least. Villy and Edward are both regretting the past. Louise’s son is mentioned once in passing which did shine a new light on her character. None of the rest of the family seemed to pass judgment on his absence, though I did find it interesting that another family member criticised Diana for not seeming to mind that her older sons preferred to spend time with their grandparents than with her. Surely Louise’s actions were far worse…

On the other hand, Louise has always been quite selfish and superficial, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine her never giving her son another thought. What annoyed me more was the Clary and Archie storyline. They are married by now, with two children, scraping a living through Archie’s art and teaching. Archie was always presented as a kind man, once so in love with Rachel, who of course could never love him back, that he had to avoid the Cazalets for a period. Although there must be a twenty year age gap, it wasn’t so odd that he and Clary fell in love since they had spent so much time together when Clary’s father went missing during the war. However, their story takes a dramatic turn when Archie does something that seems so out of character that I didn’t quite believe it. There is also a very strange incest storyline with another two characters that seemed unnecessary.

Unfortunately, this is my least favourite of the series. There are just too many characters to follow around, where in previous books we follow a limited number closely. Some chapters are only a page long, just time to follow a brief conversation that isn’t always pertinent to the plot. There is also an attempt to throw more sex in, some of which works, some of which made me smile. There is lots of cupping of breasts, people getting naked, Simon’s first love affair with a man. Villy realises that Edward left her because she didn’t enjoy sex; Edward realises he married Diana because she did enjoy sex but is otherwise a terrible human being and he should have stayed with Villy. The strength of the novel is that this definitely feels like the ending of something. Characters die, the Cazalet’s firm is going through a difficult time, the future of Home Place is in doubt now that there is only Rachel living there. The final section, where the family come home for Christmas, made up for the flaws of what came before. It was a fitting end to a fantastic series.

 

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

the last hours

The Last Hours is Minette Walters’ first foray into historical fiction, a genre I do read a fair amount of, though not of this period. Set in the summer of 1348, the Black Death has just arrived in Dorset. The disease is unlike anything anyone has seen before and with the lack of medical knowledge, it swiftly devastates towns and villages.

On the estate of Develish, Lady Anne finds herself having to take control of the demesne after her husband dies of the plague while travelling. Her daughter, Eleanor, takes after her rather crueller and less intelligent father. Much is made of her looks and the way she bullies the servants. From the serf class, the bastard Thaddeus Thirlwell is promoted to Steward, instantly putting up the backs of the older men. It is Lady Anne’s education and knowledge of medicine that saves her people: she brings them across the moat from the village, thereby separating them from the cause of the illness. But by cutting them off from the world, she has also severed their food supply and it becomes apparent that they are the sole living people for miles around. The murder of a young serf boy serves as an urgent catalyst for Lady Anne to resolve this self-imposed quarantine.

I’m not an expert on this period by any means but nothing shocked me out of the story in terms of accuracy. I had little knowledge of how the feudal system worked but here Walters’ research was woven into the story lightly enough that I felt that I understood it without having had a history lesson. The importance of the church at that time felt true. Her characters, however, had a more modern feel in their attitudes. Lady Anne finds little obstruction in the manner in which she takes over management of the demesne. While she is the lady of the manor, her power is only explained in the kindness she has shown over her tenure to the serfs who her husband would otherwise have brutalised. I did also wonder at her ability to shut her husband out of her bedroom (an important plot point) when in every other part of her life he seemed to have complete control.

Overall, an interesting read though it got quite baggy in the middle. A large cast of resulted in some very flat characters with little nuance. It will be interesting to see how Walters follows this up.

Thanks to Readers First for the review copy.

My Favourite 2017 Reads

OK, it’s a couple of weeks early but I read so many good books this year that I’d be surprised if I read anything to better these choices in the next fourteen days! I’ve gone with a top ten just to pin it down, and these are presented in the order I read them in, from January to December. This year I’ve found that my favourite books have mainly been new publications, with one exception. There are several award winners in there as well, but I have gone strictly with those books that had a great story and characters who I wanted to spend time with.

