Books – The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

The Glorious Heresies

The Glorious Heresies

Book five in my Bailey’s challenge and The Glorious Heresies was a welcome change of pace after Ruby (and bearing in mind I still have A Little Life to go). This is the debut novel for Lisa McInerney and what a novel it is. Reminiscent of Roddy Doyle, full of that very Irish dark but humorous language that draws you into the characters quickly. McInerney is known for her award-winning blog Arse End of Ireland (now no longer in existence, though do check out her website for her current, more authorly blog).

Maureen has just killed a man. Accidentally, but still there’s a dead body on her kitchen floor. Luckily for her, she has a son who is well connected to help out, local gangster Jimmy Phelan. The secret of his success seems to be mainly linked to delegation. When he enlists old mate Tony Cusack, an alcoholic widower with six kids, to get rid of the body a chain of events begins to unfold, as the dead man’s girlfriend starts to investigate his disappearance. It’s a book that looks about ‘big issues’ without being pious or boring or hectoring. Teenage pregnancy (and the consequence), juvenile detention, murder, manslaughter, drug addiction – all feature in heavy quantities with a tad of Catholicism chucked on top.

The great strength of this novel is the characters. I got each and every one as a real person, their quirks and flaws laid out expertly. There were no clichéd bad guys here. You get how tough life is for Tony, dealing with his addiction and trying to bring up six kids on zero money, but can still feel appalled at the physical abuse he unloads on eldest son Ryan. I loved the relationship between Ryan and Karine, that first flush of teenage love that grows over time, though I found their arguing towards the end of the book getting a bit tiresome. I suppose that makes it more realistic but I did start to wonder why they were still so desperate to stay together.

Most of the characters have pretty grim lives – prostitutes, drug dealers, petty criminals or general deadbeats all. It always surprises me when an author can make me like people who do a lot of quite bad things, and McInerney managed this brilliantly. She makes grey of those areas that a lot of us assume should be black and white. She can make the reader feel sympathy for a drug addict mother losing custody of her daughter, though in real life most of us would agree that it was best for the child.

I loved this book. My only criticism would be towards the end when everything got wrapped up a little too quickly, but that is probably a personal preference. I bought into all the main characters, and they were entwined enough that I didn’t lose track of what was going on with any of them. The language is stunning – rhythmical and not over-wrought. And it’s honest. These are the people, these are their flaws and deal with it. There’s very little sugar coating though, as before, a bit safe towards the end, though there was one particular character who I was very pleased to see get their come-uppance (hopefully that’s not too spoiler-like!).

I genuinely don’t know how the Baileys panel are going to choose a winner. With one book to go I have two equal favourites and I’ll be bold and divulge that this is one of them. Only a week left until we find out!

Previous reviews:

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

Books – The Green Road – Anne Enright

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

 

All Being Equal – Part Four

All Being Equal – Part 1

All Being Equal – Part Two

All Being Equal – Part Three

The Olympia Theatre was located across the river, in a destitute borough of south London. If Mrs Harper had seen these streets she would never had let her out, Celine thought. Most of the women were hat-less or, worse in Celine’s sheltered view, in shapeless things of felt or straw. The pavements, where they existed, were strewn in all manners of litter: excrement, rotten food, paper. She watched a skinny cat wind its way through the railings of a ramshackle church, weeds as tall as the tombstones that marked graves that had at one time been cared for.

‘It’s not the best area,’ Maria agreed with Celine’s silent judgement.

‘Why are we here then?’ Celine asked.

‘Because it is the only theatre that would give Daniel work. And because my husband has grand ideas. He is keen to take over the lease next month. He thinks that he can educate these peasants.’ She waved a hand towards the window, indicating the local population.

‘Why did Daniel invite me? I am assuming that is why I am here.’

‘Because he’s a foolish romantic,’ Maria said. ‘Perhaps you are too or why did you come?’

Celine opened her mouth before realising she did not have an answer.

Maria laughed. ‘I apologise, I am only playing. You do not need to explain yourself to me. We will watch Daniel perform and then I’ll take you backstage to meet him. You shall be under my protection so don’t be afraid for your reputation. At the end of the evening I will take you home and you need never see Daniel again. Unless of course you want to.’

It all sounded so practical. How could Celine object to such a well thought out plan? She followed Maria like a puppy into the crowded theatre, pushing through the women who stared at her finery and the men, a couple of these making unwelcome comments on Celine’s attire. Climbing the stairs to the boxes, she was relieved to find that the two women were seated in their own, separate from the hordes. She had been to Covent Garden several times with the Harpers but this was no opera house. The noise was incredible, deafening, the bodies crammed into the pit beneath her, swarming the gallery above. And people were throwing things! She pulled her head back from peering over the side of the box wall just as a handful of shrimp shells was cast from higher up.

‘Watch yourself,’ Maria warned. ‘Part of their sport is to antagonise those who outside these walls would be their superiors.’

A hush fell as the curtain was lifted, Celine close enough to hear the crank mechanism as it was wound up. And there he was. Right in front of her, staring up at her and speaking his first lines to her.

‘He is a fine actor,’ Maria whispered, leaning across to her. ‘A fine man and a good friend.’

Celine nodded, unable to take her eyes from him, her potential future flashing before her in an instant. The meeting backstage. Their first kiss in the corridor outside the green room, standing on tiptoes and holding on to his soft cotton shirt. The guilt of proving Adelaide right. The wrath of her father as he realised that his eldest daughter was not coming back to France.

It was a shame, thought Maria as she watched Celine, noting the flush that crept from the younger woman’s neck, flooding her cheeks with colour. That such pain and sacrifice surely lay ahead for this happy pair did not seem fair, but then such was the price of love. She knew that better than anyone.

 

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862 – 1948

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A member of the African Choir who toured the Britain and performed for Queen Victoria in 1891

 

Apologies for the pictures on this review – these were the best I could take on my phone and besides, you should really go and check them out yourself if you can get to London (several photographs are shown on the National Portrait Gallery and Autograph ABP websites).

When I began writing my novel a number of people seemed surprised that, not only were there people of colour living in Victorian London, but that they weren’t all servants or struggling to survive in the slums. A number of people recommended Dickens and Gissing to read to get a picture of living in poverty in the nineteenth century. But I’m writing about a middle class class black family, I said. Cue dubious looks. So many in fact that I undertook a great deal of research to find a real-life family to base my fictional family on.

Black Chronicles showcases nineteenth and early-twentieth century photographs taken in Britain. The display forms part of Autograph ABP’s The Missing Chapter, a research project to research and present photographic images of black presence in Britain before 1945. It occupies three rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, the main Mezzanine room and then there are photos in two other rooms (though these contain other unrelated works as well).

I went to see the display last week (19th May) as part of the gallery’s Lates programme (art, music, drinks, talks). This runs every Thursday and Friday – instead of closing at 6pm there is a programme of events and the gallery is open until 9pm. To celebrate the display opening there was a talk by Renee Mussai from Autograph ABP which was very well attended and gave a lot more insight into the personalities and the history behind the photos. There is a great programme of events linked to the display including a weekend workshop in the Autumn, stories of cultural diversity on 25th August and a lecture on slavery in commemoration of Slavery Remembrance Day on the 26th August.

There are stories behind a lot of the photos. These are two of the most compelling:

Sara Forbes Bonetta was an orphan from West Africa who was sold into slavery. Captain Frederick E Forbes persuaded her captors to let him take her as a present to Queen Victoria and she took her name from him and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. He did indeed take her to Victoria who took a shine to her and raised her as a goddaughter. The display features photographs taken in celebration of her later marriage to Nigerian businessman Capt James Pinson Labulo Davies, taken by Camille Silvy, photographer to the rich and famous at the time. Sara’s eldest daughter Victoria also had the Queen as her godmother, and later attended Cheltenham Ladies College.

 

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Peter Jackson, aka ‘The Black Prince’

Peter Jackson was born in 1861 on the island of St Croix (now part of the US Virgin Islands) which was then part of the Danish West Indies. Born a Danish citizen, Jackson moved to Australia as a child and fell into boxing whilst living in Brisbane. His early success was later hampered as he struggled to secure fights with white boxers, with many commentators claiming that he could have become a heavyweight champion if it weren’t for racial prejudice. He did travel to fight in the US and in England. After his career stalled, Jackson returned to Australia where he died of TB at the age of 40.

 

Black Chronicles runs until 11 December 2016. Free entry. Check website for events (some payable).

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

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Ruby by Cynthia Bond. Two Roads. 330 pages

This is a book that promises much. Comparisons to Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Guardian) and Alice Walker (Barnes and Noble Review) mean that you cannot come to this book without certain expectations. I was not disappointed. It did remind me very much of Beloved in particular, through haunting lyrical prose, hatred and violence, and the weaving of stories shared by the people of Liberty.