Golden Hill – Francis Spufford

golden-hill

I picked this up after multiple recommendations and was not disappointed. Winner of both the Costa First Novel and the Desmond Elliott Prize, Spufford’s debut novel was a masterful recreation of eighteenth century New York. Mr Smith is a mysterious young Englishman with a potential fortune at his disposal. Fledgling New York society doesn’t know whether to embrace him or lock him up. The sense of place is incredible and the plot twists in directions you won’t possibly guess.

The Bone Readers – Jacob Ross

bone-readers

This, the first novel in Ross’s Camaho Quartet, won the inaugural Jhalak Prize earlier this year. Set on the small Caribbean island of Camaho, this is literary crime at its best. Michael ‘Digger’ Digson is recruited into the local police force’s plain clothes squad and sent to London to train in forensics. When Digger returns to Camaho he finds himself enmeshed in a complex mystery, helped  along the way by fellow recruit Miss K. Stanislaus. This was an intriguing novel and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

lincoln...

I worried that this book would not live up to the hype. So you can imagine how happy I was that George Saunders more than delivered with this masterpiece, winning the Man Booker in the process. Weaving factual accounts with this fictional story about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, playing with form and possibly the most characters I’ve come across in one piece of work, this novel is a thing of wonder.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Power

Winner of this year’s Baileys Prize, The Power was the book that started the most conversations for me this year. When women suddenly develop the power to conduct electricity, there is a worldwide revolution. Women become the dominant gender as uprisings and revolts overturn the old patriarchal society. At first it looks as though the world will emerge as a brand new utopia, but events take a dark turn… This was a fascinating read, though I did have issues with the latter sections of the novel. The most thought-provoking book of the year for me.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

hATE

Angie Thomas’s debut is incredible and deserves its equally amazing sales. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this novel had me gripped from the first chapter. Thomas presents a realistic portrayal of a young black girl, Starr, dealing with the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend at the hands of the police. The story is so well plotted, and never tips over into becoming one sided. We see Starr’s uncle, himself a cop, struggle to reconcile the job he loves with the fear he sees from his niece. This is not a ‘them against us’ story, but one that seeks reasons and answers to a situation that is unfortunately familiar.

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

dark circle

I read this when it was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize this year. I loved Grant’s portrayal of twins Lenny and Miriam, sent away to a new NHS sanatorium in Kent after contracting TB in the 1950s. Witty and moving, Grant brings the past to the reader. Such a good book though I lost interest a little once the action moved from the sanatorium towards the end.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

eleanor

The book so many have been raving about and I loved it too. Eleanor Oliphant follows the same routine each week, her work colleagues providing pretty much the only human interaction she can’t avoid. One simple act of kindness propels her into having to change her routine and nothing will ever be the same again. This is a witty, moving portrayal of loneliness and mental health. I fell in love with Eleanor and I defy anyone to not become invested in her.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire

This was longlisted for the Man Booker and should have been shortlisted (IMHO!). This retelling of Antigone was the best storytelling I read this year. I expected to struggle but instead, Shamsie had me from the very first page. The last page or so were a touch melodramatic, but I rooted for each of the characters, as flawed as they all were. To make a reader understand how a young marginalised man could plausibly be recruited by ISIS is masterful to say the least. To make you root for him after that is another level. Loved this book.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

book of dust

It would have taken a lot to put me off this book – I even splashed out on the limited edition in my excitement. I don’t think it was just nostalgia that led me to enjoy La Belle Sauvage so much, though there it was a huge thrill to revisit familiar characters. Adventure and the battle between good and bad – what’s not to like?