This book is about Ruby Bell and the town of Liberty Township, East Texas. It is her story and that of Ephram Jennings, who fell in love with Ruby as a child. Years later they are both in middle age, he living a lonely bachelor life with his devout sister, Celia; Ruby ostracised since she came back from New York City a decade earlier and let her past destroy her. When Ruby hits rock bottom it shakes Ephram from his unsatisfactory life and he sets out on a determined path to bring her back, though his sister rallies the town and decides that the devil must have tempted him away from her controlling influence.

There is witchcraft woven throughout this book, magic realism that could be real magic or just a figment of Ruby’s fractured mind. There are haints, the ghosts of the dead children of Liberty, and the Dybou, an evil spirit who pursues Ruby, sometimes forcing himself into the body of a living man in order to cause harm. It is an examination of the guilt that Ruby, as a victim, suffers for not being able to save those who didn’t survive the abuse that somehow didn’t kill her. Compared to the goings on at the local In-His-Name Holiness Church, the magic doesn’t seem any less plausible than the tall tales and speaking in tongues that is expected from the true believers.

The devastating violence that made Ruby flee to New York is slowly told through flashbacks that take your breath away with their sadistic violence. We all know about Operation Yewtree etc. but it is still shocking to think that the people we trust with our children can commit such crimes against them. There are scenes that some might find upsetting, and they are told with skill, bleak but with a truth because the author has not held back, nor gone too far. These are tricky issues and I commend Bond for being able to write some very difficult chapters; allowing a sense of foreboding to grow gradually before unveiling some truly horrific acts.

This not an easy book to read but it is a story that has hope, not only through the love story of Ephram and Ruby, but in the interview with Cynthia Bond in this edition which talks about being a victim of human trafficking as a child, and how picking up pen and paper helped her. This is a powerful book and although probably not the favourite for the Baileys Prize it would be a worthy winner.

 

All Being Equal – Part Three

All Being Equal – Part 1

All Being Equal – Part Two

The next day dawned dry and bright, but if Celine had hoped to wake to a mind free from Daniel then she was thwarted early. She arrived at the dining table for breakfast to be greeted with an envelope bearing her name.

Adelaide watched her as she sat. ‘You have a letter, Celine.’

‘Yes, I see. From Papa I presume.’

‘No. It was posted in London.’ Adelaide raised an eyebrow. ‘I hope you don’t mind but I did open it. On your father’s wishes. You know he is very protective of you.’

‘Of course.’ Celine suppressed her irritation.

‘I did not know you had made the acquaintance of Maria McCarthy,’ Adelaide continued. ‘I’m not sure your father would approve. She was from a very good family but there was a scandal only last year. She was betrothed to one of the Heaton boys but eloped with an American at the last moment.’

An American? Whoever Maria McCarthy was, Celine had never met her. Could this woman’s American husband be a friend of Daniel?

Celine opened the envelope. Inside was a note, one thin sheet of paper covered with neat handwriting which answered her question.

My dear Celine,

Please accept my invitation to join me at the theatre this evening. It is a very interesting bill featuring one Daniel Johnson, an eminent Shakespearean tragedian, at the Olympia Theatre. My husband and I are considering investing in this very theatre and I would value your opinion on its worth. My carriage will call for you at six.

Maria McCarthy

 

So it was Daniel. But how had he obtained Celine’s address? And would Adelaide permit her to go?

‘Can I ask how you met Mrs McCarthy?’ Adelaide said.

‘At the academy,’ Celine lied. ‘She and her husband are keen on the arts in general. Please may I go? I am only here for a few more months after all. What harm can it do?’

‘What harm? Well, she is a woman of loose morals, Celine, she may influence your thinking. I have met her. She is very beautiful and I am sure she can be extremely persuasive.’

‘Oh, let the poor girl go, Adelaide and let us eat in peace. It is one evening and you can check tomorrow that Celine’s morals haven’t been corrupted.’ Arthur overruled his wife as she narrowed her eyes at him.

‘Very well,’ she relented. ‘But I want it noted that I was against this little expedition. I do not trust that woman.’

Never had Celine taken so much care over an outfit as she did that evening. Finally deciding on a short-sleeved gown of silk that matched her navy blue eyes, she spent over an hour fixing her hair. Half an hour before the appointed time Celine was in position, watching from the drawing room windows that overlooked the street outside. Every grand carriage that passed made her heartbeat quicken but Maria McCarthy was very much on time, no earlier and no later than six o’clock. The carriage pulled up and a footman jumped to the ground, striding to ring the bell of the Harper house.

Celine rushed to the top of the stairs, pausing to allow the butler to answer the door, then descending as gracefully as she could manage. Adelaide came into the hallway to see her off.

‘Remember, Celine. Any behaviour that could possibly be construed as less than fitting and I will send you back to your father.’ Then, less sternly and with a smile. ‘But do enjoy yourself.’

Maria watched as the footman helped Celine into the carriage, a small smile playing about her lips as the younger woman took her seat opposite. She was quite as beautiful as Adelaide Harper had suggested, with an air of sophistication that made Celine feel like a naïve child. Her dark hair and eyes suggested an exotic ancestry, perhaps Spanish, Celine thought.

‘Celine.’ Maria’s voice was rich and deep. ‘How are you?’

‘I am very well, thank you, Mrs McCarthy,’ Celine replied. ‘Although I am rather puzzled. How did you know where to find me? And why? I presume it has something to do with Daniel?’

Maria smiled, broadly this time. ‘My child, all will soon become clear.’

And off they set, Mrs Harper waving Celine off with a false smile, knowing in her heart that this had been an unwise decision.

All Being Equal – Part Four

Carlyle’s House, London

Carlyle house exterior

Exterior of 24 Cheyne Row (brown door)

Not many have  heard of Thomas Carlyle – I certainly hadn’t before embarking on my research into the Victorian period – but he was much admired by Charles Dickens, William Morris and many other well-known personalities of the era. He also founded the London Library which still boasts many a famous literary member today.

Thomas and his wife Jane moved to London from Scotland in the summer of 1834. They paid £35 a year for 5 Cheyne Row (now number 24) – and this never increased in the 47 years that he lived in the house! After Carlyle’s death in 1881 a commemorative plaque marked his tenure, but the house became neglected until the visit of one of Carlyle’s devotees, George Lumsden, in 1894. The dire state of the house inspired him to campaign for funds to buy it and he managed to acquire the property in May 1895. Many of the original contents were returned on loan or gifted to the Carlyle House Memorial Trust and the house opened to the public that July. It’s now owned by the National Trust.

When the Carlyles first moved to Chelsea it was not seen as a fashionable area but it was popular in literary and artistic circles. Mrs Gaskell was born at 93 Cheyne Walk in 1810 and George Eliot lived at number 4. Turner, Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rosetti were other residents of the area. Round the corner is 49 Glebe Place which is the only London building by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh.

There are several iconic homes of the Victorian period in London (Dickens’s house in Doughty Street and 18 Stafford Terrace, home of the Sambournes for example) but this is unique in that no alterations have been made other than for the upkeep of the property. The only toilet is still the outdoor privy and payment is cash only. All but the two rooms, occupied by the live-in custodian, are restored to their original purpose. To enter the property you have to pull the bell to be let in, just as the Carlyle’s visitors would have done.

On the ground floor are the parlour, at the front of the house, and the back dining room. Throughout the property are peppered cards bearing some of Thomas Carlyle’s quotations as well as information about the room, the furniture, or the famous visitors to the property. Jane was an aspiring writer herself, and was a keen letter writer. Interesting snippets of these are shared, filling in the life of this extraordinary couple. Also from the ground floor is the door to the garden (see below). Thomas grew beans and turnips here although the soil was poor, and liked to spend the early mornings and evenings out here while he smoked his pipe.

Carlyle Garden

The Carlyle’s garden

The first floor is home to the drawing room which was enlarged in 1852, the windows lengthened to create more light for entertaining their guests. I was most jealous of Thomas’s reading chair with its rotating book-rest. He spent much of his last few months reading and dozing here, and it was in this room that he died in February 1881. Next door to this room is Jane’s bedroom and dressing room. She suffered ill health as she grew older, a victim of insomnia, severe headaches, flu and neuralgia, and finally succumbed to illness in 1866. The Carlyles never experienced the luxury of a bathroom, despite advances in plumbing technology during their lives, and relied on the outdoor privy and hipbaths, the hot water being carried up from the kitchen in the basement.