Another Country – James Baldwin

Another c

Many of the novels I’ve rated this year have been steeped in place, this one perhaps more than any other. This is 1950s Bohemian New York. Jazz, sex, drugs, friendship. You can hear the music and smell the cigarette smoke as you turn the pages. Baldwin delves into the hidden thoughts of his characters so deeply that you feel voyeuristic reading them. A classic.

America City by Chris Beckett

america city

Set approximately one hundred years from now, America is in crisis. The warmer climate has led a divided country: the storm and drought ravaged south is emptying as citizens flee their battered homes and dust filled farms; in the north communities are under pressure as refugees arrive and set up in caravan parks – the southerners are far from welcome. A wall has already been built between the US and Mexico, and now it is Canada who are under pressure to let in more Americans each year.

Holly is a young British publicist, living in Seattle with husband Richard. Both would consider themselves delicados, the 22nd century word for liberals, but Holly has ambition. When she’s invited to join the presidential campaign for Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a man who stands against everything she says she believes in, she jumps at the chance. After all, his sole vision is to bring America together for a more successful future. Within weeks the battle to push fake news into the ‘whisperstream’ (a sort of futuristic social media) has made her his right hand woman, complicit in every move the campaign makes. Her challenge is to decide how far she will support Slaymaker’s strategies when they begin to diverge from the initial focus.

The great strength of this novel is how close Beckett drives it to our current situation. There is reference to the Tyranny, a 21st century calamity which, reading between the lines, could be the resultant fall out from the current US presidency. In the wake of this year’s storms, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that in a few decades it will be impossible to get insurance on homes in those areas, or that the houses and businesses would become worthless. Add in the increase in AI and robots, a decrease in manual labour jobs, and the situation put forward reads as an inevitability.

There was a sense of inevitability in the way that events play out in terms of the ‘human element’ of Holly and her relationships with Richard and their friends. I was less interested in this aspect and I wasn’t sure either what the Afterword was supposed to add to it. On reflection, this was just played a little too safe. Although there are various precarious situations shown to the reader, they’re a little too distant, all happening to people other than the main protagonists. In one way, this does serve to illustrate how northerners feel about the plight of southerners, that dispassionate idea that bad things happen to other people; on the other hand the human angle could have been so much sharper had danger been present.

Regardless, this was a thrilling read that is being published at exactly the right time.

Thank you to Readers First for the review copy.

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin

hours before dawn

Billed as the original psychological thriller, winning the 1960 Edgar Award for best mystery novel, The Hours Before Dawn was Celia Fremlin’s debut. First published in 1958, it is of its time in some ways but had me guessing throughout.

Louise Henderson can’t understand why her baby son, Michael, won’t stop crying. All through the night he keeps her awake to the point that she can’t remember the last time she had a full night’s sleep. She never had this problem with either of her daughters and wonders what on earth could be wrong with her son. Husband Mark complains about the noise,  reminding Louise that he never wanted a third child rather than offering to help. In fact, the only element of this novel that dates it particularly is this pre-feminist attitude that shows Louise struggling to cope because parenting is entirely her own responsibility.

It was thoughtful of Mark to switch off the alarm so that Louise should have an extra hour’s sleep after such a night. It was thoughtful of him, too, to get his own breakfast and to bring her a cup of tea when he left for work at half past eight. The only trouble was that by half past eight the girls also should have had their breakfast; should, indeed, have been almost ready for school instead of lying peacefully in their beds reading comics. Thus it happened that Louise was able to produce only the thinnest pretence of gratitude for all these attentions; and as she leapt out of bed and dashed into the girls’ room, leaving her tea half slopped into its saucer, she knew very well that Mark’s feelings must have been hurt. 

And if this isn’t enough, she has their new lodger to deal with. Miss Brandon seems to be an incredibly organised and efficient schoolteacher. She never complains about the noise and yet there’s something odd about her. Both Louise and Mark agree that there is something familiar about her, though they can’t imagine where they might have come across her before. And a friend later tells Louise that Miss Brandon asked for her address, even before the advert had been posted to let the room. But why would Miss Brandon be interested in Louise and her family?

Fremlin writes in such a way that the reader (and Louise) can never quite decide if there is really something going on or if Louise is slowly going mad through lack of sleep. She falls asleep during the day, has dreamlike moments when she’s unsure whether she is awake or asleep. It doesn’t help that Mark assumes her worries over Miss Brandon are down to jealousy. And he doesn’t help either by spending hours upstairs in Miss Brandon’s room, apparently discussing Ancient Greek and other intellectual subjects that Louise has no interest in (I spent much of my time reading this novel trying to work out if Mark was just spectacularly useless or actually a terrible person).

Fremlin slowly increases the tension as Louise becomes more convinced of the guilt of Miss Brandon, even as she struggles to work out what she could possibly want from the Hendersons. The ending, when it came, was not a surprise but was very satisfying.

Another Country by James Baldwin

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Published in 1962, Another Country is set in the Bohemian underworld of New York, exploring race, sexuality, poverty and wealth existing side by side.

Rufus Scott is a Harlem jazz musician, fallen on hard times as we meet him wandering the streets, sleeping in a movie theatre during the day. Prior to this he was a success. People knew his name; they still do but now they look at him in horror, shocked at what he has become. Seven months prior, he met southern girl, Leona, at a club and began an ill-fated love affair that triggered his self-destructive nature and ended badly for both of them.

Meanwhile, Rufus’ friend, Vivaldo is a frustrated novelist, working in a bookstore to pay rent. His friend Richard has just sold his first novel and has what looks like the ideal life: married to the beautiful Cass, with two sons. When Rufus goes missing after a night out, his frantic sister, Ida comes to Vivaldo and Cass for help in finding him. It is the relationship between her and Vivaldo which Baldwin uses best to illustrate racial attitudes of the time:

Now, as she walked beside him, trim and oddly elegant in a heavy, dark blue cost, and with her head covered by an old-fashioned and rather theatrical shawl, he saw that both her vanity and her contempt were being swollen by the glances which rested on her as briefly and unforgettably as the touch of a whip. She was very, very dark, she was beautiful; and he was proud to be with her, artlessly proud, in the shining, overt, male way; but the eyes they passed accused him, enviously, of a sniggering, back-alley conquest. White men looked at her, then looked at him. They looked at her as though she were no better, though more lascivious and rare, than a whore. And then the eyes of the men sought his, inviting a wet complicity.

Where Rufus, in his relationship with Leona, struggled to deal with the attention as a black man walking with a white woman, Vivaldo owns the privilege of a white man. Despite moving in together, the barrier to intimacy is caused by Ida. Seeing this relationship mainly through Vivaldo’s perspective is particularly interesting as his frustration grows.  Ida refuses to accept his ‘I don’t see colour’ attitude; he begins to suspect she’s having an affair.

Into this mix is thrown the failure of Richard and Cass’s marriage as his literary success is reached through sacrificing his talent to produce a novel which earns him a fortune but is far less worthy than he had hoped for. The knowledge that both Cass and Vivaldo don’t rate his work becomes as corrosive to his marriage as Rufus’ inability to deal with the perceptions of others poisons his friendships and, ultimately, leads to a tragic end for both he and Leona. Eric, an old friend who’s been living in France with his lover Yves, returns to New York and becomes the catalyst for change amongst this group of aimless misfits. Sexuality becomes blurred as the friends rely on one another for comfort of one sort or another: sex, alcohol, drugs, friendship.

This novel is an immersive experience that flows effortlessly. There are so many beautifully written passages that are evocative of both time and place, and yet never once does the prose feel forced. Around halfway through the book is a sentence in which Baldwin is describing Ida’s voice as she sings in public for the first time. In some ways it could be used to describe his own writing in this novel:

This quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does not so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms – while still leaving them standing mightily, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and give life, and kills.