The next floor up being the custodian’s rooms, in the Carlyle’s time Thomas’s bedroom and a guest room, the next port of call is the attic. This Carlyle had soundproofed to form a study where he could work. He couldn’t stand any noise and suffered through his neighbours’ cockerels, the playing of the organ grinders outside, and the noise from revellers, fireworks and music from the nearby Cremorne Gardens. Despite his efforts, the room kept out the original noises but instead let in the new irritant of train whistles and boat horns from the river. This room is very close to the original layout and is full of books, pictures as well as being home to Carlyle’s writing desk.

Back down the stairs, past the garden and into the basement is found the kitchen. The Carlyle’s only kept one servant to clean the entire house, cook and carry water up to the bedrooms. For a long time the poor woman also had to sleep in the kitchen on a fold-up bed. Since Thomas liked to end his evening with a smoke in the kitchen she had to wait up until he had gone to bed before she could turn in for the night. In addition to these already less than ideal circumstances Jane was a picky employer, finding fault continuously. In the 32 years she lived here she made her way through 34 servants!

Visiting Carlyle’s house is truly like stepping back in time. Authentic, informative and an intriguing look at how this couple really lived in Victorian England.

Carlyle’s House, 24 Cheyne Row, London SW3 5HL. Entry is £6 adults, £3 children (free for National Trust members).

Open Wednesday – Sunday 11.00-16.30. Also Bank Holidays (do check website for up to date info).

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie

Book three and halfway through my challenge to read and review the Baileys shortlist (I’m leaving A Little Life until last as I feel this will be trickiest to get through before 8th June!). I picked up The Portable Veblen next as I love the cover. I will freely admit to being a big fan of squirrels, an animal that features very heavily in this book.

The title is intriguing. What is a Veblen? Well, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is a woman living in California, named after her mother’s hero, Norwegian American economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen. Her boyfriend Paul has just proposed and she’s said yes, but she fears she’s about to make a huge mistake. Why? For a start he bought a trap to put in her attic so he can get rid of the noisy squirrel who disturbs his sleep so many nights. He’s just signed a contract with a huge pharmaceutical company to develop a new medical instrument for use in preventing permanent brain injury as a result of head injuries. He’s essentially a good guy but Veblen worries that he puts too much value on money, material possessions, and she doesn’t trust his boss, the ultra glamorous Cloris Hutmacher, heir to the Hutmacher pharmaceutical dynasty.

This book is a joy to read. There’s just enough quirkiness without going overboard, enough medical and scientific jargon to make Paul’s experiments plausible without becoming too technical to understand. The characters are wonderfully drawn. Both Veblen and Paul’s families have their own brand of dysfunction going on, the effects of which become evident as you read on. Veblen’s hypochondriac mother, Melanie, I found a constant source of amusement (while wondering how on earth Veblen turned out so relatively normal). My only slight criticism is that Veblen and Paul’s friends seemed to only be mentioned in passing, popping up where convenient but otherwise not forming part of their lives. This was kind of resolved by Paul’s embarrassment that his friends are too shallow; Veblen’s fear that her best friend does not like Paul, but I am always a little mistrustful of people in novels who don’t have friends.

In so many books featuring a couple we find ourselves drawn to one side. Somehow McKenzie has ensured that this never happens. For a chapter or two we may feel sympathetic with Veblen, and wonder whether Paul is right for her. Then Paul’s family pop up and we change our minds. Back story is filtered in expertly so that the gaps are filled as we go, not too quickly that we know it all before the end.

Adding to the quirk factor – the appendices at the end of the book. Ever wondered what the Igbo word for squirrel is? It’s osa. And there are 64 other words in languages from Ainu to Zulu. Other gems include Veblen’s mother’s letter to her current physician listing her current medical problems (there are nineteen) and a questionnaire she sends to her daughter in lieu of a normal letter.

This book is intelligent but fun, charming but not lightweight. The quote from Glamour magazine on the back of my copy compares it to Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I would tentatively agree, but I found The Portable Veblen more enjoyable, more hopeful. There is again the discussion regarding the ethical treatment of animals in science (Paul orders live specimens from a list, paying $5 more for a lactating female compared to a pregnant animal). Paul’s unease grows when he finds himself preparing to experiment on humans in Paul’s experiments when he finds himself in charge of several brain damaged war veterans, some more conscious than others, all with families who pin their hopes on an instrument that was designed to prevent conditions, not reverse them.

Halfway through the shortlist this is my favourite so far and I highly recommend it.

Related reviews:

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

Books – The Green Road – Anne Enright